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North Korean refugee student: "Even paying for coffee is a burden for me"

I had two meetings yesterday reminding me that TNKR has one of the worst business models in the world: We don't charge our students tuition. Harvard University is billions of times richer than us, but they still charge tuition to most students, and only recently made it tuition free for low income students.

Not only that, but we have the worst approach to deal with that problem: Relying on volunteers and fans to help us grow financially.

The first meeting yesterday was with a refugee who reminded me why we put this pressure on ourselves to raise money instead of charging them tuition.

When we talked about meetings with tutors, the student said she was worried about the costs, even when tutoring is "free." She had private tutoring before with friends, she said it was enjoyable and she was thankful, but:

1) The tutoring wasn't focused, she had learned that tutoring with friends was more social than structured.
2) She had to pay for everything besides the tutoring--drinks, snacks, food, gifts--and she always had to go to the tutors. It was still cheaper than paying for tutoring, but it wasn't free!

The result is that she would skip tutoring sessions or skimp in other ways in order to save money for such tutoring sessions. We have heard this many times over the years, one of our students who is here without her parents said, "I have no money." So she skipped some tutoring sessions. Of course, understandably, her tutors expected her to pay for everything because they were giving their time and some tutors are in debt from college.

A few years ago, we began hearing about more students skipping class because they couldn't afford to pay costs--coffee shops, gifts for tutors to show thanks. We began collecting data about how much tutors were spending on study sessions, with the goal of finding grant money that would relieve the burden on both tutors and students. (And of course, NOT every refugee is in this situation, for some reason come to simplistic conclusions.)

The refugee who visited yesterday said she had wanted to join us before, but she waited, knowing about the hidden costs of free tutoring. She said she waited to join us because: "Even paying for coffee is a burden for me these days."

But she heard something magical: TNKR tries to eliminate such a burden for students by covering costs for study sessions at approved business centers. We can't offer that subsidy to everyone because of the size of the grant, so we prioritize that funding for tutors who are willing to engage in fundraising. If true, she said, then she wants to throw herself into studying English intensively, she hopes she can find at least five tutors. What a big difference between skipping classes and throwing herself into her studies because she hopes, if enough tutors engage in fundraising to be eligible for the grant, to avoid the hidden costs of free tutoring.

Over the years we have been pushing for:

* Study sessions at neutral places. We learned that meetings at homes or restaurants rarely had serious studying as part of the sessions. Some tutors want refugees to come to them, but we have learned that some refugees are then put in the position of pathetic recipient, rather than meeting with a fluent or native English study partner.

* Eliminating hidden costs of free private tutoring. Both students and tutors over the years have told us they have skipped or canceled classes because of financial issues.

* Unlimited studying. We want to make it possible for refugees to study as often as possible, with as many tutors as possible.

* Eliminating distractions. We have had some students show up making it clear they really hoped to have serious study, as they prepared for their future lives in South Korea or abroad. Word has gotten around with refugees: "Don't join TNKR until you are serious." Eliminating distractions has meant eliminating things such as secret gift-giving or other things that take the focus off studying.
We had three interviews with NK refugees. They aren't the kind of face-down-in-the-mud stories that motivate some to help, but talking with them about their hopes for the future did inspire us, and reminded us why we avoid charging tuition.

Earlier today, Eunkoo received a call from a South Korean colleague saying their mentoring program with North Korean refugees had fallen apart. After a month or two, refugees grew tired of going to the movies and hanging out with mentors (working professionals who are giving their time, but also apparently getting frustrated that the refugees didn't appreciate their volunteering). Mentoring is a good thing being done by well-intentioned people who don't realize that many refugees are trying to figure out how they will make it in South Korea.

In previous years, Eunkoo would have identified with the colleague lamenting the failure of their program. Eunkoo used to assist with programs with North Korean refugees that were also based on such mentoring programs that fell apart because the refugees would stop showing up. They would prepare everything for the refugees, then have to keep chasing them. In contrast, refugees are chasing us down, reminding us that they want to study, and asking when they can start.

It turned out that the other organization had been hearing from TNKR students who were raving about us. The organization did a survey, they found that refugees were saying they didn't need socializing partners, they need other things, especially English. At last, the organizers of that program are listening, although it took a collapse to open their eyes and minds! One problem with academics and working professionals is that they don't listen, they are so in love with their ideas and plans (a complaint that goes back to my days at Harvard).

