By James Carpenter
Dr. Kyoungnam Catherine Ha is an accomplished researcher and professor in the field of marketing analytics, with publications and honors in the U.S. and abroad. But when she was young, her aspirations were in a different direction.
“Believe it or not, I wanted to be a pianist,” she remembers. “When I was in elementary school, my piano teacher even recommended me to a specialized middle school for music.”
But at the time, Ha’s teachers in South Korea didn’t value music as highly as other disciplines. “There seemed to be a prejudice, at least among some, that art and music were for kids who weren’t as good at academics,” she says. “It’s since changed, but back then a lot of my teachers thought that math and science were the most important skills to have, then language, then the arts. I showed talent in math as a young kid, and a lot of talent in language; but because math and science were the most valued fields where I grew up, that’s where I was encouraged to go.”
Following their advice, Ha attended a regular middle school instead, and turned her professional attention to the sciences. In that pursuit Ha discovered her second passion: the human side of marketing.
“I like people!” she laughs. “I like understanding their thoughts and motivations, and coming up with ways to use their data. And I love teaching.”
“I always encourage my students not to stop with data analysis,” she says. “As marketers, it’s our job to go further.”
Since 2016, Dr. Ha has worked as Assistant Professor of Marketing in PLU’s School of Business, where she is currently co-leading professor of the school’s Master of Science in Marketing Analytics program. The program’s focus on the personal—including small class sizes and immersive, interest-driven student projects—makes it a perfect fit for her.
“Interpersonal relationships are a huge part of what we do here,” she says. “I really love teaching the student projects—where students work on real business problems with industry clients. It’s great that practical problem-solving is required by the curriculum here.”
Practical applicability is what attracted Ha to marketing from industrial engineering, which she studied first in South Korea, then at Texas A&M University. Even in that discipline, her interest was relational. “Industrial engineering is sort of a bridge between engineer and manager,” she explains. “Both of those positions speak a very specific language, but I found that in industrial engineering, sometimes they can understand each other. That really excited me. I wanted to encourage that mutual understanding.”
Early on, her focus had centered on data mining, the extraction of useful information from vast amounts of unorganized, “messy” data for specific business purposes. But she soon found herself wanting more.
“In the engineering school I went to, they focused on developing algorithms and computer models,” she recalls. “They didn’t care as much about the real-world application of those models, or understanding people better. It’s definitely not how all engineers think about their work, but where I studied, that kind of thing was left to others to think about.”
Learning that these others were marketers, Ha shifted her focus. After earning her PhD at the University of Washington and working for three years as an assistant professor at the University of New Haven, she looked for a faculty position that would bring her back to Washington State and opportunities for collaboration with local industries and businesses. She found that position with PLU.
In her own work and in her teaching approach, Ha emphasizes the importance of looking past data to the reasons and purposes behind and beyond it. “I always encourage my students not to stop with data analysis,” she says. “As marketers, it’s our job to go further.”
This attitude, along with her first love in music, has led Ha to examine various facets of marketing beyond the mere boosting of sales numbers. Marketing applications in artistic and cultural organizations, especially in service of art education, are especially important areas to her; corporate social responsibility is another.
“At PLU, I can focus on my students, and really get to know them…their dream job or aspirations for the future.”
“Some people think marketing is the devil,” she laughs. “But that’s because they think its purpose is simply to increase profits. The purpose of marketing is actually to help an organization achieve its mission. That often ends up being about profits, but it doesn’t have to. Marketers help organizations achieve all kinds of missions—and a good marketer can help build good companies in terms of social responsibility, community, and the arts.”
This connectedness to others is a central part of Ha’s life philosophy. “I’ve always thought that my knowledge wasn’t just for myself—it’s for everyone, and should benefit everyone,” she says. “It’s a vocational approach, I suppose, and it sounds like a lot for a marketing analyst! But I believe it.”
In keeping with that concept, Ha appreciates the tailored approach to education that PLU encourages. “At a huge state school, I would teach in a big auditorium with 200 students,” she says. “At PLU, I can focus on my students, and really get to know them. All of my students drop by my office at least once a semester—it’s required for them to get credit!” she adds, laughing. “In those personal meetings, I try to find out their interests, their strengths and weaknesses, their dream job or aspirations for the future.”
Ha sees her own teaching as a form of mentorship. “I am a teacher, but at the same time I want to be a mentor, an advisor to my students on the right career path for them,” she says. “I had several mentors myself, both in South Korea and in the United States, and I want to be that kind of person for my students: someone who can provide both knowledge and meaningful recommendations.”
As for her own early change of path, Dr. Ha still plays the piano—and has no regrets. “I’m lucky, because in many ways I’ve found it to be the right decision,” she says. “If I had become a pianist, I think I’d have much more difficulty enjoying playing. But now I play very often, and I really enjoy it. Whenever I’m stressed, or feel stuck with my ideas, I play the piano and immediately feel happy and inspired.”
Still, she says, her early educational experience is a big reason she remains so committed to personal mentorship. “Working in the United States, I appreciate being able to focus more fully on what I really want,” she says. “I’m pretty satisfied with how my career has gone, and I look forward to developing it further. But I always encourage my students to follow their hearts.”
It’s an approach we don’t often hear about in the world of marketing. But, as Ha is quick to say, “We should.”
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