Janet Amador, associate director of academic services, accompanied a group of MBA students who recently traveled to Korea to expand their horizons and learn the ins and outs of doing business in Asia. While abroad, Amador kept a journal of the lectures, company visits, and cultural outings that students participated in. Below are excerpts from her journal.

Day 1: KAIST University, Seoul Korea

kaistOur welcome to KAIST University, the 2nd-ranked university in Asia, was second to none. It was obvious from the moment that we stepped off the bus that this was going to be a spectacular program.  Even the weather was accommodating, a bit warm, a bit humid, but very comfortable.

We started the day with a welcome from Dean Minhi Hahn, who was very pleased with the new partnership with Saint Mary’s College and future engagements with our school.  Professor Betty Chung, who was the organizer of this visit, walked us through the itinerary, expounding on the lecturers, the incredible presenters that we will have exposure to, and the networking events with the KAIST students. 

Professor Chung, our first presenter, discussed “Doing Business in Korea” and the many cultural nuances inherent to the values and relationships that need to be understood to do business successfully in Korea. She gave us some data to demonstrate what we have already known but need to be reminded of: 61% of the world’s population is Asian, and the official business language of the world is now Chinese.  As Americans, how are we going to be able to keep up with the ever changing global marketplace if we are not mindful and respectful of what cultures we are going to be doing business with?

She then peeled back Korean culture for us, and gave one of the most important lessons that we needed to keep in mind: Korean culture is based interdependence, not individualism. When compared to the American mindset, it was clear that keeping an open mind and cultivating understanding would be critical to success in a cross-cultural setting. This isn’t merely a reflection of how many countries one has visited, but to what extent that individual has experienced those cultures. Global leadership is really about being comfortable with being uncomfortable in uncomfortable environments. 

Our second lecture was from Jae Choi, executive managing director at Doosan Industries, a Stanford and Kellogg MBA graduate. Mr. Choi spoke about doing business in Asia, what it meant from a Korean perspective to do business with China, Japan and the US. Values like selflessness and collective alignment are central to the Asian way of doing business, he explained. The goal has to be very clear, and the buy-in has to be there, but the belief truly is “together we can move mountains.” 

The gist of the afternoon lecture was that we as Americans need to be very mindful of the culture of any country that we are working in, and our global sensitivity will increase our chances for success in developing our products and our bottom line growth.

The last part of the day, as we were beginning to really feel the effects of jet lag, was energized by a networking event with KAIST MBA students.  This group is going to USC for a two week period in July, so there were many questions for us about America, while we asked the Koreans questions about life in Korea.  The evening ended with an amazing food experience, Korean BBQ.  At the tables were individual BBQ’s with coals and a host of sauces, vegetables, and wraps to make a meal with the meats that were expertly prepared by the waiters.  The meal was fabulous. 

Day 2: LG, CJ Media, and the Ole Ball Game

lgJim Clayton, Executive Vice President of LG, discussed the perspective of being an American living in Korea. He noted some specific areas where the American and Korean systems were particularly different.

According to Clayton, the success of Korea is based on the opposite of what is being done in Silicon Valley.  The systems are very different, but both are successful.  Clayton explained that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple by himself; there was a group that followed him.  The Korean model shows us that an individual can’t do anything by themselves, however. In Korea, the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

Mr. Clayton took us through some specific examples and told many stories to illustrate how different the cultures and values are in each country and how he as a foreigner has learned to live and work within the system.  The bottom line, as he understands it, is that success is about building trust in your relationships. This is done not only in the office environment, but by spending many hours together after work.  Every night, the expectation for males (primarily) is to socialize and spend time with their colleagues, thereby building their relationships and, most important, their trust with each other. 

We then had the opportunity to tour the LG Research and Development facility, which included some of their new products—a wonderful assortment of new appliances, TVs, and sound systems that had us all wishing to take them home with us!

Our next visit was to CJ, started by the founder of Samsung. This holding company includes food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, media and entertainment, and gaming. They are also the sole distributor for Paramount and Dreamworks in Korea.  We were treated to watching a short clip of a movie called “The Tower” in 4X-which included a surround sound and moving chairs—it was like a Disneyland ride.  These kinds of cinematic additions will be at CJ movie theatres in the US.

Our next experience was a baseball game between the LG Twins and the Doosan Dino’s.  The baseball teams are owned by the companies, and the games are played at the 2002 World Cup soccer stadium.  Although the stadium was not as large as our stadiums, there were a good number of attendees.  The students wondered what types of food and beverages would be available in the park; we were surprised to have hot dogs, KFC, Burger King, and, of course, beer. 

