Koreans are even smarter than Jews, but Israelis are much braver, Vice Minister of Science, ICT and Future Planning, Jong-lok Yoon has claimed. He made the controversial comments in an interview with NEWSis on Feburary 4th.

He elaborated on his opinion with a military analogy: “the guns and bullets of our country are much better, but Jews pull the trigger without being afraid of failure – with ‘chutzpah’, which is the willingness to challenge the Establishment.”

The minister was speaking in the context of a discussion about fostering the emergence of a genuine “creative economy”, of the type that Start-up Nation Israel is renowned for. Koreans define chutzpah also in terms of ‘informality’, ‘mashing up’, ‘risk-taking’, ‘tenacity’ and ‘learning from failure.’

He also made the claim that in global math and science competitions, Korean students usually attain first or second place finishes, whereas Israelis generally garner top-25 positions. “However, Jews account for 22 percent of Nobel Prizes”, he noted, attributing this to a superior educational approach based on discussion rather than rote-style memorization.

As some have observed, creativity in business in Korea is sometimes lacking. People follow the herd, whether it’s online garment retail, or the fried chicken trade, we tend to stampede into new pastures, usually over-grazing them.

Start-up booms are nothing new in Korea. In the 90s, there was a huge investment boom in the broadband and IT industry, but it didn’t last long. Our start-up ecosystem wasn’t sufficiently focused on the global market. Even though it was a Korean company that invented the first mp3 player, the “mpman F10”, they failed utterly to bring it to the global market, went bankrupt in 2003 and sold their patent to the Americans. It could have been our equivalent of the disk-on-key. Clearly, they were lacking some good advice at the critical juncture. In order to get over the handicap of a small domestic market, even small Israeli firms have always thought globally, something which in Korea is usually something for only the very biggest corporations – the Chaebol – the group of multinationals that dominate economic life in the country.

In my limited experience of starting up a start-up, I’ve received all kinds of help and advice, which people are invariably kind enough to offer. Israelis are helpful, almost to a fault, and this is clearly a major factor in the success of the start-up culture here. Mentoring, and mutually beneficial co-operation between companies large and small, is also common here, whereas in Korea, it’s virtually non-existent. Success, of course, is always a question of timing too. Compared to Korea, and even to the US, these days, red tape for new businesses in Israel in minimal. Business ideas in Korea are frequently unrealized, whereas in Israel it’s practically a way of life.

Maybe the right financial ecosystem for start-ups does not yet exist in Korea. Most available start-up funding is from government, rather than private venture capital houses, but, perhaps taking a lead from Israel, this is now changing, with accelerator and incubator programs such as ‘D camp’, ‘Primer’ and ‘Bon Angels’ starting to make an impact.

In Korea it’s also normal for people to start their own businesses with their own money, which has definite benefits in terms of independence, but which is offset by an intense fear of failure and the damage to your reputation that entails. Korean society is quite unforgiving in this respect. Social attitudes remain fundamental to the question.

Yoon said: “If you ask a young Israeli couple, they say that they want their kid to establish their own start-up and make money through business, rather than become a lawyer or a doctor.”

Nowadays there are many start-up programs at Korean universities but many participating students consider them as just one more line on their CV. Most Korean students are still fixated on being doctors, lawyers, or on working for the big multinationals.

Yoon described how the current era of globalization benefits bold start-up entrepreneurs, and stressed that young Koreans should emulate the chutzpah of young Israelis, who have the confidence to pursue a good idea onto the world stage. He also spoke admiringly of Israel’s reaction to its geopolitical situation, a strategy he called “creative defense.”

“Israel is completely surrounded by the enemy and both men and women have the duty of national service, and Israel has been able to translate this obligation into a world-beating defense industry”, he explained, going to relate how the Talpiot program, which enables elite students to combine their studies with specialized military service, has allowed Israeli companies to achieve a dominant position in the NASDAQ listing. Now, the Korean Defense Ministry has authored a Memorandum of Understanding with numerous Korean businesses, to grow a creative economy in tandem with military service geared towards R&D in science and engineering.

Most start-ups with global potential are in the field of technology, but many Korean students don’t want to be engineers, because engineers are not as highly regarded as they ought to be – at least in my opinion! For this reason many people who complete a doctor’s degree in engineering abroad are not willing to come back to Korea after they finish. Israel, on the other hand, supports its engineers and start-ups. But although Israeli firms are selling their companies and ideas to big foreign companies for big foreign money, they aren’t yet creating their own big global brands. Perhaps that’s one area we’ll be able to advise you on!

Read Start-Up Israel to keep your finger on the pulse of Israeli high-tech and innovation!

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