Logo CoolBrands WomenI’m on my way to meet Sung-Joo Kim, one of Asia’s top businesswomen. Sung-Joo is the ultimate self-made woman: after her father – a wealthy Korean business tycoon – disowned her because she refused to enter into an arranged marriage, she started her own business from scratch.

Today she sits at the head of her own business emporium, the Sungjoo Group, which acquired the Swiss-German luxury leather goods and apparel company MCM in 2005. She has faced – and overcome – huge challenges, which is why I think she’s an incredible role model for women in Asia and around the world. 

She’s asked me to meet her at the MCM flagshipstore which houses a cool cafe and as we settle down with our caffe lattes, I ask her whether she believes there is a difference between women’s versus men’s leadership styles.

“Oh definitely,” says Sung-Joo. “Men are vertical and women are horizontal, it’s simple. And I think the latter is much better suited to the 21st-century knowledge-based economy. I don’t believe that women are better than men, rather that we all need to learn to harmonize our skills and competencies and complement each other better. Women have a stronger nurturing instinct, and this means we care about community and society in a very different way than men.”

“Does this ‘motherly’ approach also show up in your personal style of leadership?”

 “Yes it does on a certain level: I see the company’s 10,000 employees as my family and I do everything I can to look out for them and care for them. At the same time, I am very detail-oriented and can sometimes be too exacting. I have very high standards – I need to because we position products at the very top of the luxury retail industry.”

“So you sometimes have to apply tough love, is that right?”

Meeting Sung-Joo Kim in Seoul for Around The World in 80 Brands
Meeting Sung-Joo Kim in Seoul for Around The World in 80 Brands

“I guess you could put it that way,” Sung-Joo laughs. “But you know the retail industry is a real battlefield and the best training for new leaders is to go straight out onto that battlefield. I push them into the deep end and they learn to swim pretty quickly. I see it as a way of empowering the next generation of leaders.”

“What other messages do you try to convey to young women leaders in your company?”

“To be wise and to believe in yourself. Be proactive. Take on challenges and have a critical perspective. You should not be forced into a situation but try to take charge of a situation by yourself. Today’s knowledge-based economy desperately needs smart women leadership and so my motto is: ‘Girls, be ambitious!’

“I encourage women to find their inner strength and abilities. I tell them: ‘If you are 10 times worse off than other people, make yourself 10 times smarter and be 10 times quicker in overcoming hardship. Remember, there are many things you can do better than men because you are a woman.”



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