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A tale of two women CEOs in search of tech identity

Posted: 14 Oct 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ceo? engineer? career? it sector? interview?

One of the reasons attributed to Korea's late 1990s financial crisis was that it didn't fully utilize the highly-educated female workforce. Industry observers reckoned Korea's tech sector could have filled the vacuum in the IT space with female talent.

This is a story of two women seeking prominence in Korea's technology landscape. The first one, Han Mi-Sook, heads Herit Corp., a provider of parlay-based solutions. The other, Lee Young Nam, chairs EZ Digital Co. Ltd, a leader in digital measurement instruments.

Han didn't reach her present position entirely by choice. Her dream then was to become a teacher. However, while going to the university on one winter day to submit a college entrance application form, a friend who accompanied Han left their forms on the bus seat. Short of time, she had no choice but to enroll in a Computer Science course as an alternative. It turned out as a blessing in disguise because it changed her career and life altogether. "If I majored in pedagogy, I would have led a mediocre life," she said.

Han didn't reach her present position entirely by choice.
In the spring of 1986, Han joined the Electronics and Telecommunication Research Institute, which was known for good compensation and being indiscriminate to female engineers. She stayed with the organization for 14 years. There she executed major projects that were to become the basis for Korea's telecoms upheaval. She was deeply involved in developing telephone exchange systems and multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) routers.

Even during the early '80s, Korea's telephony services were based on telephone switches imported from other countries. Han succeeded in localizing them by developing time-division exchange systems. She also developed an ATM product capable of transferring multimedia data, and an MPLS router that made it easier to provide Internet users with packet-based services. All her hard work was duly given recognition as she was subsequently given a core position in the organization.

Appetite for risk

In the aftermath of the IMF crisis in 1999, Han decided to quit her job. Though Han was secured in her position, she felt that life was becoming a "stereotype."

After contemplating on her career track, Han finally followed her heart, and that was to orchestrate the development of MPLS routers. Through convincing skills, Han eventually earned ETRI's support in establishing a new venture in 2001.

The company was named 'Herit', for 'Heritage of IT.' She stirred the attention of the industry with a series of developments including integrated wired/wireless and Internet solutions based on parlay/open service architecture, service control point, application server, third-party Internet services, CAMEL, as well as intelligent network-based wired and wireless solutions.

To promote these solutions, Han conducted numerous lectures on networking trends through various forums. She also offered consulting services at the customer level. These efforts bore fruit and enabled Herit to come up with products worth $4.3 million for companies like KT, China Net Comm and Samsung Electronics.

"Competitiveness is possible only when it is combined with technological prowess and marketing ability," Han commented. "It's really fortunate that Korea has the best environment for the development and test of wired/wireless solutions."

Breaking the wall

"A company with a woman CEO needs to further assert the technology it possesses," says Lee Young Nam, CEO of EZ Digital. Her goal is to strengthen the company's brand power by offering products completely customized for the client requirements.

Lee believes that a company with a woman CEO needs to further assert its technology.
Lee is no engineer. Instead, she holds a business administration degree. Right after graduation, she had a stint with a company manufacturing and marketing clothes. Her relationship with the business of measurement instruments began when that company, acknowledging her managerial talent, suggested her to run its electronics business unit. She won the trust of her colleagues by setting up Seohyun Electronics Co. Ltd at age 31.

Though she took the challenge boldly, the measurement instrument business was far difficult than she had expected. The fact that she is not an engineer became a barrier in projecting technological advancements and strategic planning. Her game plan was to absorb everything she could on technology trends. So she made it a point to raise discussions and share opinions with engineers, and made it up for what she lacked by reading technology-related books.

Lee focused on meeting customer requirements - evaluating and testing product design, performance and initial outputs until customers were satisfied. But another challenge confronted her - the flock of low-price products from mainland China flooding the Korean market.

To survive, her company needed a new strategy for differentiating its products from the low-priced ones. Lee chose to shift its direction toward digital products. Coincidently, one of Seohyun Electronics' major clients inquired if Lee was interested in acquiring its general purpose measuring instrument unit.

The business unit, undergoing restructuring in 1999, had the digital technology and talents she needed. Seohyun Electronics did not have enough funds available to buy it. To proceed with the acquisition, Lee diligently raised funds.

The acquisition done in November 1999 drew attention as a successful example of a merger between a small and a medium-sized company. Another stroke of luck followed just two days later when Lee succeeded in attracting foreign capital amounting to $12 million. With this triumph, the company moved a level up and changed its name to EZ Digital Co. Ltd.

Set for wider territory

Now that the accelerated growth of Korea's IT industry is getting global attention, the inquiries and requests to hold lectures in Japan, Singapore, China, India and Southeast Asia are increasing. Lee never misses such opportunities as she sees them as ways to expand her company's overseas network. Today EZ Digital has taken around 70 percent of the local analog oscilloscope market with sales volume of approximately $21 million. Lee pledged not to stop until it becomes the world's top player in the field.

Meanwhile, Herit is sharing service profits with China Net Comm on the basis of mutual trust it won over the years. It is presently negotiating a partnership with a Swedish company to pave a way into the European market.

Both Lee and Han lead lives worthy of accolade and inspiration to would-be female engineers. Because of their undisputed passion for work, they proved that gender is no longer an issue.

Gone were the days when the thought of women working for technology companies was snickered at behind closed boardroom doors. The tide is turning as women take a prominent role in the development of technology business.

- Kwon Yong-Wook

EE Times - Korea

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