With an interest in everything from science and design to travel and skiing, Marie Boes has followed an unexpected path to become a small business owner with a slew of certificates and awards as well as an honorary citizenship of Seoul.
Marie Boes first visited Korea in 2014 after finishing a summer course in China. A few years later, she returned intending to only stay a month but her activities spiraled into open-ended residency.
When Marie Boes came to live in Korea in 2016, she started writing a blog, mostly to assure her grandmother that she was fine. It eventually evolved into two businesses, a media content production agency, and an SEO (search engine optimization) marketing company. At the age of 29, Boes, born and raised in the quiet Belgian city of Ypres, now finds herself a small business owner living in Seoul.
“It was never really planned. I just rolled into it,” she says. “Everyone who moves abroad starts a blog for their family to read. That’s when I started writing. Then I got the opportunity to go on free trips if I promoted places. I thought, ‘This is cool. I’m 23, I’m getting these free trips, and I like writing. Maybe I can do something with it.’”
Living in Korea was not planned either. After completing a summer program in China as part of her master’s degree in 2014, Boes came to Korea, believing it to be a safe place for a young woman to travel alone. “I had no idea what to expect. I had a Lonely Planet book and that was it,” she recalls. “I ended up doing a lot of hiking. I went to the coast, I went to Seoul, Busan, Gyeongju, and Sokcho by myself. Then I went back to England, worked for a year and half and was going to move back to Belgium. But then I thought, ‘I’ll go back to Korea. I really enjoyed myself there.’ So I came back for a month, and I’m still here.”
At first, Boes did a lot of odd jobs, including teaching English, ski instructing, and working on a movie set, in addition to writing her travel blog, “Be Marie.” She also began writing for other websites, all the while wondering how she could get more people to read hers. So, she taught herself about website development and SEO by watching YouTube videos. As her blog grew and attracted more and more traffic, she began to think she was quite good at what she was doing. Other people thought so too, and asked her to work on their websites. That’s how one of her companies, Namu Marketing, was born.
Boes, however, had not studied media or information technology. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering at Nottingham Trent University in England. It was a major she chose because she didn’t know what she wanted to do. “I wanted to do everything. I was interested in everything,” she says. Industrial engineering combined science and design, two things that she loves, and has stood her in good stead as she now works on several medical websites.
Design has been and remains an important part of Boes’s life. She completed courses in product design in Belgium and Italy, and has experience in designing bicycle accessories and sliding roofs. She even co-founded a fashion brand.
When COVID-19 hit and brought tourism to a standstill, she had little work to do. So, she applied for Asan Sanghoe, a six-month global entrepreneurship course that brings together young re-settlers from North Korea, foreign residents, and locals to generate startup ideas. There, Boes met a woman from North Korea, and they founded IStory, a social impact fashion brand that produces T-shirts with elbow patches that conceptually illustrate the stories of North Koreans who have settled down in the South. Though she is no longer involved, Boes says, “I am very proud of that work. We were in the New York Times! It was really cool.”
On her own Boes now designs blankets, bags, and T-shirts inspired by dancheong, the colorful paintwork that decorates wooden buildings at palaces and temples. This work is driven by her love of traditional Korean patterns and the failure to find what she wanted in museum shops. Though she doesn’t actively promote them, she gets ten to twenty orders every month.
During the Asan Sanghoe course Boes also met Lee Ji-an, a university student originally from North Korea, and Min Gyeong-hwan, who had returned from the U.S. to fulfill Korea’s compulsory military service requirement. With their diverse backgrounds, they had different ideas but a shared purpose — to promote Korea globally. Later they created the “How Is Korea” YouTube channel, for which they produce video content on topics ranging from teaching English, travel spots, food, and K-pop to advice on safety, taxis, and how to use Kakao apps.
Both through her blog and “How Is Korea,” Boes saw interest in Korea rise throughout the pandemic period. “Before, if I talked about Korea to Belgians, they had no idea what to imagine. But now K-pop and K-drama are really popular in Belgium, too. I really feel Korea has put itself on the map culturally. So many people are now eagerly waiting to visit the country,” she says.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
Boes has a marketing business and YouTube channel that promotes Korea. She is also interested in public speaking and mentoring young women in business.
Though Boes heads two companies, she does not employ full-time, office-based staff. She is at her office twice a week, with her two partners, and all other work is done by freelancers on a project basis. Most days she works from her home in Seoul’s Itaewon area. The set-up may sound casual but she says she is very structured. “I always wake up at 7:30 a.m. and have a slow morning breakfast, and then I start work at around nine. The morning is my most productive time, my ‘crunch time.’ That’s when I write website content, proposals, or reports. Anything that requires my full attention.” Afternoons are more relaxed and may involve meeting friends or a hike up Mt. Nam nearby before returning to her desk. She loves Korea’s café culture that allows her to spend hours working in a café if she wants to.
When the pandemic upset her routine, she took on a regular desk job, working on the marketing team for a beauty export company. She sat in an office from eight to five and experienced the intricacies of Korean office hierarchy and personal relations.
Like many others who have relocated to Korea because they like the country and the people, she found herself struggling with social relations. “I really tried to integrate in every sense. I studied hard to learn Korean, I tried to make all Korean friends. People didn’t know how to treat me because I tried to act Korean,” Boes says. Life became easier when she made peace with the fact that she is a foreigner. She admits that it is because her environment now is not typically Korean, with most of her friends being foreigners and most of her work in English.
As a business owner, being young, foreign, and female has meant Boes had to work hard to prove herself. “I felt that whatever a man would do I would have to do three or four times better. But that did make me a better business owner in the end,” she says, and also stresses the importance of having a good lawyer and accountant. Boes now has a solid track record, working for clients such as the Seoul Law Group, that speaks for itself. In 2019, she won blogger awards from the Korea Tourism Organization and the Seoul Tourism Organization, and in 2021, she was named an Honorary Citizen of Seoul.
Considering all of Boes’s education and experience, the years don’t seem to add up. Only 29, she is indeed at a different stage of life compared to most of her peers. And yet, she calls herself not only a slow person but also very shy and a misfit: “I grew up deep in the countryside. I’ve always struggled with fitting in and I was the shyest person you can imagine. I had short hair and played basketball. I was very boyish. I just didn’t fit in.”
Moreover, she has not taken an easy path in life. Having overcome many obstacles herself, Boes is now keen to work on public speaking and mentoring other young women to share her experience. Last year, she participated in several related programs, including one for women in the sciences at Ewha Womans University. She tries to inspire young women and show them that they don’t have to follow the path laid out for them. “The response is so positive and I get so much back from it,” she says. “If you look at the path I took, I jumped from place to place and it has worked out well.”
Yet, it seems her grandmother’s worries about her not being in Belgium in a stable desk job are still on her mind. As she poses for some photos, she smiles and comments, “This will help her believe I do have a real job.”
Failing to find the goods she wanted in museum shops, Boes decided to make her own products, including bags, T-shirts, and blankets inspired by traditional dancheong patterns.
Boes sells goods inspired by traditional Korean patterns through her website “Be Marie,” which provides a wealth of information on travel destinations in Korea and introduces interesting aspects of Korean culture.
© Be Korea Shop
Cho Yoon-jung Freelance Writer and Translator
Lee Min-hee Photographer