We are proud to introduce McGill’s Got Seoul, a new addition to Alumni Live 365. About 300 grads live in South Korea, where they’ve forged successful careers and built interesting lives. We plan to profile members of this vibrant McGill community on a regular basis. If you wish to be featured in this series, please contact our South Korea alumni branch president, Manouchka Elefant, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For our inaugural column, we spoke to Michael Danagher, MBA’86, who serves as Senior Trade Commissioner at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul.
Q&A by Manouchka Elefant
McGill Alumni: Back in the ‘80s, what made you choose to do your MBA at McGill?
Michael Danagher: At the time, McGill had the only MBA course in Canada with an international finance component. That was my interest at the time. I ended up studying real estate finance, though. I found out later that McGill was one of only two business schools to offer that curriculum. It was a lot more difficult researching back in that pre-Internet era, but I also guess that I was, like many students, not entirely sure what I wanted to end up doing.
MA: What did you do after you MBA at McGill?
MD: I worked in the real estate sector after graduating, and joined the Trade Commissioner Service in 1987. The rest, as they say, is history: I have worked overseas in Lagos, Hanoi and Budapest, and twice in Korea. Oh, yes, and along the way, I married and had three children.
MA: What can be some of the challenges and opportunities that come with an international career?
MD: I think more and more careers are international these days: you see how travel has exploded and how parts of the world which were dangerous or exotic have become just another stamp in the passport. But I am never blasé about this experience or the opportunities that an international career presents. Working in a dynamic city like Seoul, in Asia, brings a sharper focus on the tectonic issues facing the global economy and society. And, of course, it is fun to discover and work in a new culture, language, and environment. The downside, of course, is having to say goodbye to friends and family, and to many of the things we love about our homes. Of course, Skype and other innovations have improved on that part of life immeasurably.
MA: You had already worked at the Seoul embassy back in the ‘90s. What are the most interesting changes and developments you have observed?
MD: Yes, I was assigned to Seoul from 1993 to 1997, which was, of course, the heady times before the Asia Crisis. Korea is definitely much more global than it was – more people speaking English, and more foreigners speaking Korean. Korea has done a great job in projecting its culture and business success into the world, and at the same time preserving a balance between Korean and (predominantly Western) non-Korean culture. But the big changes I see in Seoul are perhaps more prosaic: far clearer skies, more parks, no more Cheonggyecheon highway or Samgakchi rotary. Even the traffic is slightly less crazy.
MA: As Trade Commissioner, what are your objectives, and what are the most exciting Canadian-Korean agreements we should be looking forward to?
MD: Canada and Korea launched a negotiation towards a free-trade agreement in 2005, and our leaders recently reaffirmed their support of seeing this completed as soon as possible. Beyond this, we are working with Canadian clients to develop the relationship. There are several large transactions which, if successful, are going to be significant developments for those companies.
MA: In terms of quality of life, what country was the most enjoyable to live and work in, and how does Seoul compare?
MD: I always feel that my postings are like my children, and it is hard to choose among them! But there’s no question that quality of life keeps improving in Korea.. Korea is becoming increasingly comfortable for expatriate life. Koreans know how to party, so there is no shortage of good places to wine, dine or unwind. Koreans don’t need to ask if us foreigners like Korean food – we all do! Seoul is an outstanding place for culture, too, as well as for live sports – I don’t think that there are too many places outside North America where you can watch a live game of ice hockey, baseball, soccer or basketball, or ski, hike or bike as you can here. So, yes, Seoul is a bit of a “hidden gem,” but that is changing.
MA: For expats in Korea, it can be challenging to build a network. Any tips for fellow alumni?
MD: I fully agree that it is hard to develop a network in Korea, although there are a number of organizations here which foster social and professional networking. I am glad to see the Canadian alumni groups enhancing their role, and the Canadian Chamber offers opportunities, too. Koreans are a very gregarious and hospitable people, but it is hard to network here: people work long hours and are otherwise preoccupied with maintaining their own extensive and important personal networks. And the language can be limiting, too. Without wanting to seem patronizing, and from my observation, I see some of the best networks emerging with Koreans who have studied or worked overseas. They, too, also feel not fully part of Korea, and are also looking for likeminded contacts. But my advice is networking should be natural and sincere: you get out of it what you put into it.