Exploring Social Enterprise in South Korea

Chris O’Neill is a Venture Manager at Ākina Foundation, based in Wellington. Prior to joining Ākina, Chris ran social enterprise, BATS Theatre, for four and a half years. As a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network, a global professional network at the forefront of developing and maintaining strong links between Asia and New Zealand, Chris travelled to South Korea in March 2017. During the trip, Chris promoted Social Enterprise World Forum 2017, attended briefings on the diplomatic and security situation in South Korea, and learnt about doing business in South Korea.

Here’s Chris’s account of his visit.

Seoul felt quite different from many of the other cities I have visited around the Asia. I was fascinated by the level of attention paid to design and the aesthetics of urban design there. In the central part of Seoul where I spent most of my time, almost every building had some form of public sculpture outside it. A lot of attention had also been paid to the urban experience. There were beautiful areas of refuge among the busy city, and public transport was incredibly easy to use.

While in Seoul I spent time visiting some social enterprises and support agencies. Ten years ago, South Korea enacted the Social Enterprise Promotion Act which provided the legal structures and eco-system for social enterprise to flourish. While in Seoul I took time to visit the Social Enterprise Promotion Agency to learn more about the function they play and lessons they had learnt. They relayed that overall the Act had been quite successful in its aims. One thing they identified was that it is very hard to get the legal definition of social enterprise right, and this was one thing they hoped to address in an upcoming review of the Act.

I also visited the Work Together Foundation. The Work Together Foundation undertakes work similar to Ākina. They help facilitate investment into social enterprise and deliver capability development programmes to support social entrepreneurs. I spent a day with them discussing their approach, their challenges and their successes. In the afternoon they hosted a roundtable discussion and presentation where I shared information on social enterprise in NZ and the 2017 Social Enterprise World Forum. People I talked to all seemed to be in love with the idea of NZ and were blown away by the imagery of Māori pōwhiri and the scenery of NZ.

It wasn’t all work though. We got to visit some pretty interesting locations as well. Our trip included a visit to the DMZ between North and South Korea. We received a briefing from NZ diplomatic staff and US ground troops on the conflict and ongoing disputes between North and South. It was sobering to hear about the massive fire-power sitting on each side of the border. Of course, I had to get the obligatory photo with the staunch South Korean Border soldiers.

As I reflect on the trip, I think it was important in a number of ways. Firstly, it was great to be given the opportunity to investigate how another country has approached social enterprise and what they have learnt over the last ten years. Secondly, I was humbled by how much interest people had in NZ social enterprise, specifically Māori ventures and programmes. Finally, it was great to travel with a diverse group (including some social entrepreneurs) and understand the different perspectives of diplomacy, culture, and business, and how they all contribute to meaningful interactions between NZ and Asia.

You can find out more about the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership network on their site.