Wealthy Koreans are associated with inherited Chaebol wealth.  That trend has changed in recents years with the emergence of the tech startup industry and the rise of self made entrepreneurs.  In a country where being connected on high speed internet is the norm, new tech startups pop up every year and every once in a  while some hit it big creating billionaires along with it.   Now Koreans have successful people they can look up to instead of Chaebols.  This rags to riches story should be able to inspire the youth of Korea moving forward.  Here are the top 5 Korean self made entrepreneurs…so far.

5)  Michael Kim – MBK Partners 


Michael Kim is the founder of the Seoul based equity firm MBK partners.  Michael attended private schools in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, before enrolling at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He majored in English literature, leading to his lifelong love of the language.  He then came to Korea to be an entrepreneur.  Now his buyout firm has gotten so large that it has the pockets to out bid any foreign competitor thanks to Korean law that gave restrictions to foreign companies.  This gave MBK partners a huge upper hand which Michael Kim was able to use to his advantage.  Kim at only 51 years old has gotten the image of a master negotiator. Koster, now the CEO of AXA Belgium SA, said Kim was “tough, reliable and trustworthy counterparty who knows what he wants.”  Michael Kim is the main reason why this once small startup turned into the biggest independent private equity firm in all of North Asia.  He was able to get early funding from pension funds and private investors from sovereign wealth and now has a company with more than $8 billion under management.  Recently however Kim has had his image take a hit with his C&M Cable company’s workers going on strike.  This however is a small hit to an overall impressive portfolio.  He has consistently made millions for his investors and it looks like South Korea will continue to be a great market for buyouts in Asia. MBK Partners now has offices in Seoul, Tokyo, and Shanghai.

4)  Lee Sang Hyuk – Yello Mobile 


Lee Sang Hyuk is the CEO of a seoul based startup Yello Mobile which has become a one of the fastest growing companies of all time.  Founded in 2012, this umbrella company has gone on to acquire a vast array of mobile focused startups.  This 4 year old company easily is valued at over $1 billion.  Lee Sang Hyuk’s mission was to create a mobile platform company that served consumers in all areas of the mobile space. Lee had experienced selling a startup called MyOne Card Corp. in 2011 to Daum Communications, Korea’s second largest internet portal.  So when he started Yello Mobile he had the expertise of knowing what was wrong with the whole process of giving your startup to a giant like Daum.  There had to be a better way.  He realized that for startups to succeed they needed to be independent and have the freedom to function without the interference of an umbrella company.  So Yello Mobile is known for nurturing/mentoring startups without interfering.   They started out with just 5 startups and now have around 100. Lee’s goal is to be the biggest platform for mobile commerce in not only Korea but in all of Asia — with the notable exception of China’s relatively closed market.

3)  Bom Kim Coupang 


Coupang CEO Bom Kim who has a 19% share in Coupang and is worth over a Billion dollars is considered by many Korean entrepreneurs as the most famous Korean entrepreneur of all time. He was able to take the Groupon model of the states and create Coupang.  Coupang is now valued at over $5 billion and has been able to keep Amazon at bay.  He focused more on service with his same day delivery concept and now the company has no competition.  Kim was able to bring in the best programmers, engineers, and translators into Korea to build this commerce startup.  Inventory has increased year after year and now does $1.5 billion in sales. Kim was born and raised in South Korea but moved to the states at an early age.  He started his first startup (print media) when he was in college and then worked for consulting firms before he went to business school.  He ended up dropping out of business school to start Coupang and that has been the best decision he has ever made.

2)  Kim Beom Su – Kakao 


Founder of Kakao Kim Beom Su is the most successful internet entrepreneur of all time. His love of online games and cyber communication has made him one of South Korea’s few self-made billionaires.  Currently he is valued at just over $2 billion.  His parents were not rich and Kim grew up not having much.  His family of eight shared one bedroom in a poor neighborhood in Seoul.  He was the first in his family to go to college and paid for it himself with private tutoring.  This made Kim very driven in life and soon got a job at Samsung’s IT unit.  After 5 years of working at the company he decided to start a company of his own.  He opened an internet cafe and started to develop online social casino games.  He created Hangame which later merged with Naver to create NHN. In 2010, he launched KakaoTalk, which is now used by three quarters of South Korea’s 50m population. Kim is a self made man and his net worth is $2.3 billion as of 2015.Kim ranks 92nd on the Richest Person In Tech list (2015), he is also ranked 11th richest person in Korea and 628th Billionaire in the world according to Forbes.

1) Lim Sung Ki – Hanmi Science


The original self made entrepreneur ranks #1 on our list.  This “Parma King” has now a net worth of over $3.4 billion.  He is the founder of Hanmi Science which is now a global player in the $1 trillion pharmaceutical industry.  Lim earned a pharmacy degree at Chung Ang University in 1965.  He started his startup small pharmacy in Seoul and now Hanmi Science has license agreements with major global players in the pharmaceutical industry.  Their total market capital is more than LGs (8.4 trillion to 8.3 trillion won).  Lim was big on investing in research and development.  This has lead to their stocks skyrocketing.  Now not only has Lim became a billionaire but all his family members who invested early have as well.  For a non tech startup to become bigger than LG is something you won’t see in Korea where Electronics or Automobile manufacturing are the giants.




  1. Ayl
    November 21, 2016 at 2:50 pm — Reply

    Good article. I wish you explained more on the strategies they used to make the difference.

  2. Kathy Heejung Ho
    January 25, 2017 at 2:37 am — Reply

    Thank you for the article

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