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Overcoming Age Barriers & Guilt

~ Meet Prof Hyun Young Park

Volume 4, 2016

By Charmaine N Clarke

Three years ago when Hyun Young Park joined CEIBS as Assistant Professor of Marketing, one of her biggest worries was how she would do in the classroom. In her previous job she had only taught undergraduates who were much younger than her so she had no idea what would happen, for example, when she came face to face with older Korean students. Should she follow Korean tradition and kowtow, or should she assert her authority and take charge of her classroom? “In Korea we usually have to bow to seniors but suddenly there was this mixed relationship. They didn’t know how to react, I didn’t know how to react,” she says with a chuckle.

As the then youngest faculty member, the Republic of Korea national fretted about how she and her older students would handle the unusual classroom dynamics. To tackle her concern that she wouldn’t be taken seriously because of her age, she made a conscious effort to dress professionally, no matter what.  “When I first came to CEIBS in 2013, it was 45 degrees Celsius in the summer. Despite the heat and humidity, I always wore a full black suit to work even when I did not have classes because I wanted to look mature and professional to students I might encounter along campus corridors – even if it was just for a few seconds.”

But once she got into the classroom, it all worked out as both sides grew into their new roles. “The students behaved professionally, they saw me as a professor and I became much more comfortable relating to them as my students. Often we become long-term friends once they graduate,” says Park with a satisfied smile. She now enjoys attending student-held activities, such as Shanghai Night and Korean Night, which she had skipped in her first year.

It also helped that, before stepping foot inside her own classroom, she got lots of advice and support from other experienced CEIBS faculty members. She learned from sitting in their classes and to this day remembers the most important tip a few of them gave her: once you truly care for your students you will be able to give your best to them; they will feel it and they will appreciate it regardless of whether you are making small mistakes or not. “That was an eye-opening moment for me,” she recalls.

Today, no longer under the spotlight as the youngest faculty member, Park is enjoying her life as a CEIBS professor. For TheLINK interview in her office she is comfortably dressed in jeans and a casual top and she could easily pass for a student. The poise she has gained inside the classroom has given her the confidence to leave her suits in the closet and go for a more casual look when it is practical.

“It helps to know that one of the things I can offer my students is my research findings, to show them how these findings relate to business,” she explains. She gets a lot of joy out of “seeing” the mental wheels turning as her students make the connection between her research findings and their real life.  “I can see it especially in my students who do entrepreneurship or have a specific project in mind. And that motivates me even more to do research. China, CEIBS and my students answered my question about whether I am really doing something meaningful.”

That question of doing something meaningful is one that has been with Park for years. It was what drove her to leave the beauty industry and management consulting to do a PhD at NYU.  That was in the aftermath of the 2007 financial crisis and she was fascinated by discussions about whether morality has lost its place on Wall Street and the money that bankers earn is morally tainted. She was even more fascinated by the fact that no one seemed to be studying how people’s morality and emotions, such as guilt, influenced how they spent the money. Her interest in the topic was shaped by her own personal experience in the corporate world and her work as a volunteer. By then she had already visited Kazakhstan for seven consecutive years to do volunteer work, first as part of a group that taught basic computer skills and then going on to set up an NGO that gave locals the basic English skills needed to be more competitive in the job market. Seeing the challenges faced by her students – many of whom remain her friends today – made it difficult to put her heart into persuading her big-spending VIP clients in the beauty industry to spend even more. She felt guilty about how she earned money and began to look at how this influenced her own spending decisions. “The issues surrounding the financial crisis, my background in volunteering, my concerns about my work experiences, that all went into my interest in consumers’ moral judgements and decision-making,  especially financial decisions,” she says.

She began by looking at tainted money, which is money that people feel morally uncomfortable with, and how it affects consumer behaviour. She has some interesting findings. “I have found that when people feel guilty because they earned money by doing something that makes them morally uncomfortable, they donate a portion of that money. And then they see the rest of the money remaining with them as entirely clean – it’s psychological laundering of tainted money,” she says.

While donating to causes is one way to “cleanse” the money, Prof Park stresses that this does not mean that all donations stem from an effort to assuage guilt. “I always warn my students that I am not saying people who donate are bad people. You shouldn’t look at my results backwards, there is no inverse causality that says all donations are from tainted money,” she stresses.  She takes her research seriously and knows she has a responsibility to ensure that she does work that others can build upon, just as she has built on the work of others that came before her. “Morality is not just a theory, but something that’s a part of my daily practice. I am an experimentalist. I can never replicate prior research if past experiment results are fraudulent, and future scholars cannot replicate or build on my research if it is fraudulent.  So morality is not just an abstract theory; it is the most practical foundation for advancing science, to which I have devoted myself.”

Maybe her strong moral compass has influenced her lifelong passion for volunteering, which she has done over the past 14 years. In addition to the work she has done in Kazakhstan, Prof Park has helped the underprivileged in Islamic, post-Socialist, and distressed countries through various educational programmes. Interestingly, she credits a former marketing professor, Wujin Chu who taught her at Seoul National University, with awakening her spirit of volunteerism. “I never had the conscious thought that I wanted to become like him; but looking back, I see that I actually longed to become like him without even realising it. He was such a humble person, never in the spotlight, so it took me a while to realise that he has been my role model.”

Maybe it is because Park has already lived so much – a stint in the corporate world, academia and her volunteer work – but for now, she does not focus on what her students will say about her in the years ahead, or even what the future holds for her in the next five years. She is totally dedicated to here and now. She calmly explains, “I am focused on appreciating and making the best out of each day – persevering in my research despite frequent failures, and giving the best to my students in the classroom. Appreciating and making the most of here and now, I believe, is the best strategy for preparing for my future. I really love my students who give significance to my research and teaching; to my here and now. So I am really thankful for being in China, for being at CEIBS.”



Fast Facts

Prof Park has a unique global background as, while growing up, she was educated in Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and the US.

•   PhD from New York University, Leonard N Stern School of Business

•   BA from Seoul National University, Korea

Research areas: Morality and Emotions, Consumer Financial Decision Making, Mental Accounting, Charitable Giving, Compensatory Consumption, Branding. 

Teaching expertise: Consumer Behaviour, Marketing Management, Branding Management, Business Ethics.