Recently, I attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation's Women & the Economy Summit in San Francisco. One of the most impressive stories I heard was that of Romi Haan, a South Korean business leader and entrepreneur. It was wonderful to see a Korean woman sharing the world stage with business leaders from around the world. This is an excerpt of what I learned at the conference. ~Glennia
Romi Haan was a housewife in South Korea with a problem: how to keep the floors clean without spending hours a day doing it. Because of the ondol tradition of heating homes through the floor, Koreans spend a great deal of time at home in a central room, on the floor. As Romi says, "Koreans live on the floor. We sleep on the floor. We eat on the floor. We sit on the floor. We play on the floor."
Keeping the floor clean is serious business for Korean women, and means daily washings, down on their hands and knees. Romi wanted to free herself of this daily chore, or make it a little easier for herself and her friends. So, she imagined a steam cleaner to do just that: clean the floor with less effort and cut the time spent on washing the floor in half. It was a way to get women up off the floor and out into the world.
When Romi approached a bank about a government loan program to get her product made, the bank officer asked her, "What company did your husband bankrupt that makes you now have to work? Are you doing this for him?"
When she told him that her husband was not the reason she wanted to go into business, he didn't believe her. Her application was denied. Romi didn't take no for an answer, and persisted with her dream. She mortgaged her home and quit her job to pursue her invention. She was able to get her business up and running in three years, but faced other hurdles.
When Romi tried to market and distribute her product, she was met with skepticism and disdain by male buyers for department stores. She would go in to talk to them, and they would ask her, "Why do you need a steam cleaner when you have a vacuum cleaner?"
She explained that a vacuum cleaner would sweep the floor, but her cleaner would mop it. After an hour-long discussion the buyer would ask again, "Why do you need a steam cleaner when you have a vacuum cleaner?"
Ten years later, Romi Haan is now the CEO of a multinational, multimillion dollar appliance and beauty products company, Haan Corporation. She is one of the few female CEOs in South Korea, and her business is thriving. She represents a new breed of Korean women executives and a model of successful entrepreneurship. Her story is not atypical of the challenges that women face in the global economy, but her success is unfortunately too rare.
The APEC Women & the Economy Summit brought together women leaders, government officials, diplomats, and corporate innovators to discuss actions to improve the lives of women in the Asia-Pacific region, and by doing so, the world's economy. Recognizing that women are a vast, largely untapped resource for change and growth, the group spent a week in San Francisco working on plans for change. This was one of several meetings around the Pacific Rim leading up to the APEC Summit in Hawaii in November, which President Obama will attend.
I was not able to stay very long at the Summit, but I was able to attend the Plenary Session in which Romi Haan appeared on a panel moderated by Tina Brown of The Daily Beast and Newsweek. Also on the panel were Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women; Susan Fleishman, Executive Vice President of Commincations for Warner Brothers Entertainment; Blanca Trevino, CEO of Softtek, a global Information Technololgy company based in Mexico; and Ilene Lang, President & CEO of Catalyst, a research and advisory firm that specializes in promoting women in business.