Darden Student Profiles: A break-through Korean Start-up

Last year, I sat in on a speech by Ed Freeman where he shared about how to discover Inspiration. A particularly important point he made is to look for inspiration among those around us. For Ed, inspiration came from within his family.
As we think about the Darden Family, it seemed appropriate to look for inspiration within our family. With that in mind, I'm excited to introduce Kyle Strong to share a bit about his story.
CJ (EMDC President)

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Kyle and his wife in Korea
Student: Kyle Strong
Teacher & Entrepreneur

Kyle, after graduating from Northwestern University, you moved to Seoul, South Korea, to teach English. While there, you were part of the launch of Paedea, an education company delivering a every unique learning experience to students.

Can you tell us a bit about PAEDEA and your involvement there?


I had just moved to Seoul, and I met a group of friends who were getting investors together for an education start-up. Once financing was secured, I joined as the company’s first employee. The dream we all had for the company was to disrupt the $17B South Korean educational market by reaching out to consumers in a different way. We thought we could grow quickly, too. The plan was to have a dozen brick-and-mortar locations along with a robust portfolio of digital products in just a few years.

The South Korean education industry was and remains quite conservative in its approach. By conservative, I mean that the learning experience is seen as being painful but necessary. Teachers and teaching programs emphasize drilling, memorization, speed, and intensity. Education outcomes in South Korea speak for themselves (one of the highest literacy rates in the world, best in class math scores, and so on), but those outcomes come at a great cost. The country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and measures of mental health among young people are troubled when compared to peer countries. 

Our hypothesis was that developing educational products and services that were not only rigorous but also joyful would allow us to differentiate from competitors and gobble up market share. Many people thought that we were naïve because we were bringing a “western” mentality into the Korean market, but the company’s rapid growth showed that we entered the market when there was a real appetite for something new and different.

In addition to English, you speak Korean, French and Italian. You have experienced learning environments in both US and South Korea.


What challenges and surprises did you face in teaching in a different culture?


The real lesson is that young people, for the most part, are the same, and that culture doesn’t influence them nearly as much as it does adults. Adults have been culturally socialized over decades, but for kids, the process is just beginning. For instance, I’ve traveled with American students to far-flung regions of the world, and they are never as shocked by cultural differences as I think they will be. One on occasion, I was traveling with a high schools in Beijing, and we went down an alley with dozens of food carts. One was selling grilled scorpion. Of course, in the spirit of adventure, we decided to try some. Let’s just say that I was the one who had the most trouble actually eating the thing. 

So, when President Obama traveled to South Korea and included in his speech a small homage to South Korean students and their dedication to learning, I had to chuckle. South Korean kids are just as distracted, lazy, and impatient as their American counterparts when it comes to finishing their math homework. But that was the central lesson of our company: American kids learn best when they are having fun, so why can’t Korean kids have fun as well?


After Interpark (a large Korean company) acquired PAEDEA, you focused on R&D for the education program. What opportunities do you see in reshaping education in South Korea or even US?


My views on education became more progressive and radical as the company grew. The big hurdle that we faced as a company was the fact that staffing costs increased in proportion with our revenue (excluding digital services, of course). We were able to find creative ways around this problem, but schools around the world face this same issue, and I don’t get the sense that superintendents are willing or able to redesign school programs to take advantage of potential efficiencies. Other industries have benefitted from technological and operational efficiencies and economies of scale that schools cannot achieve—unless the model is changed. Moreover, education is the only industry where abject failure is not only tolerated but perpetuated. For instance, only a very small percentage of students leave high school fluent in a foreign language despite a decade or more of instruction. In other industries, the system would be overhauled or eliminated, or all of the responsible employees would be fired. 

Because the private education market in South Korea is so huge, free market forces are already reshaping learning across the country. For example, many students pay no attention to the English instruction they receive at public schools, knowing full well that the teachers and programs are ineffective. Instead, families look to education software companies and private academies, which are both incentivized to provide outstanding results. In sum, the educational miracle in Korea, China, and Japan is largely due to private companies supplementing the modest outcomes achieved on school grounds. 

I see a similar opportunity for progress in the United States. I don’t have the space in these pages to explain exactly what it would look like, but suffice it to say that I feel strongly about the role of free markets in the future of education in this country.


A PAEDEA library in South Korea


What prompted you to come to Darden? Do you have any specific aspirations for your Darden experience?


I came to Darden because of the case method. Full stop. The case method is the most purely academic MBA experience that is available. In the first year, I wanted to hit the books and absorb case after case after case. I wanted to get a feel in my stomach for the patterns one sees across the business world. thought about crafting ideal educational experiences for my entire professional career, so I’m a tough critic. However, at this point, I definitely think that Darden is holding up its part of the bargain. It’s the most transformational educational experience of my life. If only my undergraduate experience had been at this caliber! 

My goal is to use some of my experience with education technology to bring some new experiences into the classroom. I’m currently in talks with researchers at SMU to bring real-time feedback technology into a negotiations course. We’ll see if it pans out.


What role is there for MBAs in the education sector and skills are necessary for capturing the opportunity?


I had a friend who moved to China after graduating from university, and his rationale was that China was full of big problems that needed big solutions. He could clearly see the improvements to be made. He could look right out the window and see the air pollution, for instance. 

I’m trying to make an analogy to education in the United States. You can visit a public school, walk its halls, sit in on a class—and the problems are obvious. Big problems need big solutions, and big solutions are the foundation on which a company is built. MBAs should look at the sad state of public schools and think about ways to disrupt that market. 

I get suspicious when I hear about a new hot cell phone application that is trying to solve a problem that people didn’t even know they had. Every family in America is looking for a solution to the problem of our primary and secondary schools, but there are not many entrepreneurs who are tackling the problem head-on.

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Kyle Strong is a native Californian who studied English and art history as an undergraduate at Northwestern. An international career in education innovation and teaching eventually brought him to Darden, where he is jump-starting a career in marketing. He and his wife, who is a food engineer, love cooking with the aid of unusual kitchen gadgets edible chemicals.

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