“A wounded person understands those with wounds better,” claimed a comfort woman, and a young man kept the words throughout weekly demonstrations close to his heart. The man not only joined the demonstrations but also works to spread comfort women stories to the world. As representative of the company Heeum the Classic, he strives to bloom the hopes of comfort women and make their stories known to the world. Why would a man endeavor so hard in such a business? The Sookmyung Times (SMT) met up with Yoon Hongjo (YOON) to hear his story.
SMT Before establishing your company, you likely had diverse experiences. To start the story, could you tell us about your university life?
YOON My campus life wasn’t much different from any other student. In first year, I struggled to adapt to college life actually. It was my first time to live apart from my family so there were days that I woke up surprised because I had overslept and missed a class. I was not an honour roll student but merely an average "B" type student. After completion of my military duty, I thought about my life and by chance, I joined the club SIFE. The project I worked on as part of the club gave me the idea for my company and totally changed my perspective towards the issue and the society.
SMT Could you tell us specifically how your view changed?
YOON I joined the Blooming project of SIFE, which focuses on resolving the comfort women issue. At first I joined out of mere curiosity, but after visiting the House of Sharing [a historical hall founded to address sex slavery rights] and meeting comfort women, I realized that I had a distorted perspective toward the issue. Meeting the ladies, I found them to be no different from my own grandmother. I saw them only with pity before. Though the experience, I realized that the issue will never be solved with rage, so I began to think deeply and widely.
SMT Your understanding seem to have affected the way Heeum the Classic approaches the issue today.
YOON Indeed, my company approaches and conveys to others the issue through sympathy and communication, not rage. Many Koreans are outraged when they think about the problem. Yet, this feeling does not bring about positive results and does not last long. In my past, I too, also felt only anger watching the issue on the media, but soon forgot about the problem once my anger faded. To keep the issue alive in people's minds, their stories must be continuously brought to light each and every day to understand their bravery and to show respect. I thought the best way to achieve these goals was to make products which contain their stories.
SMT The brand Heeum made by the Blooming project is running successfully with products such as Heeum awareness bracelets. Why did you feel it necessary to establish Heeum the Classic seperately?
YOON Before answering, I’d like to ask you a question. Would you buy a Heeum bracelet if all the comfort women were no longer with us? We thought sales would decrease rapidly once the elderly ladies have passed away. To avoid this decline, I saw the need for a brand that could maintain their spirit long after their passing. For example, even though the founders of Converse and Chanel have passed away, the brands are still loved worldwide. I believe that if a unique brand is established, their stories will be remembered eternally, so I established the Heeum the Classic.
SMT You chose to start up your own company rather than join an established company immediately after graduation. Did you ever doubt yourself? Especially, since you chose a path that differs from most graduates?
YOON I was afraid, but I knew that getting hired by a company would be equally as difficult. I told myself.
“If the two paths are equally as hard,
why not attempt the one I know I won’t regret?”
That was the beginning and I have no regrets. My feeling of fear is actually increasing as the company grows because I have to care for more people. But, that stress couldn’t destroy my dream or passion. Also, I believe I can solve any problems I encounter since there are so many nice people and organizations helping my company.
SMT From what you just said, it seems that lots of people and groups are supporting Heeum the Classic.
YOON Certainly. We started with financial support from the government and are now currently backed by Hyundai Chung Mong Koo Foundation. Also, many executives from various prominent assisting us and are helping our brand renewal. Moreover, consumers also support us. I had one very touching episode. The slogan written on our products is “Thanks for Your Meaningful Action.” One person wrote us a letter and in the letter was the sentence, “Thanks for Your Meaningful Selling.” We are truly blessed to have so many nice people supporting us and opportunities. We couldn’t have grown without them.
SMT Interest in companies that contribute to society is getting higher. As a CEO of such company, do you have any advice for students preparing similar start-up businesses?
YOON Firstly, I’d like to tell students interested in starting up their own business not to run into it without any experience. Learning in the field is very valuable whether at a big or small-size company. I wish I had had the opportunity to do so, but I knew that I didn’t have much time because many of the comfort women are passing away, so the meaning of this business would have been lost if I hadn’t acted quickly. If there’s no need to start right away, don’t take the risk and gain experience. Moreover, especially to students thinking about founding a firm that contributes to society, do not lose sight of your mission. After starting the business, you will find yourself thinking more commercially and less about the reason for why you started the company. It is important to form an organization culture that thinks of a balance and recalls its mission frequently.