Sparking an Entrepreneurial Pulse in … North Korea

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Class of ’08 | Neither sanctions nor military maneuvers—nor even Dennis Rodman’s bizarre attempt at basketball diplomacy—have done much to sway the repressive way of life in North Korea. Businessman Geoffrey See W’08 takes another tack.

Founder and chair of the Singapore-based nonprofit Choson Exchange, See wants to fuel economic changes in the reclusive communist nation by way of business workshops, training initiative-phobic comrades to be can-do entrepreneurs.

“From the outside, you have this image of the government, of the army marching around,” says the 31-year-old See, a native of Singapore who recently moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “You don’t realize there are individuals there who want to be business leaders. People want to do this, change this, create this.”

The very name Choson Exchange suggests both diplomatic nuance and entrepreneurial sharing. The Kingdom and dynasty of Choson, or Joseon, included the territory of North and South Korea and lasted for five centuries until 1910. Locals sometimes use it to refer to North Korea, with its connotations of a unified nation.

In the six years since Choson Exchange launched, about 1,500 people in North Korea have learned about retail, finance, and business basics, and 100 more have traveled to Singapore for schooling on profit margins, lean startups, and Kickstarter campaigns. So far, See estimates that the program’s participants have created 20 to 30 businesses, including a supermarket chain, a startup incubator, and a hip café.

In a nation of 25 million, these efforts can sometimes seem akin to chipping away at the contour of a mountain.

“We are at the very beginning stage,” says See, who hopes to bring some of the insights gleaned from his work with Vietnam’s transitioning startup economy. “It’s about getting them to know these things exist, and it’s still a long journey ahead to gear up that economic system.”

Seminars can get strange. Once, his North Korean minders asked that a macroeconomics discussion not mention the economies of the United States, Japan, and other high-performing nations. See explained the downside of teaching international economics while pretending that those giant economic elephants weren’t in the room. His minders relented. Another time, Ministry of Finance attendees puzzled over economies that allowed businesses to discount merchandise with no limits. (Wouldn’t that make it hard to calculate the amount of taxation to collect?) “It’s not illogical,” he says of their concerns. “But it’s a very weird question to hear.”

See’s desire to seek social change goes back to his Penn days, where he was active with the Sayre Health Center in West Philadelphia and advocated for Wharton’s social-impact concentration. He got the idea for Choson in 2007 while a student. After an intense first year of seven or eight courses a semester, he needed a vacation. (The rest must have helped: he went on to complete his undergraduate degree in two-and-half years, interned at the World Economic Forum in Beijing, learned Chinese, and added a master’s in East Asian studies from Yale in 2010. The following year he joined Bain & Company, the management consultancy.)

His vacation destination was the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, whose society he had long wanted to explore. There a university student guide expressed interest in economics and her desire to prove that women could be strong business leaders too.

“That shattered my preconceptions,” See says. So began a two-year journey to cultivate a generation of entrepreneurs. It was a daunting mission—even economics textbooks were in short supply. See also wanted to expose outsiders to the hermitic nation’s percolating interest in startups. He researched and read and reached out to anyone with even a slim connection to North Korea. All proved to be dead ends; economics, business, and related laws were too sensitive to be discussed openly.

Then, as he was about to give up, See was handed a gift of sorts. In 2009, currency reform (or crackdown, depending on one’s point of view) failed and left many North Koreans poorer—and angry. The semi-governmental Committee for Cultural Relations was suddenly interested in foreign ideas on economics and business. See, who speaks some Korean, quickly mobilized a few economists and consultants, who traveled to Pyongyang on their own dimes to give lectures.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. At a seminar on currency exchanges, both sides had a case of the nerves.

“We walked into this room, and there was a camera at the top recording the session,” recalls See. “It was very stiff and very quiet.” No one censored the presentation, led in English with translators, but the hosts balked at the notion of breakout groups. Once again, in his soft-spoken way, See insisted—and prevailed.

Initially, he took on Choson pro bono. Since then, the organization has found sporadic funding through grants and private donations, including support from John Y. Kim EAS’00 W’00, a member of its board. In 2013, See left Bain to focus on Choson, which has a staff of six and several volunteers. He also was an MIT research affiliate studying frontier markets from 2012 to 2015. Currently, though, he is again pro bono after funds to support his salary ran out.

“It’s hard to sustain donor interest,” See allows. The volatility of the country—a 21-day travel ban last year hindered workshops—hasn’t helped. “But we have seen the impact of our work.”

Angelo Roxas EE’94, a Barclays executive who lives in Singapore and heads its Penn-Wharton Club, spoke on commercial banking during a 2015 Choson Exchange-sponsored trip to Pyongyang.

“Given the current situation in North Korea and its global implications, this exchange of cultures and ideas is more important than ever,” Roxas says. “In my experience, I believe that an empowerment of the individual provides a viable path toward … a healthy civil society.”

Choson has consulted with managers for a special economic zone in suburban Pyongyang to help them focus on startups. It also offered a three-month “mini-MBA.” In addition, its Women in Business program trained participants in startup methods, marketing, financial planning, and other practices, while its Young Entrepreneurs Network brought North Koreans to Singapore for a two-week crash course on innovation.

All the while, the group tries to figure out ways to improve arcane business laws, lack of venture capital, and poor infrastructure (the hotels of workshop leaders often lack hot water and have frequent power outages).

Skeptics say Choson reaches too few people, mostly elites. Seminars do draw the educated, but See says they come from across North Korea and a range of backgrounds. He points to such success stories as the supermarket chain—a new concept for the country. One innovation was to offer evening hours to meet customer needs, unheard of in state-run, 9-to-5 grocery stores.

Progress comes in small steps. But hosts who once started sessions with ideological sentiments now say, “We may not accept everything, but we’re willing to listen and think about what may be useful in North Korea.”

More important, says See, is that Choson is the only sanctioned channel of its kind where North Koreans can access information about entrepreneurship and meet fellow businesspeople and foreign experts.

“It’s really about building the fundamental building blocks of the economy,” he says. “I believe at the end of the day, it’s important work. It has to go on.”

—Lini S. Kadaba

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