Han Young-mi, third from left, co-director of Organization Yori, and staffers are in a cooking class. The organization is devoted to helping immigrant women, female heads of households and teenagers gain financial independence through cooking. / Courtesy of Organization Yori
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Organization Yori, one of several new social enterprises, is giving many people ― especially immigrant women, female heads of households and teenagers ― the chance to gain financial self-support through cooking and to communicate with each other through food.
"We cook and serve honestly with fresh ingredients," said Han Young-mi, co-director of Organization Yori. "This is a company whose employees learn and grow up together to stand on their own feet under multiculturalism."
The Haja Center, or the Youth Factory for Alternative Culture, is supported by the Seoul Metropolitan Government and has incubated several social companies including Noridan, a performance group, and Organization Yori.
Social enterprises are organizations with missions that also pursue profit to survive amid market competition. The profits of social companies are reinvested into the business or the local community and used for public good.
The center opened in 1999 to relieve the high youth unemployment rate. It has been offering cooking classes for teenagers, teaching them how they can make living in the field. The successful program led the Haja Center to turn to more social enterprises to provide good job opportunities.
The company started as a cooking studio and began business as a social enterprise last October. The Haja Center is still the base camp of Organization Yori, and provides space for a restaurant, cafe and office.
"Eating is one of the most important things to human life and eating healthily is the most important thing, we thought," Han explained.
What Organization Yori Does
The "organization" operates Harmony Cafeteria, Cafe Geuraeseo and cooking classes at the Haja Center headquarters in Yeongdeungpo in Seoul and provides a customized catering service.
Harmony Cafeteria provides a cheap but tasty lunch meal service and Cafe Geuraeseo offers coffee, tea and special breads made by immigrant women.
The catering service is another growing business at Organization Yori, famous for its creative menus customized to each order, from birthday parties to meals for vegetarian diets. It has also been offering a baking workshop for teens and immigrant women for two years.
"We also have a nursery in the building for the children of Organization Yori staff, including married immigrants," Han said. "Operating the nursery is essential for a female-friendly business environment, especially for immigrant women."
The business is getting bigger as its customers realize the true nature of Organization Yori's and become regulars.
"We earned 150 million won ($121,000) last year and expect total sales to reach 400 million won this year," Han said.
"The staffers of Organization Yori should be curious, passionate and delighted to share what they have."
They started educating immigrant women in July 2008.
"We started with youths and women and the category of 'women' was widened as we made a connection with the Social Solidarity Bank, a non-profit organization that offers microcredit to those in the low-income bracket to establish their own businesses, and accepted immigrant women. We decided to educate immigrant women to assist them in becoming economically independent," Han said.
Organization Yori's next step is opening an Asian fusion bistro near the Hongik University area in October. "We will offer various multicultural dishes that fit the Korean appetite," Han said. "This multicultural bistro will offer jobs to immigrant women and be the first step on the road to Organization Yori's competitive power in the market."
If this outside restaurant is successful, the company expects to open more tailored for each district and offer cooking classes for women who want to start their own businesses.
Future of Social Enterprises
The Ministry of Labor has been certifying social enterprises that meet certain conditions and providing support since July 2007. A total of 252 social companies have been certified by the government.
The ministry held a symposium on the enterprises Monday, and Labor Minister Lee Young-hee said, "I expect to discover a variety of social enterprise models and stronger connections between social companies and public welfare contribution of enterprises. The government will also draw up plans to invigorate social enterprises."
Jung Moo-sung, a professor from the Department of Social Work in Soongsil University, said at the symposium, "Companies will have to focus on raising social enterprises as they make contributions to society and the local community becomes a goal and a place to achieve the goal." He also pointed out that some local governments are issuing ordinances to foster social enterprises, including Seoul City, Gyeonggi Province and 20 more.
The Haja Center is also incubating other social companies. There are some 10 teams working at developing social enterprises in the Haja Center ― including a travel agency that offers trips that don't exploit Third World low-income labor, an education business based on storytelling and plays, recycling banners and rags to commercial products and more.
"The programs show the creativity of the youth with the motto of learning life enjoyably," said Lee Chung-han. "We expect two to three more programs to be certified as social enterprises later this year."
Han, of Organization Yori, emphasized the importance of the quality of the products and services it provides for the future of social enterprise.
"First, social companies may use various resources to stabilize and grow the business in the early days," Han said. "To do so, their product should be recognized in the market and the company has to recruit experts and research.
"Secondly, social enterprises should be recognized in the market with trust and faith, not for welfare or public welfare contributions. Confidence can be earned when they provide quality products based on proper business ethics."