What I learned in South Korea

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 3.38.12 PMWanted to give you a quick download from the first leg of the trade delegation’s trip to Asia in South Korea. Austin has strong ties to South Korea. Several hundred Koreans come to SXSW, mostly bands but with a growing interactive contingent. Samsung has invested about $16 billion in Austin. UT has the largest of all foreign alumni associations in Seoul. And, Richard Jung’s sister-in-law lives here (a wonderful hostess, btw!).
While we were here, Korea announced a new national slogan “Creative Korea” that signifies not only a cultural heritage but the direction and focus of its forward development. And, in this environment, we delegates from the Innovation Capital found ourselves at home. In fact, we visited several new start-up incubators and accelerators that felt like we were right at home.

Our group is about a dozen — representatives of Austin businesses, the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, folks looking for investments or investment opportunities, our city’s economic development office, and me and Diane. We arrived on Sunday and just left on Saturday.

Over the week, some of us made pitches for investors (including potential EB5 investors who get US residency for making a certain level of investment in the US associated with a certain number of jobs) all the way to an audience with the Sovereign Fund of Korea. We spoke with Samsung about their plant in Austin and the long-term prospects of expansion and KIA about their plant in Nuevo Leon and how Austin might be able to support that operation with our local expertise in helping to build a Korea manufacturing plant and our free-trade zones.

I had the opportunity to pitch foreign investment in the strike fund we’re trying to fund to help us preserve affordable workforce housing stock in Austin. I also had the chance to spend time with the Mayor of our sister city of Gwangmyeong who has built a reputation in Korea of working too hard, never sleeping, and pushing the envelope to brand his city as one of the innovation centers in Korea. He’s done an incredible job re-purposing an old abandoned mine into a tourist attraction and wine cellar. I also spent time with two congressmen, one the former mayor of Gwangmyeong (when he and Sen. Watson memorialized the relationship) and the other an up-and-coming political power who will be in the middle of the ruling party’s leadership elections in early August. My meetings on the national level, with the Vice Minister of Industry, Trade & Energy are more long term in nature.

My presence on the trip opens doors and gets higher level meetings for our local businesses trying to expand and find new opportunities, brings more and higher level interest in bringing jobs to Austin, and enables me to introduce Austin on an international stage. Many in Korea are not aware of Austin — thinking only of the coasts when thinking about the US. Others know Texas but think of Houston or Dallas. So this is a great opportunity to tout our special and magical city. Of course, there are many, too, that know Austin and our reputation for innovation, creativity, and music. We had a chance to watch a couple of bands one evening that have been to SXSW on numerous occasions — following eating some BBQ from the “Austin” restaurant.

Seoul has an extensive subway system to serve its 11 million residents. It also has congestion even more challenging than Austin’s. Its buses are used extensively, and it’s easy to see why when you’re in a bus, in a highway bus lanes, traveling past the cars stuck in traffic. (We’re going to experience this shortly when the new managed lanes are completed on North MoPac.)

Of special significance to me were our meetings with the Korean Creative Culture Alliance (KOCCA). This group is responsible for financing and supporting much of the Korean delegation to SXSW but is keenly interested in growing the relationship into real business investment back and forth. They are working now to institutionalize and support their creative economy in ways very similar to what we’re trying to do to support and build verticals in our music and creative arts industries. The layout of their strategic plan is something we should look to use in our work, and I’m brining it home with me.

We even returned a visit that the Seoul Broadcasting Services made to me in my conference room earlier this year and made a pitch to have them bring the Running Man cast to Austin to film an episode. If you don’t know what this is, check out YouTube. It’s the most popular TV show in Asia.

This was a great week with many new doors opened, new business opportunities discovered and advanced, and new friends and personal relationships formed.

Casey Smith, of Austin’s economic development team, has and is doing an incredible job organizing and strategically planning this trip. Paul Kim and Richard Jung have shepherded us around the city and served as translators.

On to China…

PS-Diane and I are paying for ourselves on this trip.  That avoids controversy and added taxpayer expense but is bad policy. Austin’s Mayor needs to go on such trips, whether or not they can afford to cover their own costs. I hope the city adopts a policy for future mayors to support such initiatives.