• PHAM Van Khanh

Professor Geunhee Lee on balancing a life of many roles

As a part of FAFA’s Professor Specials, we interviewed Professor Geunhee Lee. Students may know him from a number of marketing courses. He is not only a professor, he is also a passionate businessman. Professor Lee kindly accepted our invitation for an interview at the end of April.

First of all, thank you, professor, for agreeing to have an interview with us. Although a lot of us might know you already, can you give us a brief introduction about yourself?

My name is Geunhee Lee. Originally, I’m from Korea. I am now…34? No. 43 years old (laughs). Right after I finished university, I started my own IT business and we operated for about 4 years. Then, I proposed to my wife (back then she was still my girlfriend) but she refused to marry a businessman because of the instability. When I asked her how she would agree to marry me, she told me to become a professor because I like to teach and inspire people. So I quit my business and jumped into higher education. I got my master’s degree in Japan and my Ph.D. in the U.S., then I came back to Japan in 2012 to start working at APU.

Are there any particular reasons why you chose to come back to Japan?

Actually, when I was studying for my master’s in Japan, I came to APU for a conference in 2007 and I just fell in love with this environment. There were students and teachers from so many different countries, classes in different languages were offered, and other things. It was fantastic! I thought that if I would become a professor, I want to become a professor at APU. So I went to the dean at the time to ask what I should do if I want to work here, and he asked me to go abroad and get to know more countries before coming back to APU. Although I was on a scholarship program and did not have to pay anything to get my Ph.D. in Japan, I quit (again) to go to the U.S. My only goal was to come back and work at APU. So right after I finished my Ph.D., I applied for an open teaching position at APU with absolutely no hesitation.

You have been working as a professor for a long time. What does your typical day at APU look like?

Every day I get to school around 8:30 A.M. In the first two years that I worked here, I did not go home until 10:30 P.M. Then I got used to my job and I also thought that it was time I helped my wife with raising our kids, so now I come home at around six o’clock to have dinner with my family.

Basically, what I do at school is help students. I don’t know why students like to ask me for advice so much, but I get dozens of emails every day asking about business ideas, job hunting, future concerns or even relationship problems. I try to talk to around 8 to 12 students per day, each for 15 to 20 minutes. I wish I had more time.

What are your teaching methods?

My classes are very conversational. I hate one-way communication because I’m teaching marketing and marketing is all about two-way communication. You have to listen and give them what they want to hear. So at the beginning of my classes, I ask for questions from students. Normally, other professors would answer, but I provide my students with the knowledge to be able to answer those questions on their own. What we are studying is a social science. It’s not like rocket science where each question has a right answer. Social sciences have no absolute answers.

I also don’t require any textbooks in my class because, just as I said, it’s the social sciences. Each book from each author has a different viewpoint. So I encourage my students to read a lot of different books to find their own correct answers.

Throughout the class, I ask students to write their questions on their attendance sheets. Then, when I return to my office after class, the first thing I do is to read those questions and pick some interesting ones to talk about in the next class. It can take up to 5 hours to go through all of the questions, but I really enjoy it.

How do you continue to find the time to open new businesses?

Actually, I don’t (laughs). I don’t have enough time to balance everything. So I reduce the time in my personal life. I sleep less and I don’t watch movies or TV shows, although I really want to go to the cinema to watch Avengers: End Game (laughs).

The interesting thing is that my wife was the one who asked me to quit my business back then, but after nine years of raising kids, she got sick and tired of it, and she told me that she wanted to start her own business. So as long as I have this stable job as a professor, she wanted me to support her so that she can do what she wanted to do. So these businesses are technically not mine. I only support them financially and provide marketing strategies.

One of the reasons why I want to continue operating businesses is because I want to have actual life experience that I can use as examples for my classes. Another is because I love Beppu a lot and I want to revitalize this town. Beppu doesn’t have enough young people because students leave after graduation in search of better job opportunities. So I want to create more jobs for my students to stay here and help improve the area. But I cannot do everything myself. Therefore, I look for good people to run businesses for me.

When my wife started her bed and breakfast Beppu Story, she was looking for someone who can help her with cleaning the place and she found the manager of this coffee shop, Cafe Beppu Story. She loved her attitude so she offered to support her so that she can stay and work in Beppu. We opened the cafe for her and she manages everything. We don’t do anything.

So are you planning to open more businesses in the future?

Well, I am looking for people who can run businesses for me in the future, as long as they have a good idea, passion, and commitment.

We also heard that you helped found Mini Share on Facebook?

Actually, Mini Share has a long history before me. The founder of Mini Share made a website 15 years ago but it did not have enough popularity among students. So he asked me for ideas on how to keep it running and I suggested making a group on Facebook. The thing that I founded is actually APU Lost & Found. It’s just perspective marketing. I asked my students to observe and come up with ideas to fulfill the needs of APU students. That’s how we got APU Lost & Found, APU Giveaway, APU Baito, APU everything (laughs).

Do you have any advice for students who want to make the most of APU?

You can learn a lot from anyone, so get to know your professors, your friends, even the old folks here in Beppu. But the best way to get to know somebody is to read books. A book is the essence of a person. It represents their life. Finally, please have fun. I think that I studied too much when I was in university and I regret not going out more. So I hope that you guys will find your balance. Study hard and play hard.

Thank you very much for the interview, professor! We learned a lot about you and about life as well. Do you mind giving us a tour of the cafe?

Not at all.

Photographer and Interviewer: BUI Thi Thuy Linh

Interviewer: SELVAKUMAR Prameeta