Roughly half of our programs focus on policy issues, while the other half focuses on entrepreneurship and business innovation, particularly among females in the small and medium enterprise segment. We recently concluded an overseas workshop for our cherished Women in Business program, in which eight participants we selected from two workshops in Pyongyang came to Singapore. They spent two weeks learning about international business norms and different business concepts inside and outside of the classroom.
Significant logistical challenges exist in organizing a program overseas and these challenges raise the complexity of matching program content with participant needs. For example, we get to know candidates through interviewing and selecting them in North Korea. This begins a relationship and ensures that we understand candidates’ areas of interest. However, when a program takes place overseas, travel dates for North Koreans can shift at the last minute, or a minority of participants are unable to get a visa to travel, sometimes resulting in a mismatch of topics with participants, as the program has to be prepared in advance of these last minute changes.
Because of the logistical uncertainties imposed by onerous travel regulations, and the possibility of last minute shifts in program dates, we normally only start preparing for a program after receiving an email confirmation of the participants who will be attending (normally around 1 month before the actual program). This leads to a short time frame to scramble together a cohesive program, prepare materials and find relevant workshop leaders. This year, we looked at increasing the experiential portion of our overseas programs. Instead of having more lectures, we wanted to the Koreans take advantage of the rare opportunity to be abroad by exploring the environment in order to draw insights from their own observations.
Our volunteer, Desmond, currently studying at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, put together a retail research project where participants had to visit various shops and analyze it using basic business frameworks (for the business-inclined, this was the 4Ps and 5Cs). They then used their findings to create a retail concept, which they presented. We were surprised at how excited participants were by the group project, putting together complex logos, brand slogans, and in one case recording a voice-over to accompany the unveiling of the brand. This sort of pedagogy is rarely heard of in the DPRK.
At the end of the program, we gathered feedback. Satisfying a diverse group of North Korean participants is always a challenge. They do not seem to understand opportunity costs: an ideal program that satisfies everyone would have more breadth (e.g. more marketing, finance, or human resources depending on the individuals’ functional interest), more depth (e.g. deeper dive into marketing), and more sightseeing. And of course, as busy businesswomen, programs also have to be short so that they can get back to work. So we have a limited number of hours in which participants want to do basically more of everything, and still have enough time to sleep.
A striking paradox we observed is that participants do not ask as many questions at workshops outside of North Korea as they do in North Korea. Our initial hypothesis is that when overseas, the relative value to Koreans of spending another hour in the classroom versus having the opportunity to walk around and observe things dis-incentivizes classroom-based learning.
Another cultural difference we found was that some participants associate learning with listening to a difficult topic they do not understand. If they get a concept after one session, then it must have been too simple!
The highlight to me of the program was the last session we had - a facilitated discussion on female entrepreneurs. Wenchi, a friend from Taiwan, who at one point was a senior advisor to Hilary Clinton on women’s issues, talked about how female entrepreneurs in most parts of the world faced four challenges: access to financing, access to markets, capacity building and leadership exposure. She pointed out that many of these challenges could be overcome through women’s business networks and mentoring programs. In fact, much of the most practical and useful knowledge women managers require in North Korea can probably come from their own successful businesspersons! What they need is a platform for these people to share their experience.
Participants appeared eager to see these opportunities develop. Given the resources required for an overseas program, we are always seeking alternatives that will allow us to more effectively help women entrepreneurs grow their SMEs. More in-country programs focused on networking and mentoring could be such an alternative. We are thus considering making the Women in Business program exclusively an in-country program.
I have to admit that after a full month of preparing and implementing this segment of the program, it is easy to feel burned out by the experience. At least the Choson Exchange team will have a few weeks to recover before our next program...