Jinae Kang, a mom of two and a self-made entrepreneur, is the CEO and the founder of ES Global, specializing in exporting specialty food products to major Korean retailers including eMart, Lotte, and Coupang. In 2005, Jinae started a personal blog where she shared her baby’s photos with her friends, families, and other followers. Over time, her business gradually evolved into a B2B platform providing comprehensive services—from customs clearance, distribution to marketing—for U.S. companies looking to enter the Korean market.
Q. From a blog to a full-blown business—tell us more about how you started it all.
J: Ever since I moved to the U.S. at the age of twenty, I dreamed of running my own business in this land of opportunity. However, when I first started this business, I didn’t realize it was a business because it started so small.
It was back in 2004. I was married and just had a child. I started posting my child’s photos up on my blog, and soon I had followers asking me about the baby products captured in the photos. That’s how it all started: I procured the items on demand, loaded them onto my 100 day-old baby’s stroller, and mailed them at the post office. I would chat well into the night with my followers and eventually opened an official online store whose membership reached tens of thousands later on. Backed by the continued growth, I opened a branch office in Korea in 2007 and catered to other online stores and even bigger clients like eMart and Lotte, supplying them with Pampers diapers, skincare products, and Fisher-Price toys.
Q. What is the most memorable product you’ve ever introduced to Korea?
J: My daughter’s favorite snack was the organic Happy Baby Puffs by Happy Family. I thought maybe other toddlers would love them too, so about 10 years ago, I decided to export them to Korea. Organic snacks were an uncharted category in Korea and the puffs were rejected by the customs several times due to the frequently changing regulations, until two years later when they finally made it to the Korean market. We had trouble finding a vendor at first but managed to get a booth at a baby fair, and the word spread quickly—thanks to our presence online—and brought in a throng of customers. We subsequently supplied the product to eMart, Lotte, and HomePlus stores nationwide. It created a huge turning point for our business since Happy Family was acquired by Danone, elevating our status to a partner of a multinational corporation.
Q. What was the toughest challenge you’ve ever faced as a CEO?
J: As a startup owner, the biggest threat was the competition from more established, larger companies. For example, we used to supply Fisher-Price toys, but since Toys R Us sealed a deal with Fisher-Price, our small scale export was no match for the toy giant. This led me to shift the focus to the food category, where the competition is relatively low due to the strict and frequently changing regulations. I spent a tremendous amount of time and resources to master the food exports and now ES Global serves as a broker/vendor and also as a marketer devising branding strategies suitable for the Korean market.
Q. What were the proudest and the most regretful moments in your career?
J: The best part of running my own business is that my two daughters—now 16 and 14 years old—have observed various aspects of my work as a CEO; they tagged along to business meetings, fairs, and expos with me, learning firsthand what it’s like to be a female entrepreneur.
As for regrets, I wish I had been more efficient in financial management. For example, I paid a little attention to the exchange rate fluctuations and incurred losses as a result, until six years ago when I started selling on Amazon and eBay to earn some dollar income and offset such losses. Another example of inefficiency is that although I took numerous business trips to Korea for the past sixteen years, it was only six years ago that I began importing Korean goods to the U.S. Now I always try to find trending Korean products—noodles, sauces, seaweed snacks, etc.—during my trips and bring them with me to the U.S. and introduce them to brokers and retailers here.
Q. Do you have plans to host career workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs?
J: I would love to! My ultimate goal is to assist moms aspiring to run their own business just like I have done. In the sea of information, the most important knowledge for mom entrepreneurs, I believe, is how to optimize their business system. With better management of communications and files as well as the overall system, juggling work and family can be much easier. In fact, ES Global’s fully automated system has helped me save plenty of time to be spent with my family and also served to buffer the impact of COVID-19.
Q. Any final advice for Simple Steps members?
J: Be confident. I met so many moms putting limits on themselves saying they don’t have enough time, money, or experience. But you don’t always need all of those to start a business. If you have only two hours to yourself every day, then take on a small task that can be completed within that time frame. Start small, and take one small step at a time. Those small steps will give you a sense of achievement that will propel you forward.
Jinae lives in San Francisco with her family. She enjoys reading, playing the piano, and playing sports with her two daughters when she’s not working. Without sacrificing her family, she runs her business at her own pace, in accordance with her own long-term plans taking into account her family milestones. Starting small and going slow has been the core strategy behind her successful business and its 16-year-old history. Jinae hosts Masterclass webinars for aspirating entrepreneurs. You can learn more on her website.
Written by Hyunjin Kim