Day 3: Lectures and GM Korea

gmThe first CEO of Daewoo shipbuilding in the 1970’s, Hong In Kie, was the CEO for the Korean Stock Exchange for two terms and is now a lecturer at KAIST, where he is an expert on Chinese financial markets and other Asian markets.  He gave us a very detailed view of the emerging Chinese economy and all of the intricacies.

We took an hour-plus ride to the west side of Seoul into the city of Incheon, which is where the airport is located.  There we had the extreme honor to be welcomed to the brand new design center for GM Korea by the CEO, Sergio Rocha.  Mr. Rocha’s incredible history with GM would fill pages, but to demonstrate his level of importance at GM, all you really need to know is that he was one of the key negotiators during the GM bankruptcy crisis of 2008 and helped to strategize its recovery.  GM Korea is third in the world for manufacturing only after Detroit and Brazil. He spent time answering many questions from the students; it was an amazing opportunity.

We were then hosted by the managing director of GM Desing, Mr. Jaehak.  Born in Korea and a recent hire at GM Korea, he brings years of service in the industry.  We were very privileged to be given a tour of the new facility, with a room-by-room explanation of how the design team works, how car prototypes come to fruition and the high-tech machines that support all of the creative design work.  Their work is not exclusively in Korea; they are connected with the other GM plants worldwide.  Mr. Jaehak answered many questions. 

After this we had a wonderful social hour downtown.

Day 4: The DMZ

This morning we prepared ourselves for our visit to the DMZ with a very special lecture from Dr. Lee’s longtime friend, Dr. Whan.  He is the foremost authority in Korea on the geography and the flora and fauna of the DMZ area.  The DMZ is 238 kilometers long and at most points is 4 km wide.  The land area between the North and South has stayed untouched for the past 60 years, giving it a very unique natural habitat that is uncommon in the world. 

Before leaving Seoul, we were joined by a tour guide who would give us the history of the area.  During the hour-and-half drive to the DMZ, he was able to point out sites as we left Seoul, and he started to prepare us for our drive north from the city.  On the highway he pointed out what looked like a common billboard, albeit very large.  He said that is was a huge cement block that was a tank wall, which, if the North Koreans advanced, had explosives underneath that would detonate and the wall would fall and create a barrier for entrance into Seoul.  There was a heightened sense of awareness on our bus as we made our way north. 

On our drive up to the area the barbed wire on the side of the highway became more obvious and the outposts that overlook the Han River were more frequent.  The concern is that Northerners will try to swim to freedom.  While that does not happen very often, our guide said that if someone made it to the south they would be welcomed and not returned to the North.  We then stopped to see the Freedom Bridge, which was a train track that was created back in the 90’s in anticipation of a peace treaty which would allow the Koreans to freely go from south to north and vice versa.  That train and its track was funded mostly by the South and had a ceremonial opening, but has not been used since.

We then made it to the United Nations’ Camp Boniface, the staging area where we were to be picked up by our UN Military Police escort.  We were given specific instructions about what to do, what not to do, when we could take pictures, and how we were to act in case we saw North Koreans being released into South Korea.  Apparently that happens frequently, so there is a definite etiquette to follow if tourists happen to be in the JSA area when it occurs.

We had a bus drive us through the DMZ to get us to the JSA; that bus ride was through a beautiful area which still has 2 million live land mines in the ground.  There are also some farm areas that are protected and farmed by families who have lived in these small villages since the Korean War.  They are protected night and day by the armed troops and are able to harvest their rice.  The area has been known to have Asiatic bears, some tigers and other animals that are not commonly seen.

At the JSA we were able to see the South Korean troops standing at attention as they faced North Korean guards.  The North Koreans were able to view us by binoculars as we stood in a very specific area and we were allowed to take some pictures.  We did not see anyone released to the South.  There is also a “war” of stature and propaganda that is fought between the two sides—whose flag is bigger, whose building is taller, and, until recently, who blasts the loudest music or information about their leader.  There has been a reduction of this type of noise pollution lately.

We all sensed the tension and the concern for staying within the lines and maintaining the delicate balance that has been in place for the past 60 years.  The future is unknown, but for many South Koreans who still have family and friends in the North, this is a brutal reality that they must deal with daily. 

After that tour, we were back to Seoul for dinner and some free time before we went and saw NANTA--a non-verbal music, comedy production.  I am not sure that I can explain the performance.  It was audience interactive and, of course, our SMC students were chosen to get up on stage. We had three students and the sister of one of our students assist in the performance.  NANTA has been on Broadway—it is a great family friendly show.

