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South Korea's Startup Surge

Bucking convention, more South Korean grads are forming startups
Morning commuters walk on the platform at a subway station in Seoul
Morning commuters walk on the platform at a subway station in SeoulPhotograph by SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Sim Cheol Hwan is one of the countless twentysomethings around the world who have adopted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as their patron saint. The 27-year-old engineering student wants to take a break from college in Seoul to make apps for mobile phones. “I don’t want to get a job at a top 10 Korean company,” says the Hanyang University student. “Zuckerberg’s success proves that there is a lot of money to be made” in startups.

Not long ago, South Korean graduates dreamed of lifetime jobs at Samsung Electronics or one of the other chaebol, the sprawling conglomerates that dominate industries from electronics to autos to shipping. Now, inspired by the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, many are starting businesses. Thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs powered an 83 percent surge in the number of South Korean technology startups in the four years through 2011, according to Korea Venture Business Assn., a private organization that supports new enterprises. “Everyone used to think if you go to a good college, that means you’ll get a job at a big conglomerate,” says Kim Dae Ho, professor of service management at Mokwon University. “Now people are thinking they can also start their own company and run it, rather than working for someone else. The whole environment has changed.”