Breaking Barriers in Korea

By Features WomenEntrepreneur.com

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Most entrepreneurs start out like I did. They see a problem and find a solution.

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I didn't set out to create a multimillion-dollar corporation, although I hoped my company would be successful. Instead, I wanted to introduce a more efficient way to clean floors. Like so many Korean women, I dreaded the daily chore of mopping, so I came up with an idea for an invention designed to do a better job. Carpet steam cleaners were already in the marketplace in the West; my goal was to make a steam cleaner that could be used on bare floors and replace the traditional mop. I came up with a working concept and designed a steam cleaner that would simplify the chore. I not only wanted to make life easier for myself, but I had the goal of making the lives of all women simpler, and HAAN Corp. was officially established in Korea in 1999.

My idea for the steam cleaner came from years of scrubbing floors. I tried to get my husband to help, but he said men are not ergonomically built to clean floors. In Korea, the task of cleaning floors is one of the most hated household chores; very few Korean men actually get on their hands and knees to clean, and my husband was no exception. The traditional Korean floor is uncarpeted. We eat and sleep on the floor. Koreans typically don't wear shoes in the home, and most people go barefoot. If the floor is not squeaky clean, you feel the grit on the sole of your foot. Because such importance is placed on maintaining a clean floor, Korean women wash floors daily, sometimes multiple times a day. To clean a floor properly, you first remove the dirt by vacuuming or sweeping; then you mop the floor. It's a tedious job, and it's not surprising my husband made the excuse that he wasn't physically able to do it.

Instead of trying to get my husband to help out in our home, I decided to create something that would make the chore easier. When I embarked on developing my vision, less than 1 percent of the women in Korea were heads of large businesses, and many of them had achieved their level of success through inheritance. Little did I know that I was paving a new way for other Korean female entrepreneurs or that the HAAN steam cleaner would have Korean men mopping floors, which was groundbreaking.

I had an idea to make a great floor cleaner and believed in my concept. Although my husband wasn't supportive when it came to cleaning floors, he was extremely encouraging, and he motivated me to keep moving forward. I encountered challenges my male counterparts never faced, and thanks to my husband's faith in me, I felt reassured that I would accomplish my goals. From the very beginning, others discouraged me, but I believed in my product strongly and persevered until I finally launched the HAAN Floor Sanitizer.

At the time that I developed my steam cleaner, I had a highly respected and coveted government job as deputy director at the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development. Women didn't leave those types of positions to venture into new territory. More unheard of was a woman leaving a secure job to start her own company. I wasn't trying to prove that a woman could lead a large corporation; I simply wanted to offer women a more efficient method for housework. However, I wasn't discouraged that few Korean women were heads of industry; I was up for the challenge of running a company.

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At the onset of my journey, I was met with skepticism and confronted by obstacles. For example, when I applied for funding, the evaluator handling my request didn't believe I was the one running the company. One of the first things he asked was: "What business did your husband bankrupt that you have to front the money for him? I'll find out as soon as I punch in his Social Security number in my computer, so why don't you just tell me now?" A man would not have faced suspicion, and I brushed it off. I had a thick skin and recognized that there would be a level of doubt.

But my struggles didn't end there: My concept was questioned time and again because most businessmen didn't understand household cleaning equipment or the need for it. It took me years to convince men that there was a market for my product and that it would be a success. I knew women would be thrilled to have such a product, and if my husband believed in it, there had to be other men I could persuade to back me.

Not unlike many other entrepreneurs, male and female alike, I was misinformed about how long it would take and how much money it would cost to make my vision a reality. I launched HAAN Corp. expecting to have products on shelves in less than a year and manufacturing costs total about $50,000 USD. This estimation was way off base; it took several years, plus mortgaging my home and both my parents' and in-laws' houses before my concept came to fruition. There were times when I wanted to give up, but my husband would say, "Try again," so I did. 

The first steam cleaner was ugly and bulky. It had to undergo several design changes, which cost considerable money and time. Adding to the challenge, I didn't have the same business connections men did and had to work hard to make them. After I labored over the steam cleaner for years, I discovered that distributors were not interested in products from small and unfamiliar companies. At times, it was discouraging to be in business and not sell a single product, but I believed I was going to make a difference in the lives of women. I knew that if I broke through the glass ceiling, I could deliver a product that would change their lives.

In 2003, I made a lighter and thinner version of the steam cleaner, and it became an instant hit. Because I am a woman and a homemaker, I felt I was better-suited than a man to introduce this type of innovation to the market. I understand what women need and took the stance that HAAN was a company that worked for women -- to make their lives easier.

By the end of 2004, HAAN Corp. had taken its place in the industry and become a highly recognizable brand. Finally, I was able to pay bills and make a profit. But I didn't want to stop coming up with new ways to help women in their everyday lives. I looked at other household chores that are time-consuming and developed a garment steamer to remove wrinkles from clothing, another success. At that point, I knew all the effort had been worth it and that I was on my way to delivering conveniences that would change women's lives.

In 2008, the Wall Street Journal named me one of the Top 50 Women to Watch. I was honored to receive the title; to prove the prediction accurate, I expanded globally into other markets, including the United States. In 2009, QVC named HAAN Corp. the recipient of its Rising Star award.

With the success of the steam cleaner, I wanted to do more. Skin care was a natural transition, and I collaborated with the world's top experts to develop a line that is activated by steam. In January 2011, HAAN Corp. will launch HAAN Therapeutics to offer women a simple, effective way to care for their skin and enhance their beauty.

With every goal I achieve, I think of 10 more ways I can help women in their daily lives. I hope that with all my struggles, other women will hear my story and be inspired to fulfill their dreams. I am delighted that I opened doors for other women entrepreneurs in Korea; after all, the intention in launching my company was to make life easier for women. 

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