Eight of us (six HBS students, a translator, and a driver) packed into a nine-passenger minivan for a winding drive through the bustling streets of Seoul. Our driver navigated us to a small office building as child-like anticipation grew in the van. The building was very clean and felt sparsely populated. We hopped in a small elevator and quickly arrived on the 7th floor. The open office floor plan had six rows of computers with the company’s CEO and the newest hire sitting practically shoulder to shoulder. We soon realized we had just stepped into the “Silicon Valley” of Seoul.  

How often do you get the chance to explore a foreign country – learn its business climate, history, culture, and politics – and work on a real project that enables a business to perform better? This is exactly what you get to do in the Field Global Immersion (FGI) course at Harvard Business School.  

When final exams wrapped up in May my classmates and I flew to 12 different cities around the world for our FGI capstone projects. My destination city was Seoul and my Global Partner (GP) was a 25-person start-up on its way to a billion-dollar valuation. The firm leverages digital marketing, short video dramas and funny material posted on social media, to promote health, beauty, and snack food products. Our job was to develop a new snack food designed for the Korean millennial consumer.  

The FIELD course began in second semester. First, we picked our desired destination city. Second, we met our HBS team and our GP company. Finally, after some prep sessions in Boston, we were off to the field. The GPs are sourced by HBS and assigned to your team and each project is an exciting challenge the partner is trying to solve. For example, some of my other classmates in Seoul were working with top K-pop companies to expand their brands.   

FGI teaches you how to grab a blank sheet of paper and innovate in the globally competitive 21st century economy. You will exercise your leadership skills and 200+ cases of classroom experience in a context often thousands of miles from home, and maybe even in an industry that is unfamiliar to you. Prior to HBS I was a clean energy engineer – not a digital marketer or consumer goods expert.  

The great thing about FGI is that creating a successful project requires you to do fun things in your destination city to build your understanding of the cultural context. Even the most successful business in one country may fail in another if it doesn’t develop customer empathy in the new market. Just ask Walmart about how their expansion into South Korea went (not well).  

Karaoke, local coffee shops, frequent outings for food and snacks, a baseball game etc. were critical to learning what life is like as a millennial in South Korea. One day, our GP took us to a massive fish market where we had rounds of seafood, including super-sized crabs. It was one of the best meals of my life. They told us it was a Korean tradition. No complaints here.  

We glanced into Korea’s past civilizations when we visited the 600+ year old Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung Palaces nestled in the middle of 20-year-old skyscrapers. South Koreans take tremendous pride in their past and it motivates them to build their country today. South Korea rapidly industrialized after the Korean War in 1953 and it left them with a country to rebuild. I’ll never forget our tour guide’s words on our way to the DMZ with North Korea: “We will never forget the soldiers’ sacrifice so that we could have the life we have now” [paraphrased]. This sentiment drives the South Korean experience. Only a thin barbed wire fence separates two radically different worlds. Should we have democracy and capitalism? Or should we ascribe to communism and socialism? Thousands spilled their blood here answering these questions.  

We spoke with over 90 people on the streets of Seoul. We heard from business leaders, college students, and K-Pop specialists. In the end, we developed two new products for our GP: a fruit smoothie and a mac and cheese snack. They’re eager to take our ideas to market.    

FGI truly is an incredible, once-in-a lifetime opportunity. Our global partners were wonderful hosts and my team was amazing. Personally, I grew in my ability to lead and collaborate with others, I realized how much I love design thinking, and my worldview expanded as I experienced the people, places, and businesses of South Korea. I’m also grateful for the new friends I made in my FGI group and in South Korea.  

What are my main takeaways?  

Business shapes and is shaped by its cultural context; never take those who have come before you for granted; and the best leaders know how to work with others, across cultures and nationalities, to accomplish great things.