This article was last updated on May 16, 2022
How does Korean Americans feel about taboo topics like drugs, sex and alcohol.
“When you grow up, what do you want to do?” There are no wrong responses to this question, which is frequently posed to young children. Except if your Asian parents are inquiring. Many Asian children are given a variety of job options as they grow up, such as doctor, lawyer, engineer, or something related to money or business. These are the vocations that promise a direct path to “success” in the view of Asian parents – high money, stability, and a respectable professional title.
However, the next generation is forging its own pathways that are not predetermined. Asian-owned enterprises account for 10% of all businesses in the United States, and more Asians are entering the startup industry, with Asians being the second most venture capital-backed demographic. With the emergence of Asian American entrepreneurship comes a new generation of potential Korean Americans business moguls who are breaking down cultural barriers by venturing into industries that were previously considered taboo. They still have to contend with society’s stringent cultural attitudes, which they are attempting to undermine as they change what it means to succeed in America.
Korean Americans on Sex
Sex Among them is Anna Lee. She wanted to repay her parents for everything they gave her as a child of Korean immigrants. “My parents genuinely wanted to live the American Dream and sacrifice their lives so that my brother and I might have better possibilities in the United States,” Lee recalls. So she worked hard in school, got into UC Berkeley, earned a mechanical engineering degree, and eventually went to work for Amazon as a hardware engineer.
Her career then took a turn. She noticed while making product prototypes that products were never actually developed or engineered with women and individuals with vulvas in mind. She met a male founder of a sex toy firm one day who informed her that the typical industry technique for producing devices for women is to test the vibration on the tip of your nose since that’s what the clitoris is supposed to feel like. This news stunned her. It also made her say, “Aha!” She chose to leverage her “superpower” as a female engineer to co-found Lioness, a sexual wellness tech firm that produces smart vibrators.
I was raised in a traditional, devout Korean home. We never discussed sexuality.
Co-founder Anna Lee Lioness
Of course, establishing the business was difficult, especially because Lee, like many other Asian women, avoids discussing sex in public, even with friends and relatives. “I was raised in a very strict, extremely devout Korean family,” she recalls. “We never discussed sex.” That’s why Lioness was a surprise to her family. Lee and her mother are now discussing sex more openly. For the first time, they discussed sex toys and Lee losing her virginity.
“But, in the end, I think the most important thing for me was when [my mother] said, ‘I always wondered whether you were okay after what had happened,'” says Lee, who was sexually abused as a youngster. “That was something she couldn’t bring up before.” ‘It’s wonderful to know you’re okay,’ she said. ‘I think I’m really working through it,’ I added. I’m happy. “I’m in a good spot.”
Lee also says she’s become a reference for other Asians who have vulvas. Slowly, more individuals are breaking the silence and moving beyond the guilt that traditionally enveloped sexuality and pleasure, she says. “We’re able to have those dialogues in a unique way,” she explains.
Korean Americans on Drugs
As a first-generation Korean Americans immigrant, Dae Lim felt a lot of pressure. “Isn’t there a bigger cross you have to bear?” “You have to make it here,” he explains.
Lim’s life objective was straightforward: he wanted to make money. He recalled thinking, “I’m going to be a billionaire.” He developed a strategy that included investment banking, hedge funds, and stock market speculation in Southeast Asia. When he got a job as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, he rapidly realized it wasn’t for him. It wasn’t that the job was tough; it was just that it was no longer what he desired.
“At the end of the day, I’m a ruthless person.” “I’ll do whatever it takes to get up there,” he declares. “I think the easiest way to optimize for money, power, and fame would be to play within this system and kind of game it.” But money was no longer a motive for Lim. He desired to do something outside of the corporate framework. “I wasn’t trying to get around this system; I was attempting to create my own,” he explains.
I wasn’t trying to go around this system; I was attempting to create my own.
Sundae School CEO Dae Lim
In the spring of 2017, he established Sundae School, a boutique smokewear and cannabis lifestyle brand, and it wasn’t easy. In addition to the numerous hurdles that come with launching a business, there is still a strong stigma in Korea surrounding drugs, especially cannabis.
“Smoking in other nations is a criminal if you’re a Korean citizen,” he explains. Several K-pop singers, notably PSY and BigBang members T.O.P. and G-Dragon, have been famously punished for “weed controversies.” This public demonization of marijuana has developed a negative hivemind attitude against the plant-based drug. “Korean society is extremely homogeneous,” Lim observes. “And while homogeneity has its advantages, there is a lack of understanding in comparison to a diversified culture like America.”
So his goal with Sundae School is to de-stigmatize cannabis while also catering to other members of the AAPI community who may have been misinformed about the “devil’s lettuce” by referencing the Asian American narrative. Gummies in flavors including yuzu, milktea sundae, and lychee are available. One of their most recent commercials featured an entire range dedicated to fearsome Asian tiger mothers. “Our objective is to globalize cannabis, galvanize the Asian American community, and raise awareness of the incredible things that cannabis and imagination can achieve.”
Korean Americans on Alcohol
Carol Pak took a significant risk five years ago when she left a secure 9 to 5 position to launch Sool, a Korean Americans alcoholic beverage company. She discovered that none of the major makgeolli (sparkling rice wine) and soju companies were developing or upgrading traditional Korean drinks. So she launched Makku, a canned craft makgeolli brand, and Soku, a sparkling soju cocktail brand, for younger consumers with 21st-century tastes like herself.
“I didn’t pay myself a salary for almost two years and was living with my parents,” Pak explains. “And this was after I had made a lot of money and received an MBA from Columbia.” My pals were all getting promoted, purchasing houses, and traveling around the world. But I felt like I’d made too many sacrifices to give it up so quickly.”
I felt like I had made too many sacrifices to quit up so quickly.
Carol Pak Sool, President and CEO
For anyone, starting a business is difficult. According to a 2019 survey by the National Business Capital, over 90% of small enterprises fail, with only 10% surviving for ten years. When you’re not a cis straight white male founder, things get even more tough. According to a PitchBook analysis, female-founded businesses in the United States garnered only 2.1 percent of venture capital funds in 2021. Women of color and LGBTQ+ founders received substantially less of those contributions.
Despite the numerous obstacles faced by female, LGBT, or minority entrepreneurs, the result can be well worth it for some. Pak’s alcohol firm was able to reach over $1 million in revenue during the first several years of operation with only two full-time staff. Even more impressive is the fact that other Koreans and Korean Americans have shown their support. “My objective was always to create a household brand,” she adds, “where Makku becomes associated with makgeolli and more people learn about the drink and the category.”
More than commercialization, recognition, and access, these Korean American firms are demonstrating pride in their heritage and boldly embracing fields that earlier generations would not have considered. Seeing their social and cultural influence in real time is now a better predictor of success than any graph, chart, or financial statement.
“This is the impending new culture,” Lim says. “Korea’s new wave has arrived.” The next generation of Asian Americans has arrived.”