Day 5: Cultural Activities

koreaThis morning we walked for about 20 minutes to the Korean Contemporary History Museum, where our tour guide took us through the complex history of Korea including the Chinese, Japanese and the Korean wars.  It is amazing to see is the “miracle” comeback that this country has made and the many achievements during the last 60 years since the Korean War.  The museum is a must to understand the transitions that have taken place here.

Our KAIST partners then met us at the Gyeongbokgung Palace Tour, where we had a two-hour self-guided tour through its beautiful buildings and gardens.  It is very similar to the architecture of Chinese temples, though the colors are a bit more vibrant here.  This temple is the largest in Korea, and it was built in the 1300’s. The most recent building in the complex had electricity by 1870.  Beautiful and very peaceful.

After our tour, a few of us went to the National War Museum and walked through the exhibits that paid tribute to all of the wars fought by Korea. It was a somber but memorable tour.  We then took the Seoul City Tour bus around the city until we made it to the North Seoul Tower, the highest point of Seoul which included an incredible view, beautiful gardens, lush landscape and some much appreciated breezes.  After walking the area and watching some live music and dancing it was time to head back. 

We finished the evening with a lovely walk down the promenade of shops, cafes and music.

Day 6: Korean Stock Exchange and Daewoo Shipbuilding

dwToday we visited the Korean Stock Exchange, the sole securities exchange in South Korea.   Dr. Hon, the professor who had lectured us on the Asian Economy and was the CEO of the Stock Exchange in its early years, accompanied us on the visit.  The Stock Exchange pulled out all of the stops for him, and thus our visit was a big deal.  We had two lectures from their senior management and then had a tour of the exchange itself.

Daewoo Shipbuilding Marine Engineering started as part of Daewoo until the late 70’s when Dr. Hon came in and set up the new systems, processes and innovations to establish it as the new DSME.  The same Dr. Hon at the Korean Stock Exchange was the CEO of DSME. Later that day, he flew with us to Pusan, an island about 400 miles to the south of Seoul.  After a short ride from the airport, we met with Dr. Han, had lunch, and then started our tour of the headquarters. We were then given a bus tour of the facility.  DSME is the number two ship builder in the world, and currently builds the largest cargo ship in the world.  The ships, cranes, tankers and cargo ships were huge beyond words. We were like little bugs by comparison to the machinery in this dry dock.  Amazing.

Day 7: KAIST and Samsung

We went to KAIST this morning to start the debrief process.  Dr. Chung asked us to reflect on our experiences based on the core values that are part of the Korean culture.  Since she had covered those values on the first day, she wanted to see how we were putting our experience into the context of each of the values. 

koreaWe then went on a visit to Samsung Electronics. We visited the Samsung Innovation Museum, which just opened two months ago.  It is truly a wonderful museum, dedicated to the evolution of technology and a great place to see the coolest new products. 

Day 8: EA Games and the Final Day in Korea

Savannah Hahn, CEO for Korea and VP for Asia for EA Gaming Industries, gave us a considerable amount of information about the technology and gaming market in Korea.

The gaming industry moves very quickly in Asia--this does not hold as true in the European or the North American markets.  There needs to be less time between product development and release time here in Asia, but as an American company, they can’t move as fast.

Ms. Kahn went into more examples of how EA works in Asia and the struggle that she faces trying to manage appropriately.  This refers mostly to the creative engineers who are working on the games and the challenge that she faces managing this special group.

She went into great detail about the games at EA what she felt about its future.

After lunch, we prepared for our parting ceremony.  Each of the students was handed a picture of the group, a gift and a completion certificate from KAIST.  After the exchange of gifts, we slowly said goodbye to our newest “family.”  Students were much more involved with the staff of the KAIST program than they had expected as the staff from KAIST have been with us daily and in many cases nightly, shepherding our students throughout the city until the early hours! (Yes, even on a school night!)

My last evening was spent with my two newest family members, Kayla and Jin.  They took me to the Pukchong area to see the old traditional houses which are walled off from the city.  We took lots of pictures and walked up and down the cobblestone streets admiring these old homes.  Most of them date back hundreds of years, but they have been renovated and now are very high-end housing. We stopped on our walk to have traditional tea—it was fabulous and then dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant.  We had an amazing meal and a great time. 

Korea is a wonderful place to visit with a very hospitable and gracious community.  Thank you KAIST for an amazing opportunity.

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