Mums at work: S. Korean company's pro-parent, office-free policies

01 Jan 2024 12:00pm
This picture taken on Nov 29, 2023 shows Erin Lim, CEO of baby products company Konny, demonstrating a baby carrier during an interview with AFP at her home in Seoul. - (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)
This picture taken on Nov 29, 2023 shows Erin Lim, CEO of baby products company Konny, demonstrating a baby carrier during an interview with AFP at her home in Seoul. - (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

SEOUL - Early starts to workdays and late finishes are routine in South Korea, a country notorious for its hard-driving corporate culture, but Erin Lim knew she wanted to do things differently at her business.

The 38-year-old entrepreneur pioneered office-free work to help working mums like her in 2017 -- well before work-from-home flexibility became a happy side effect of the pandemic, including for many parents.

After the birth of her first son, Lim, who describes herself as an "overwhelmingly picky customer", could not find a baby carrier she liked.

So, with her six-month-old son in tow, she headed to Seoul's main fabric market.

Soon, she had a prototype of the baby wrap she wanted and, despite having no manufacturing or entrepreneurial experience, launched a business making and selling the carriers out of her front room.

"I'm a person who doesn't take anything for granted. So, for example, when I started the company, I asked myself: why would I need an office?"

Now, Lim's company has 55 staff members -- 92 per cent women, the majority working parents -- and they all still work almost exclusively from home, offering flexible hours and keeping in-person meetings to the bare minimum.

"The reason: I wanted to watch my children grow up," Lim told AFP, adding that family life should take priority over a rigid, inflexible work schedule.

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The daily school drop-off "is a really essential time -- to walk with them to school", she said.

So her company, Konny, enshrined the right to a school drop-off into its policies.

"I didn't want to have a company culture that didn't understand that," she added.

- Career graveyard -

At first, Lim and her husband -- the company's second employee -- stored their inventory in a spare room and did everything themselves.

But as orders flooded in, Lim soon became overwhelmed by customer questions.

She hired a customer service agent -- a highly skilled executive who had previously left her decade-long job at a major South Korean gaming company over childcare issues.

"There is a Korean phrase: the graveyard of many women's careers is the winter holiday for their kid's first year at elementary school," said Lim, referring to the first major school break, when many families run into childcare challenges.

South Korea has some of the lowest rates of female workforce participation among OECD countries, but the data -- 55 per cent for women versus 73.5 per cent for men -- disguises what activists say is an even worse reality of underemployment for working mothers.

Many mothers are forced out of hard-won, high-paying jobs after having children due to childcare issues, experts say, with the official "economic participation rate" for women in their 40s far lower than for men -- 67.5 per cent compared to 92.1 per cent.

Unlike companies in many countries, most major South Korean firms quickly required workers to return to the office after the pandemic, with minimal work-from-home options.

"An average Korean company requires an employee to go to work early in the morning and finish work late at night with occasional after-work dinner. That is not sustainable," Lim said.

- Demographics -

South Korea has some of the world's lowest birth rates, and despite hundreds of millions of dollars of government incentives, many women choose not to become mothers.

For Lim, a key part of the problem is that South Korean work culture does not make it easy to combine parenting and a career.

But that is not the whole problem, she said.

"It's not just limited to companies," she said, adding that young people are "afraid to have children" as they think they will lose all their free time and disposable income.

"We need a culture where society values child-rearing," she said.

Even as Koreans have fewer babies, data indicate that overall spending on baby products has increased -- and for Konny in particular, business is booming.

The company's sales data suggest it has approximately a third of the domestic South Korean baby carrier market, and Lim's baby wrap design has also proved wildly popular in markets from Japan to the United States.

A November column in the widely read Chosun Ilbo newspaper said the company's success story showed that "the solution to low birth rates must ultimately come from people who have given birth and raised kids".

Current government policy, created by bureaucratic committees and aimed at fixing the country's demographic woes, "only looks half way at the cause of the problem", it said.

"If the government just catches up with these internal policies of this baby carrier company, there will be some solution" to South Korea's problem of low birth rates, the paper added.

Lim said having a workforce made up mostly of parents who understand the struggles of child-rearing made the company better able to provide for their customers.

"Our mission statement is 'Make parents' lives easier and more stylish'," she said. - Cat Barton and Kang Jin-kyu / AFP