Volunteer Report: "Experience Of A Lifetime"

Josselin, a consultant from Switzerland, joined the November 2018 Pyongsong startup festival organized by PY Ventures as a sponsor and organizer, and Choson Exchange as a platform partner. He gave a presentation about the business implications of building a music festival, based on the famous Business Model Canvas that he was taught by its designer at the University of Lausanne. In this report, Josselin summarizes his personal experience in the DPRK.

Meanwhile, we are busy preparing for the Pyongyang Urban Innovation Week from August 3-10, which will focus on business, entrepreneurship and design. Please get in touch with us by May 31 if you’d like to join us in Pyongyang.

When my friend Julian told me about this trip to North Korea (DPRK), I was directly interested as I have a peculiar passion for special places, and the implications of the politics of such places for people’s lives. What a better place to indulge such a passion than the DPRK? It’s a secluded country about which a lot has been written and said… but very few people actually know what is going on there. This was a perfect occasion into which I rushed as quickly as I could! I was put in contact with Ian, who was organizing the trip, and honestly, when I saw the time and energy he put into it as well as the donation that was required… I thought it was a scam. I have never been so wrong in my whole life! This trip to the DPRK was the experience of a lifetime, on so many levels. For this blog post, I will limit myself to the workshops, the feeling in the country, and finally the people.

First of all, the Startup Festival was the masterpiece of our trip. We spent four days in Pyongsong, giving us a unique opportunity to see areas outside of Pyongyang, where foreigners usually stay. We had the privilege to speak to and work with a crowd of about 100 local entrepreneurs at the State Academy of Sciences, who had already developed some business ideas on their own. We started by holding eleven workshops on various topics, from AI to the basics of marketing and design thinking, in order to lay a good theoretical ground with our entrepreneurial partners. In a second phase, we assisted them with building their startup, based on the Business Model Canvas. We coached them. Finally, all teams prepared pitches and presented them to us workshop leaders. We then graded all pitches and selected a few winners, who were treated with Swiss chocolate that we had brought from abroad! Generally, this whole Startup Festival was extremely rewarding for both parties: for us workshop leaders, it was an honor to be able to share our business capabilities with people who have such a thirst for knowledge. We also believe that our help was invaluable for the participants, as we later found the skin cream that won last year’s Startup Festival in malls and hotel shops in Pyongyang!

“This Startup Festival was extremely rewarding for both parties”

With regards to discovering a new country, this trip was also a unique getaway to somewhere extremely new: there is no place in which socialism is so prevalent. Even other nations cited by our Korean partners as having a similar ideology, such as Vietnam or Cuba, are not anywhere close to what can be witnessed in DPRK. Being in this country feels like being in a movie, with magnificent buildings, massive squares and old-fashioned cafés. Most of the things that can be seen in the mainstream media do not quite match the reality in the DPRK, especially when one can witness it firsthand. The people taking the metro are not actors, just people going to work. There are not only twelve haircuts authorized by the Great Leader, just some billboards with suggestions at the barber shops. I could go on and on… the DPRK provided us with delicious food, amazing sights, surprising events (such as this “motivational dance” with drums at 7am on the square next to the hotel), and extremely interesting visits of local landmarks and attractions (such as a packaged food plant with a swimming pool on top). It was, simply put, filled with lots of fun and learning.

Finally, the people I had the honor of meeting there were surely the highlight of my trip. I have already touched upon the entrepreneurs participating in the Startup Festival, about which I want to emphasize the motivation and interest to learn about business principles, and the enthusiasm they put into the whole program also ended up motivating us! Secondly, the DPRK delegation accompanying us was composed of brilliant people: a Cambridge-educated doctor, as well as stem cell researchers. The endless discussions about almost anything we had with these three people will stay as a highlight of my trip. Their English was perfect, enabling them to provide us with the most valuable insights about their country. They became the face of DPRK to us. Last but not least, the delegation I was a part of was one of the best teams of people I ever had the chance to meet. Hailing from nearly every single continent (just missing Latin America!), this team of 16 was composed of people with extremely varied backgrounds, a great outlook on life and an insane sense of humor, giving us inspiring conversations, tons of fun at the hotel karaoke and mind-boggling conversations about the effects of the DPRK political system.

“The discussions about almost anything we had with these people
will stay as a highlight of my trip”

Generally, this trip to the DPRK with organizer PY Ventures and their implementing partner Choson Exchange has been a fascinating experience, and an ideal opportunity to discover one of the most curious countries on this planet in a setting totally different to the usual tourist one, which is secluded on an island hotel and always accompanied by local guides. We had more freedom, making our own way (to a certain extent) through the city of Pyongyang and discovering its wonders and specialties. The team is the best, made of great people who know the country very well and who have built a long-standing trust relationship with local DPRK partners. This relationship is extremely valuable to the workshop leaders, giving them a unique possibility to discover and wander! I can only recommend taking this trip to the DPRK, as the mission of the organization is extremely precious to these entrepreneurs, and the trip is a must do.

PY Ventures was originally founded to support the development of Unjong Park and to take a direct approach to supporting startups in the DPRK. With the imposition of sanctions, those plans have been delayed to when regulations permit such activity. Working with Choson Exchange, it has supported and sponsored some workshops at Unjong Park.