An interview with Alice Kim, CEO & Art Director of Grape Lab (https://thegrapelab.org), a “Star Social Enterprise” selected by SK Innovation.
Q1. Grape Lab is an interesting name. Does it have any special meaning?
A few years ago, when I was studying sustainability, I developed a theory so-called “The Bunch of Grapes”. As you can see, the grapes do not grow alone, but they always grow with another cluster next to them. Our society is getting more and more competitive, and as a result, we’re creating wider gaps and worse problems of inequality. We need a growing-together structure in which small organizations or individuals connect without harming each other, just like a bunch of grapes. This ideal formation inspired me, so I wish for a circular economy system based on local small businesses in marginal areas following this theory.
Q2. We heard that you had worked as a graphic designer, and you were also among the early members of Kakao, one of the biggest names in the Korean IT industry nowadays. But you quit and went to the UK to study. So, why did you decide to leave a promising career path and start your new journey?
Before creating Grape Lab, I worked as a designer in the broadcasting and IT industry for over ten years, and I had been passively contemplating the social value of design. Then I started to wonder “Is there a way to make design help someone other than just being a pretty, well-selling material?” This had been bugging in my mind for a while but there were actually few chances for me to directly do any experiment while keeping with my busy office worker life.
After leaving KBS Internet (now KBS Media) in 2009, I joined Kakao as an early member, and that was when I got a real opportunity to do various experiments. Back then Kakao was still a small company consisting of around ten members. But I liked it because when I joined Kakao, they told me I could experiment with anything I wanted. I was excited to start a new adventure.
At Kakao, I was able to not only experience business success but also feel proud to see the ecosystem of the webtoon industry changing. This success gave me the confidence to pursue design as a tool for social change. That is what I have been thinking about for all this time, and this confidence led me to the path to study in the UK where I could research and experiment more with social business models.
While doing in-depth research for my Master’s Degree in Sustainable Design in the UK, I wrote the mentioned thesis called “The Bunch of Grapes” as I mentioned in the beginning. It is like a small experiment we are doing while starting a new adventure together. We focus on giving more opportunities and visibility to minorities, giving voice to artists with intellectual disabilities, and protecting our environment, by using minimum resources and green technology.
Q3. What are the core values of your social business?
In a word, it is “sustainability” all the way! We’re a sustainable design lab doing various experiments to solve environmental and social issues from a design point of view. To break down a little bit more, I could say we’re focusing on three core values: Zero Waste, Sustainable Culture, and Job Opportunities for Minorities.
▲ The core values of Grape Lab
Q4. And “paper” seems to be the key material of your products?
Well, rather than just paper, we use and encourage the use of “recycled papers.” These days, when we go shopping, most places offer paper bags instead of plastic as a way to protect our nature. However, it is hard to say confidently that they are “eco-friendly” because all over the world, a large number trees are still being cut down to produce paper. So, using paper bags could be better than using plastic ones. But, if we use recycled papers, it can be even more meaningful, and better for the planet. In short, the social impact of using recycled paper is greater, it matters more.
Paper is a light material, so people tend to think it also means paper is weak. To solve this problem, we have a solution – folding. The geometric folding structure makes a sheet of paper sturdier. Therefore, our products are light but they can hold or carry an object which is around 100 times heavier than the paper product itself.
Let’s take a look at our most popular product “g.flow” to see how we made it possible.
▲ “g.flow” is the world’s lightest laptop made of 100% recycled Neutral pH paper.
No glues. No chemical coatings. No waste.
Q5. Your products have quite unique designs. They are illustrated by people with disabilities, and you also mentioned when talking about Grape Lab’s core values that you’re trying to create more job opportunities for the vulnerable groups. How did you come up with this idea??
Whether they have some physical disabilities or face social disadvantages, the vulnerable groups can contribute to society with their artistic sense and skills. Even though there are certain limitations, they have many talents and can take part in a variety of tasks. Therefore, we want to find and create work that can help them not only show their talents but also become financially independent. We try to connect those individuals and hope we can all grow together, just like the grapes.
When I decided to start, I went to many places like welfare centers and schools that focus on people with disabilities. I spent over a year in art classes and volunteer work, closely observing and learning what they can do. I was amazed by the drawing skills and integrity of people with intellectual disabilities. They also empathize and worry when someone around is sad or having a hard time. So, I believe rather than trying to “fix their weaknesses,” we should help them “bring out their strongest points.” We should let their talents shine, and through their participation, motivate them to contribute to society actively.
▲ People with intellectual disabilities take part in creating Grape Lab’s products
Q6. So how are you operating this model? It was quite different from the common model of other enterprises, right?
As a social enterprise, of course, the business model itself is different, and there are some limitations and difficulties. However, we are trying our best to operate as a collaborative platform.
In the case of people with intellectual disabilities, they come to work 20 hours a week. And having disabilities does not mean we pay them lower. The hourly wage for employees who only fold papers is 10,000 KRW*. Those who have other skills and take management roles receive 12,000 KRW an hour. Also, we collaborate with artists with disabilities in the Art Edition versions of our products. So, we share 30% of the revenue of each product with them, like royalty payments, additionally to their regular work salaries.
(*) The legal minimum wage in South Korea in 2020 is 8,590 KRW
Q7. Great! And we know that you’ve been taking Grape Lab to the overseas market. Grape Lab is going global, right?
Last month, we participated in the 2020’s London Design Festival, an event hosting many global companies renowned for their design, such as Bang & Olufsen, Thalac, Jo Malone, Monica Vinader, and others. Due to COVID-19, the event was mostly online, but we were able to introduce our product “g.flow” on a separate page on the event’s official website.
During this year, Grape Lab has also entered the “Avocadostore,” an eco-friendly select shop based in Germany. Avocadostore is famous for exclusively selling high-quality and environmental-friendly certified products that pass a strict screening process.
▲Grape Lab’s products are showcased at Avocadostore – Image source: Official Avocadostore website (http://bit.ly/33Fg15e)
But this is not the first time we introduced Grape Lab’s products to the German market. In October 2019, we took part as an exhibitor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And last year, we had the chance to introduce our products to the U.S. customers. We exhibited at The NY National Stationery Show.
▲ (Upper) Grape Lab at the NY National Stationery Show in 2018 / ▲ (Lower) Grape Lab at Frankfurt Book Fair in 2019
To facilitate our access to the American market, we founded Grape Lab, Inc., in California. Still in 2019, we had our first Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The results were outstanding! Over 400% funded, backers from more than 44 countries supported our campaign. It was another achievement in our approach to the global market.
Inspired and motivated by the success of the first Kickstarter campaign, we decided to upgrade our flagship laptop stand to “g.flow stone”, which is made from stone waste. The “g.flow stone” is waterproof so you do not have to worry if you accidentally spill water or coffee on your desk. Compared to the original “g.flow” product, “g.flow stone” is more wear-resistant and tear-resistant, while still keeping what is most important to us – sustainability and social impact. We meticulously researched the stone paper manufacturing method to make sure it fits our brand concept, eco-friendly from the production process to disposal.
▲ “g.flow stone” is Grape Lab’s up-coming flagship product that weighs only 80 grams (2.8 oz)
We will soon be launching “g.flow stone” on a new Kickstarter campaign called “g.flow stone: sustainable laptop stand made from stone waste”. You can check it and show your support by visiting https://thegrapelab.org/en/kickstarter2020 .
We are striving to spread Grape Lab’s values and sustainable design products throughout the world. So please continue to look forward to more meaningful and beautiful products from us.
▲ Grape Lab staff take pictures at their office
(This picture was taken before COVID-19)