Romi Haan was a housewife in South Korea with a problem: how to keep the floors clean without spending hours a day doing it. Because of the ondol tradition of heating homes through the floor, Koreans spend a great deal of time at home in a central room, on the floor. As Romi says, “Koreans live on the floor. We sleep on the floor. We eat on the floor. We sit on the floor. We play on the floor.”
Keeping the floor clean is serious business for Korean women, and means daily washings, down on their hands and knees. Romi wanted to free herself of this daily chore, or make it a little easier for herself and her friends. So, she imagined a steam cleaner to do just that: clean the floor with less effort and cut the time spent on washing the floor in half. It was a way to get women up off the floor and out into the world.
When Romi approached a bank about a government loan program to get her product made, the bank officer asked her, “What company did your husband bankrupt that makes you now have to work? Are you doing this for him?”
When she told him that her husband was not the reason she wanted to go into business, he didn’t believe her. Her application was denied. Romi didn’t take no for an answer, and persisted with her dream. She mortgaged her home and quit her job to pursue her invention. She was able to get her business up and running in three years, but faced other hurdles.
When Romi try to market and distribute her product, she was met with skepticism and disdain by male buyers for department stores. She would go in to talk to them, and they would ask her, “Why do you need a steam cleaner when you have a vacuum cleaner?”
She explained that a vacuum cleaner would sweep the floor, but her cleaner would mop it. After an hour-long discussion the buyer would ask again, “Why do you need a steam cleaner when you have a vacuum cleaner?”
Ten years later, Romi Haan is now the CEO of a multinational, multimillion dollar appliance and beauty products company, Haan Corporation. She is one of the few female CEOs in South Korea, and her business is thriving. She represents a new breed of Korean women executives and a model of successful entrepreneurship. Her story is not atypical of the challenges that women face in the global economy, but her success is unfortunately too rare.
I was privileged to hear Romi’s story firsthand at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Women & the Economy Summit in San Francisco recently. The conference brought together women leaders, government officials, diplomats, and corporate innovators to discuss actions to improve the lives of women in the Asia-Pacific region, and by doing so, the world’s economy. Recognizing that women are a vast, largely untapped resource for change and growth, the group spent a week in San Francisco working on plans for change. This was one of several meetings around the Pacific Rim leading up to the APEC Summit in Hawaii in November, which President Obama will attend.
The Conference Keynote was delivered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a woman who has inspired a generation of women to enter political life to try to dismantle the political barriers that keep women from fully participating in economic growth. Secretary Clinton’s speech was a call to action, for all nations to tap the power, creativity, and drive of women to help elevate all people, across all regions.
Although characterized by some in the media as a “call for equal rights,” Clinton’s vision was much broader than that. In her speech, she stated,
Now there will be a temptation on the part of those observing or covering this summit, perhaps on the part of those of us attending it as well, to say that our purpose is chiefly to advance the rights of women, to achieve justice and equality on women’s behalf. And that is, of course, a noble cause to be sure and one that is very close to my heart. But at the risk of being somewhat provocative at the outset, I believe our goal is even bolder, one that extends beyond women to all humankind. The big challenge we face in these early years of 21st century is how to grow our economies and ensure shared prosperity for all nations and all people. We want to give every one of our citizens, men and women alike, young and old alike, greater opportunity to find work, to save and spend money, to pursue happiness ultimately to live up to their own God-given potentials.
Secretary Clinton went on to give specific examples of the problem presented to the delegates, and the issues that the Summit attendees hoped to offer specific, concrete actions to resolve. After the speech, the high-level diplomats and delegates from all the APEC countries convened in a closed-door session to work out the details that would become the San Francisco Declaration.
I was not able to stay very long at the Summit, but I was able to attend the Plenary Session in which Romi Haan appeared on a panel moderated by Tina Brown of The Daily Beast and Newsweek. Also on the panel were Cherie Blair, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women; Susan Fleishman, Executive Vice President of Commincations for Warner Brothers Entertainment; Blanca Trevino, CEO of Softtek, a global Information Technololgy based in Mexico; and Ilene Lang, President & CEO of Catalyst, a research and advisory firm that specializes in promoting women in business.
The Plenary Session was called “Women at the Top: How Diverse Leadership Benefits Everyone.” It featured a candid discussion among the women of issues surrounding leadership, being a woman leader in male-dominated industries, and work-life balance issues for women. On the need for work-life balance and the issue of childrearing, Blanca Trevino commented, “Someone can always fill in for you at a meeting, but no other mom can fill in for you to help your daughter get ready for her first date.”
Cherie Blair’s foundation, Cherie Blair for Women, is leading the way in impoverished nations in encouraging women-owned businesses and entrepreneurship. Their approach is to offer women in developing nations the tools needed to start and maintain their own businesses through “confidence, capacity and capital”. One of the innovations her foundation has initiated is a Skype-based mentoring program for women in developing nations to be paired with successful women around the globe, so they are not limited to the resources available locally.
Prior to this panel, I had never heard of Romi Haan, but I was moved and impressed by her accomplishments and story. I had no idea that a steam cleaner could change a centuries-old tradition and revolutionize the lives of women in Korea. Romi Haan, and the other women who shared the stage with her, showed that perserverance, confidence, and a supportive family can lead women to change not only their own lives, but the world.
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