They clearly had studied about us, they had been trying to figure out how they could implement our process into their program. Finally they gave up, and called, asking if we could run their program. I guess they have also heard about our lousy business model, they were wondering if we could do it for free (they are all getting paid nice salaries). 

Meeting Jonathan Moore

I was at lunch, thinking about our financial situation when someone interrupted me to ask: "Excuse me. Aren't you Casey?"

After a minute of talking, I asked him to join me, we began talking about many things. It was Jonathan Moore, a marketing expert who has two startups in Seoul. Now that I've met him, I've learned that he is influential in Seoul. We talked about marketing and other things over lunch.

Talking with him reminded me of two things: One, I haven't been getting out like I used to do. I have been so focused on building TNKR that I have dropped out of the networking scene. Two, I was reminded of our crazy approach: Not charging our customers, instead putting pressure on ourselves to raise money with the help of volunteers and fans.

Sometimes when people ask me if I would do TNKR over again, I say, "NO WAY." Then add, "Well, not the way we did it." Instead, I would do what most reasonable people in this world do: Raise money first, then begin operations. In our cases, we began activities, connecting refugees with tutors, raising money after the fact, going without salaries the first few years as we worked at other places, then continuing as volunteers until immigration tried to bring us to our senses by forcing me to take a salary before it would approve my visa.

Definitely, I wouldn't do things again that way. I used to laugh out loud when smart people asked about our budget--Eunkoo and I were spending out of pocket. Then even before we had raised money, we had people asking about our 3, 5, and 10 year plans. It was clear they had no understanding about how we were operating, and even when we told them, they didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't understand.

We learned quite a while ago, even before the Moon government was elected, that we couldn't rely on the South Korean government or the business community lapping at their heels.

People still ask us questions like we have a $1 million budget, talking like sophomore business majors determined to fit us within textbook models. I try not to laugh out loud, recognizing how incredible it has been that, despite our lousy business model, we have survived and are on verge of becoming a sustainable organization.


TV interview coming up

I will be on TV again. I am always surprised when Korean TV stations find me. I don't contact any of them. I was a reporter when I was young, I know the most boring story for reporters is when someone contacts them saying, "Hey, I've got a great story for you." As I learned as a cub reporter: "What people want you to publish is advertising; everything else is news."

So I am doing my own work when reporters come across me. This particular TV station was looking for some North Korean refugees, when they kept coming across stories about some bald American. They watched the TVN special, then were convinced that I was worthy of being interviewed. Stay tuned for that.

Some people ask me why media is valuable. I say: Mainly for other media to find previous stories about you.


Cherie Foodie

TNKR Special Ambassador Cherie Yang stopped by the TNKR office today to talk with me about her YouTube channel. I have thrown more energy into the YouTube channels set up by refugees than I have for my own YouTube channel.

Have you subscribed yet? Cherie Foodie. I know that people who have never set up YouTube channels don't realize the challenge it is to have a successful challenge.

Have you subscribed yet? Cherie Foodie. To get your channel in search engines, you first need to get at least 100 followers. That is easier said than done. To grow a channel, you first need at least 1,000 followers, then at least 10,000.

Have you subscribed yet? Cherie Foodie. I have seen many of these channels come and go. People seem to assume that it is easy for North Korean refugee channels to be successful, but after seeing many failures, I know that isn't true. Some doing it on their own struggle with editing, marketing, translation, other things.

Have you subscribed yet? Cherie Foodie. Asking people to click on such videos reminds me of a conversation that I had years ago with an executive at a top talent agency in the USA. After hearing his explanation about his business, I summarized it as: "We don't make talent. We take talent." That is, after someone has become established, then his agency is interested. But they don't groom people or help them become successful.

Have you subscribed yet? Cherie Foodie. With TNKR, we hope to help make talent. Several North Korean refugees have recently started YouTube channels. What can we do to partner with them, as they are starting, to help them become successful? Why wait until after they are internationally known before getting involved?

Talking with refugees the last few weeks about YouTube has even caused me to dust off my YouTube channel. Have you subscribed yet?

* Cherie Foodie
* Eunhee Park's Basket TV
* TNKR News
* Casey Lartigue's YouTube World

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