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Wealth donations

Kakao founder commits to donate over half his wealth

By Feb 08, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Kakao Corp. founder and Chairman Brian Kim (Kim Beom-su)
Kakao Corp. founder and Chairman Brian Kim (Kim Beom-su)


To leave the world a little bit better – a line from the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem What is Success and the status message on Brian Kim (Kim Beom-su)'s Kakao Talk messaging app.

Kim, chairman and founder of Kakao Corp., South Korea's largest messaging app operator, announced on Feb. 8 that he would donate more than half of his wealth to address social issues.

On Monday, Kim sent a message to Kakao employees and executives saying, "As I see social issues intensify amid this turbulent period, I have come to realize that I can no longer postpone my decision.” 

The donation is likely to easily exceed 5 trillion won ($4.5 billion) given that his current wealth is estimated at more than 10 trillion won.

While the announcement may come as a shock to some, it was no surprise to those well acquainted with Kim, who say that his decision was not impulsive but rather grounded in his belief.

What is Success?

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics

and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty;

To find the best in others;

To leave the world a little bit better, whether by

a healthy child, a garden patch

or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed

easier because you have lived;

This is to have succeeded.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson on Success



LARGEST AMOUNT EVER TO BE DONATED IN KOREA

Kim’s shareholdings in Kakao account for most of his assets; he is Kakao's largest shareholder with a 13.74% stake. Kim also holds an additional 11.21% stake in Kakao via his wholly owned company K Cube Holdings Co.

Kakao founder commits to donate over half his wealth
Based on the closing price on Feb. 8, Kim’s 24.95% stake in Kakao is valued at around 10.1 trillion won ($9 billion), meaning that he plans to donate over $4.5 billion – the largest private donation Korea has ever seen.

“I’ve just begun deliberating over how the donation will be used,” said Kim. “I'm looking for people to help address social issues that are out of reach for Kakao, to enable us to support worthy causes,” Kim explained, adding that he would commit to a donation pledge to make the decision a formal promise.

Kim plans to hold a roundtable with employees this month to hash out the contribution's method and approach.


SELF-MADE MULTIBILLIONAIRE DONATES OUT OF OWN POCKET

This is not the first time the Kakao founder has made a handsome donation. So far, he has donated over 13 billion won ($11.5 million) known to the public. Since 2007, he has contributed to various places, including his alma mater Konkuk University High School; the Ashoka Korea Foundation, a global social entrepreneurship organization; and the Arts & Community Network (ARCON).

Last year, Kim donated 3 billion won worth of Kakao shares to aid in COVID-19 pandemic relief measures and for damages due to heavy rainfall. While many IT companies donated to damage relief efforts last year, Kim was the sole businessperson to do so from his own pocket. 

Kim is the first son of five siblings. His parents were farmers who relocated to Seoul and provided for the family by taking on irregular work, such as woodwork, manual labor and restaurant jobs. When he was young, the family of eight – including his grandmother – all lived together in a single room.

Despite his humble beginnings, Kim went onto study at the country’s leading Seoul National University to major in industrial engineering. He worked at Samsung SDS before launching the country's first online game portal, Hangame, in 1998, taking his first steps as an entrepreneur.

CORPORATES FOR A BETTER WORLD

Kim is credited for having pioneered the country’s internet industry with his adventurous spirit. In 2000, Kim teamed up with Lee Hae-jin, then president of internet search engine firm Navercom, and merged Hangame with the company.

This led to the establishment of NHN Corp., now better known as the country's largest portal, Naver Corp.

Kim spearheaded NHN's foray into Japan, China and the US. But in 2007, when NHN had grown into a large business group with annual revenue nearing 1 trillion won, Kim decided to leave the company to take on a fresh challenge.

“The ship is safest when it is anchored at port, but that’s not the reason for its existence,” Kim told his employees when leaving the company.

Chairman Kim predicted the arrival of the mobile era by watching Steve Jobs' iPhone revolution. He set up a new company, IWILAB, which later became Kakao, and launched Kakao Talk, which has become the company's most widely used messaging app. Over the years, Kakao has branched out into various areas, including digital content, online e-commerce, mobility and fintech.

Kakao was in the red a decade ago, but it is estimated to have exceeded 4 trillion won in revenue for the first time last year – the 10th anniversary of Kakao Talk.

Kakao Talk, South Korea's most widely used messaging app
Kakao Talk, South Korea's most widely used messaging app

Kim's latest passion is social contribution. Last March, Kim sent a video message to his employees to commemorate Kakao Talk's 10th anniversary. In the video, Kim said, “We can come closer to creating a better world if the company has  benevolent intent. I want to take a greater interest in social issues and be more active in searching for ways to help resolve them.”

Write to Joo-wan Kim and Min-ki Koo at kjwan@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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