An entrepreneur, Julian Rossy joined our November 2018 Pyongsong Startup Festival as a workshop leader. During the festival, Julian gave a presentation on Design Thinking. His group activity with making paper planes not only added a light-hearted touch that drew genuine smiles, but also provided a useful analogy for his thoughts about and expectations for this enigmatic country.
In November 2018, I joined a delegation of sixteen entrepreneurs entering the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea – or “North Korea”). The trip was organised and coordinated by Choson Exchange, a Singaporean nonprofit founded by Geoffrey See, whom I had the chance to meet at the St. Gallen Symposium. Aiming to support entrepreneurship in North Korea, the NGO encourages exchanges between North Korean entrepreneurs and foreign professionals.
Encouraged by my curiosity and my enthusiasm to help locals make positive changes in their country, I joined the “Pyongsong Startup Festival” programme, organised in collaboration with the DPRK’s State Academy of Science, our local partners on this trip. Our audience was composed of scientists and researchers working in Pyongsong, a trading city with adjoining science and technology park and special economic zone located thirty kilometres away from Pyongyang.
I surely am not – and I don’t pretend to be – an expert on this country: I only got to see the Pyongyang area. The following lines are based on my experiences there.
Travelling as a foreign delegate to the DPRK
Our Air Koryo Tupolev landed on Saturday afternoon in the new international terminal of Pyongyang Sunan Airport. After a careful customs clearance (we were traveling on a business visa), we met our local partners: Kyong Min, Un A, and Jong Su. Kyong Min is the head of international networks at the State Academy of Science and he was the main local contact for our delegation. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University in the UK. Un A (on the picture) is a medical doctor and researcher in stem cells and Jong Su is a researcher in biotech. All of them were operating outside of their main areas of expertise; despite this, their English was flawless and their professionalism impeccable.
Our first real taste of the DPRK was on the way to the hotel: we stopped by the large statues of the leaders (Kim Il Sung “The Eternal President” and Kim Jong Il “The Dear Leader”) on Mansu Hill to show respect as the sun went down. It was an otherworldly, thrilling experience. Our hotel, located in downtown Pyongyang, had all the international standards you could expect with the exception of WIFI (there is almost no internet in the country – only through a limited and extremely pricey 3G network).
The workshop took place between Monday and Thursday, leaving us two and a half days to go sightseeing around Pyongyang. On Sunday, we visited the classic monuments and locations: the Kim Il Sung Square, the Arch of Triumph, the Juche Tower, the Pyongyang metro etc. We also got to see places that normally are not open to visitors, such as different science institutes, food factories and some department stores. In the stores, all kinds of products are available (edible and inedible): there is even an IKEA furniture section – where one can buy a pre-built BILLY bookcase – probably imported from China, and almost certainly not condoned by IKEA themselves.
Despite all the concrete, Pyongyang is a surprisingly beautiful town, with symmetry, modern buildings and nice architecture. Some of this comes from the tragedy of having been flattened in the Korean War and built back up according to one man’s masterplan; faced with a tabula rasa, this ancient city received the rare chance to start again. It has an evolved public transportation system and its own lifestyle. We always had really good food: kimchi, cold noodles, bibimbap, together with delicious locally brewed beers. We were free to walk by the river by ourselves. It was a special experience to wake up and watch the sunrise among North Koreans and to be part of the city’s life.
Teaching entrepreneurship in North Korea
“Why the hell would you teach entrepreneurship to people that cannot take the initiative themselves?”. I heard this question many times before my trip. A part of me was wondering the same thing.
But it’s all wrong: the country slowly is opening up and its economy is growing. There are many opportunities for locals to build up businesses there. Pyongyang has more than nine universities, teaching diverse topics such as foreign affairs, engineering, life sciences, finance, English, etc. Alumni have the skills and motivation to develop new products and services.
We delivered our workshop to local researchers aged between 25 and 60. They all have one goal in common: they want to improve the quality of life of their family and fellow Koreans. These researchers were developing solutions that don’t yet exist in their own country, such as:
i. A new milk to feed pigs
ii. New hydroponics methods for farming
iii. A filtering system for water
iv. A microorganism recycling plant
v. A car engine module aiming to save fuel consumption
To know more about entrepreneurship in North Korea, I recommend that you watch this six-minute TED talk by Geoffrey See, the founder of Choson Exchange.
We certainly were not there to give lessons, but to share some of our experience, coming from foreign countries, on how to build a business. Among the 16 members of the delegation, there were eleven “workshop leaders”. Each of us had 75 minutes to give a keynote on our topic. We were presenting in English and had an interpreter translating for the audience. Topics were diverse: Business Model Canvas, go-to-market strategies, customer development, digital business transformation, artificial intelligence, etc. Actively listening, the attendees generally showed great interest in the content of the workshops and took a lot of notes.
Beside the presentations, the participants worked in teams to develop ideas. Each member of our delegation coached a team: the goal was to give a three-minute pitch on the last day. We also had the difficult task of judging the pitches and selecting a winning team.
On Tuesday afternoon, it was my turn to step onto the stage: an inspiring and stimulating experience. I decided to talk about Design Thinking. Even though I am critical of the buzz linked to the method, I believe that it represents a good introduction to customer-centricity and prototyping. My presentation was the first requiring audience participation: to warm-up, I asked every single participant to build a paper plane. I was a little worried, but it turned out to be a success. Later, some attendees even had the courage to answer questions in English in front of the crowd.
After a sixty-minute keynote, I prepared a live group exercise: I asked the audience to team up, brainstorm, prototype, and test a better and nicer paper plane. My presentation finished by a successful and colourful paper plane competition: I was so delighted to see so many smiles, laughs, and happy people in the room. I sincerely hope that they managed to catch the essence of Design Thinking: fail early and listen to your customers.
Conclusion: my three takeaways from my trip
The openness and kindness of people: the story of how I played badminton with North Koreans.
Every morning, I woke up to go jogging or walking by the river by myself. I got the opportunity to dive deep inside the culture of Pyongyang. Whether they were dancing, fishing, jogging or playing badminton, the inhabitants were surprised to see us. But they also smiled and were happy to see foreigners freely walking in their country. On the last day, four retired North Korean ladies even invited me to play badminton with them. Spending thirty minutes playing badminton with locals by the river in Pyongyang was an experience I would never have imagined before this trip.
Changemakers and smart people
The workshop attendees were among the leading scientists and researchers in the country. They all had important knowledge about their field. They are smart and open-minded and wanted to change things and to improve the lives of their fellow Koreans.
Hope for the future
By spending time with our partners, having deep discussions about their country, speaking about the world, and listening to their perceptions, I really felt that this kind of people really can make a difference and improve the DPRK. It was an eye-opener to be able to coach teams working on such innovative and viable business ideas. Although still perceived to be lacking in digital technology and individual initiative, North Korea is actually evolving so fast, and so many opportunities are yet to be taken, that I hope to see more innovation, a better quality of life, and more exchange between North Korea and the rest of the world in the future.
Together with Julian and all our workshop leaders, fostering a entrepreneurial community in the DPRK is gradually becoming more than just a flight of fancy. As we look forward to more ambitious initiatives in the year ahead, come join us as a volunteer trainer in our upcoming April workshop this year!