lee_barken2.jpg By Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP
Blink twice in Seoul, South Korea, and you might think you’re in any big city in the United States. Cars whiz by, tall buildings sprawl out in familiar, dense, urban patterns, and of course, there’s the occasional Starbucks dotting the landscape. 


My visit to this country came at the invitation of the Solartech World 2011 organized by HighTouchKorea’s affiliate, IT Conference. Given that this was to be my first trip to Korea, I accepted the speaking invitation with the eagerness and anticipation of a young wizard on his first train ride to Hogwarts. 


Frankly, I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to be on board. What I discovered was striking. Korea is a country with vast differences and abundant similarities to western culture. “How is that possible?” you might be wondering. Let me explain.


After spending a week in Korea, one might make the observation that westerners are in familiar territory. This is a place where the people are friendly, the cars drive on the same side of the road, and one can survive on English alone. In short, it feels safe and navigable. (OK, so all the measurements are in metric units, but you get the point.)


However, once you start engaging strangers in conversation and exploring off the beaten path, the richness and complexity of Korea become evident. In my travels, I learned a number of anecdotal lessons. In this article, I’ll share three:


1.  Respect Your Elders

While wandering lost through the streets of Seoul in search of a lesser known tourist destination, I stepped inside a small market to get help with directions. The elderly woman behind the counter did not speak a word of English.


Despite my best attempts at pantomime and charades, I was unable to establish communication. I attempted to express gratitude with a smile and slight bow and then proceeded to leave the shop. Within seconds, the aged woman rushed outside and shouted at two well-dressed businessmen who were passing by. They immediately bowed to her and proceeded to provide us with navigational assistance.


Later, in conversation with a docent at the National Folk Museum of Korea, I learned that respect in Korea is measured in years, and my experience with the shopkeeper may have been a reflection of this cultural norm. Korean culture reveres elders. The age of sixty is particularly important. Why sixty? The Zodiac calendar is comprised of 12 different animals, each representing one year. For example, 2011 is the year of the Rabbit. At the end of twelve years, the cycle repeats. Traveling five times around the Zodiac calendar (i.e. 60 years) is considered a laudable accomplishment and is celebrated with great enthusiasm.


2.  Hierarchy is Respected and Titles are Important

Are you an assistant manager or a regional vice president? The title you carry on your business card speaks volumes about your corporate role and social status. My first glimpse into the focus on titles came at the conference when I noticed that speaker titles appeared prominently ahead of names in conference literature, signage and even some business cards.


Unlike the U.S. where you might expect to see a person’s name, then title, the Korean version was quite the opposite, listing first a title, then the name. Over dinner with an executive at a multinational solar company, I learned that Korean society respects titles in much the same way military organizations respect rank. Everyone wants to know your title before addressing you, and corporate organizations function with a clear hierarchical structure.  Interestingly, PhD. is one of the most respected titles in both business and social circles.


3.  Patriotic Pride is a Powerful Force

Korea is a country on the move. In just my ride from the airport to the city center, I must have seen a half-dozen large bridges or freeways under construction. High speed rail projects are crosscrossing the country. In the southern province of Jeollanam-do, aggressive plans are under way to develop large clusters of cleantech companies.


Conferences like SWEET are aimed squarely at attracting investment and promoting manufacturing ecosystems. In conversations with Korean attendees at the tradeshow, I was very curious about attitudes towards “going green.”  Environmental concerns were certainly of interest; however, a more noteworthy thread seemed to be the overwhelming spirit of nationalistic competition.


While Americans are still regarded in high esteem, (I even had one complete stranger thank me for the sacrifices of American Veterans during the Korean War), the majority of this competitive spirit seemed to be directed at Japan and China. In short, cleantech aspirations are viewed through the lens of patriotic pride.


Trading in Green

Korea is a country graced by natural beauty and resources. Its cleantech cluster plans are ambitious and exciting. The people I met were committed, hard-working and resourceful. This unique combination of places, plans and people aligns Korea on a trajectory of significant growth. The desire to develop cleantech industries is good for the planet, good for Korea and also good for forward thinking trading partners. For companies who can navigate the formidable cultural differences, the partnership opportunities are vast and lucrative.


Lee Barken, CPA, LEED-AP is the Energy and Cleantech practice leader at Haskell & White, LLP and serves on the board of directors of CleanTECH San Diego and as Vice-Chair of the WREGIS Stakeholder Advisory Committee. He just returned from South Korea for a presentation on Solar Project Finance Models at the SWEET conference. Lee writes and speaks on the topics of renewable energy project finance, green building, IT audit compliance and wireless LAN technology. He was invited to speak at Solartech World 2011 by Display Plus (, an affiliate of HighTouchKorea. Display Plus is published in Silicon Valley. You can reach him at 858-350-4215 or