By Daryl James, Thunderbird Knowledge Network
Korea had dim prospects for economic prosperity in 1953, when an armistice established a precarious peace on the East Asian peninsula. The region once known as the “Hermit Kingdom” had few ties to the outside world, few natural resources and many security threats following decades of occupation and war.
Beth Stoops, Thunderbird’s senior vice president of Corporate Learning, saw these conditions firsthand when she traveled to Seoul in 1989 to explore a possible executive education partnership with SK Group, an emerging conglomerate known at the time as Sunkyong Group.
Korea had shined on the world stage one year earlier with the Summer Olympics in Seoul, but the country still struggled with poverty and economic uncertainty.
“Korea was still dealing with hunger issues in the 1980s,” Stoops says. “But they believed they could transform their country, their culture and their economy through investment in human capital.”
The executives she met at SK Group shared this optimism. They agreed to send a team of managers to Arizona in 1990 for four months of global business education, international exposure and intensive English instruction.
The partnership evolved over the years as SK Group emerged as a Fortune Global 100 conglomerate with operations in energy, telecommunications, international trade and finance. Twenty years later, the Thunderbird partnership in Korea remains strong.
No other company spends as much time on campus as SK Group, and no other company has as many executives with Thunderbird ties.
“Most companies talk a good game when it comes to executive education, but SK Group really has played that game,” says Thunderbird Professor Kannan Ramaswamy, Ph.D., who became academic director of the program in 1999.
This passion for education permeates South Korea, and the results have been dramatic.
The country of 48 million people has emerged since the Korean War as the seventh-largest trading partner with the United States and the eighth-largest trading partner with the European Union. Overall, the country has built the world’s 15th-largest economy.
“Korea is a small country that has become saturated,” says Byeong Seong Kim, general manager of the Planning and Financial Service Team at SK Energy. “Doing business outside Korea is necessary to create sustainable growth.”
During this era of growth, Thunderbird has developed other key partnerships in Korea. Most notable among these is a custom Executive MBA program designed exclusively for LG Electronics in 2005.
Stoops, who remains the driving force behind Thunderbird’s outreach in Korea, says leaders of companies such as SK Group and LG Electronics set the pace for the rest of the world in development of human capital.
“That has been the mindset in Korea,” Stoops says. “They develop the talent to be globally competitive.”