Jul 4, 2012 · 7 minutes

In his first ever class at San Jose State University, Kelvin Dongho Kim got a shock. The quiet Korean, who was then 22 years old, was sitting in a lecture about global entrepreneurship when the professor asked how many of the students had already started their own companies. About 90 percent of the class raised their hands.

“It was like culture shock,” Kim recalls today. He’s now 26 and the founder of IDIncu, a mobile market research startup based in Seoul. “Us in Korea, even now, at most one out of 10 are experiencing these entrepreneurial things in Korea.”

Kim’s experience illustrates a problem that is widespread for those not lucky enough to live in Silicon Valley, or other culturally liberal climates. When it comes to innovation, often the most serious problem is not one of resources, talent, or dedication, but one of culture. While the idea of “culture” is almost universally celebrated, that's often done without due deference to reason. It is true that most cultural practices are the result of hundreds of years of societal evolution, but it is equally true that many cultural practices are the result of hundreds of years of resistance to societal evolution.

The problem wasn’t that Kim didn’t possess the talents or the imagination required to start his own company. It was that he didn’t even realize he had the option. Korean culture, built on hundreds of years of Confucian ideology, doesn’t place much emphasis on the central tenets of entrepreneurship. However uncomfortable it may be to admit, it is difficult to deny that Confucianism and startup culture are almost incompatible. While Confucian concepts of filial piety and rigid hierarchy can be valuable in the family context, they are in direct conflict with startup leadership, which requires a healthy disrespect for authority, a willingness to disrupt the status quo, and a compulsion to take risks.

Before he went to San Jose on a one-year exchange program, Kim thought he, like most of his peers, would be a management consultant. The standard path. He came back to Korea, however, a changed man. After completing his mandatory two-year corporate service in lieu of the otherwise-mandatory military service, he established IDIncu and raised almost $2 million in two rounds of funding.

These are not my ideas alone. I have spent this week reporting from Seoul, speaking to entrepreneurs, investors, and other leaders in South Korea’s nascent startup community. Every conversation I’ve had has touched on the challenges of fostering a culture of innovation in a society that is deeply risk averse. As Richard Min, an American-Korean entrepreneur who co-founded leading incubators Seoul Space and Kstartup, told me: “More than the ecosystem itself, the biggest battle is still cultural.”

The US does a better job than most countries at encouraging big dreams and enabling innovation. In Korean culture, those ideals are secondary to hard work, respect for authority, and an overwhelming preference for secure employment in a professional job, or with prestigious firms such as Samsung or LG. The education system, meanwhile, is based on rote learning and passing exams, with little emphasis on creative thinking. Under such cultural constraints, few young people dare enter a startup, which typically comes with no associated prestige, no job security, and no guarantee of any money.

In his essay “Paper Tigers” for New York magazine, the writer Wesley Yang discussed the cultural challenges that prevent many Asians from assuming leadership roles. “To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently,” Yang wrote.

It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and ‘pumping the iron of math’ is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.
It’s not just South Korea, of course. I lived for four years in Hong Kong, covering the arts and music scenes, and saw similar forces at play. Speaking to entrepreneurs there last month, I heard the same sentiments I’ve been hearing in Korea. Attracting young people to startup life is always a struggle, because so many of brightest talents go into “safer” professions.

China, an historically inventive culture that gave the world gunpowder and paper, has similar issues in its education system, in which a teenager’s future hinges on success or failure in a single, stress-packed, higher-education entrance exam (“Gaokao”) that does everything to encourage memorization of facts and nothing to promote lateral thinking.

But Western cultures have their own innovation-inhibiting characteristics. My home country, New Zealand, offers a prime example. It has a phenomenon called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. Suspicious of success, many New Zealanders will undercut their compatriots’ achievements by bad-mouthing them, criticizing perceived arrogance, or simply mocking them for being too “puffed up.” They will cut the tall poppies down to the same size as the rest of the crop, as the metaphor suggests, so they don’t stand out. Any New Zealander who talks up grand ambitions is accordingly laughed down by friends and ordered to buy the next round of drinks.

Flight of the Conchords, the world’s fourth most popular folk-parody duo, were rejected by the state broadcaster, TVNZ, before they were picked up by HBO. "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson only gets away with his stupendous success because he pretty much single-handedly created New Zealand’s film industry – and even then the local press disapprovingly splashes photos of his extravagant mansion on the front pages of its Sunday newspapers.

As for the Brits, they have that hard-bitten cynicism that makes for such wonderful wit but which ultimately hinders their ability to build world-beating companies. In his book "Bringing Nothing to the Party," my colleague Paul Carr detailed a public exchange he had with Jason Calacanis at a conference in London.

“You guys need to listen to me,” said Calacanis, according to Carr’s recollection.

Last night I went to a networking dinner over here and I was surprised and depressed at how quick everyone is to kick each other and be cynical. And the press is so cynical about stuff. I wouldn’t want to be an entrepreneur here, because you’d get your ass kicked. I’d want to go to the US.
Which gives me an excuse to take a dig at Americans. The country I now live in provides a wonderful climate for wannabe pop stars and billionaires to pursue their dreams, and they’re constantly told they can achieve them. But a consequence of that is that many Americans take themselves too seriously and so crack under pressure when it turns out those dreams are actually sometimes rather difficult to achieve. Next thing you know, an "American Idol" reject is self-immolating in a public square after being told by Simon Cowell (a Brit, mind you) that he’s heard better harmony from a flatulent muskrat.

Culture is useful, but it’s not always right. The good news is that we now live in a transcultural world. A new generation of Koreans, for instance, is growing up with more access to international thinking. These days, Korean college students are as likely to vacation in Tokyo or Paris as they are in traditional villages in their own country. Because of the Internet, they’re exposed to a free flow of ideas and information that previous generations didn’t enjoy. Cross-border universities that allow students to escape cultural restrictions are on their way. It's a cliche to say we are all global citizens, but it's also true.

We are now in the enormously privileged position of being able to instantly compare and contrast our cultures with others, and with total ease. We are more able than ever to see that “culture” is a mere human invention, that it is fallible, malleable, and that it can hurt, rather than promote, progress. With the world’s information at our fingertips, we are better placed to pick and choose the parts of different cultures that work for us, in whatever endeavor we pursue. Personally, I’ll take a dash of Korean work ethic mixed with a pint of Kiwi humility and a generous dollop of American optimism.

We should all be cultural mashups, staying true to the values that helped form our identities from birth, but recognizing the times at which they are no longer useful. By carefully lifting out the counter-productive parts, even temporarily, and gently replacing them with the best of other cultures, we can build a better, more innovative society. We owe that to our ancestors.

Happy Independence Day.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]