18 July 2016. Charlotta Sirén teaches entrepreneurship, a topic that is not officially taught at North Korean universities. It was precisely this contradiction that appealed to her: “How do you teach entrepreneurship in a country in which entrepreneurship is not officially endorsed?”
First start-up week in Pyongyang
Together with five colleagues from Finland and the UK, Charlotta Sirén organised the first Pyongyang Start-up Week. This one-week course took place at the country’s first private university, the University of Science and Technology (PUST). Students were given a classic entrepreneurship task. Working in groups, they were instructed to develop a business idea and finally to present it in front of the class.
With regard to teaching, Charlotta Sirén noticed some differences between students in North Korea and Switzerland. “In group work, for example. This tended to start in a sluggish and disorganised way. So we urged students on and then things ran well.” Charlotta Sirén was surprised at the students’ knowledge. “They know amazingly much. For instance, they’re aware of various business models. Also, they work very hard and are keen to learn more.”
The high quality of ideas also astonished the researcher. “Above all, students wanted to solve genuine problems. For example, they developed an idea for a belt mothers can wear to educate their unborn babies. Or clothing intended to provide protection against chemicals.” The task also involved planning the launch of the product on the market. “The question as to how was much more difficult for them to answer than the question as to what. How should they set the price? How much should the product cost?”
Students at PUST mostly come from the families of North Korea’s political elite. Unlike the rest of the population, graduate students are granted access to the internet in order to look for material for their thesis. All the courses are taught in English, and the faculty come from various countries. The university was established in 2010 by a Korean-American entrepreneur at the invitation of the North Korean regime.
“Again any time”
Charlotta Sirén found the teaching experience in a foreign culture highly valuable. “I’d do it again any time. Also because I want to give the students something in terms of subject matter which otherwise they’d find difficult to get.”
The author, Dana Sindermann, is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Business Ethics.