Helping Women Start Businesses in Male-Dominated Japan
Kyoko Okutani, the leader of Women’s World Banking Japan, has helped more than 1,000 women start their own businesses in what has always been considered a highly male-dominated country.
We were lucky enough to speak to her about her incredible achievements.
TNW: How did your journey to becoming the Head of Women's World Banking Japan begin?
KO: The founder of WWB Japan was a woman named Yukiko Adachi. When she was the head, I started working there. Adachi had at first wanted to start a florist shop in her 20’s. But she was not able to get finance and real estate agents did not trust her just because she was a woman. Based on that experience, she wanted to support women who would start their own businesses and launched this organization.
After I had worked as a staff member for 10 years, Adachi put her trust and confidence in me and let me take over her as a WWB leader. Adachi is now an advisor and runs the group as a whole, including 10 companies and four non-profit organizations such as a fair trade business and floral wholesaler.
TNW: What were the main challenges you met along the way and what lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?
KO: After a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami hit north-eastern Japan on March 11 2011, I made the fullest possible use of my activities and network of personal contacts to help people in the disaster-struck region.
For instance, we started to appeal for funds to help Ms Shizuko Niwa restart a business in Hirono town, Iwate prefecture, after the tsunami hit her restaurant. We were soon able to collect a total of 2 million yen ($20,000) - 50,000 yen per person from 40 people.
When you borrow money from a bank, you can return the principal and interest when you have customers and can earn money. But I was worried that they would not be able to sell goods or find customers in the aftermath of the disaster. A preliminary sale enables them to have customers and collect money in advance. So, they are able to create jobs without having to find a market.
Ms Niwa’s business was able to keep the jobs of its female employees; something considered to be very difficult in the disaster-struck regions. Ms Niwa reminded me of the importance of job creation among women.
In June 2011, we started a so-called “Social Knitwork Project” to create jobs for women in disaster-hit areas in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. More than 800 people across the country donated knitting wool and yarn needles for the project, so it did not cost anything in materials. Ms Asae Misono, a knit designer who took our course at WWB Japan, also helped the project; we aimed to make products to sell, not just to promote knitting as a hobby.
Last year, we were fortunate enough to sell the products in an event in Paris. A Japanese cosmetic company also helped sell our products in Ginza, a prime location in Tokyo, as part of their support for women in the disaster-hit regions. This year, a nationwide chain of florist’s also helped to sell them.
TNW: What do you love most about your job?
KO: Of nearly 6,000 people who have taken a course at WWB Japan, about 1,000 women started their own businesses across the country. After I heard about them I visited their offices or shops and felt so glad to see them energetically running their businesses. That’s the best aspect of what I have been doing.
TNW: Can you tell us about two particularly exciting start-up’s you’ve helped?
KO: There were many exciting start-ups. Among them, two cases immediately come to mind.
The first one was a pancake restaurant in Tokyo. One year before the opening, an owner started blogging about her trying out pancakes at various restaurants across the country, attracting fans. She was able to take advantage of word-of-mouth power as she did not have a big budget for big advertisements. I thought it was a very feminine approach.
The other one was a houseboat cruising on the river where customers can enjoy food and the views. There are already profitable boats making money this way by serving food and alcohol but women in Japan do not feel as comfortable as a group of men in this type of environment. So one woman quit an investment bank and decided to start a houseboat cruising business for women and overseas visitors.
Even though she got a license to operate the boat and had sufficient funds to buy one, she had a hard time securing a mooring area. She had to pay her dues in the male-dominated business field for two years, but she finally accomplished her long-sought after goal of opening her own business.
TNW: What specific challenges face women who want to start their own enterprises in Japan? Do you think that attitudes towards female entrepreneurs are changing?
KO: An initial investment.
So, I believe it’s important to think about how you spend less to start a business in a Japan and instead gain support from those around you.
I have suggested that before you decide to buy things you need, you look for them in throwaways, ask others to give them to you or actually make them on your own.
If you involve some people in your start-up by asking for their help or things you need, that not only saves you some money but makes them feel that they play a part in your start-up. That way they are more likely to introduce your business to others or visit your place more often in the future.
TNW: Are there any business areas that are particularly difficult for women to gain entry into in Japan?
KO: It seems it is difficult for women to gain entry into businesses where they sell ideas or rights by obtaining a patent. That is because a huge investment and research funding is needed. Women usually find a seed of business in their surroundings.
TNW: Can you tell us about the WWB’s "citizens business school"?
KO: We offer classes to teach the basics including a break-even point analysis; what you need to start a business; how to write a business plan and necessary procedures for a start-up.
Some of those who have actually started a business come to our citizens’ business school and share their experience with students. Our class attracts women of all ages from 16 to 84.
In addition to our regular classes, we also hold a networking event where some small business owners and those who want to start a business provide examples for students. I teach some classes at a university, so some of my students as well as young people who want to work abroad join the event. So, it is also a place where participants talk about their hopes and dreams unhampered by generation.
TNW: What tips or advice do you have for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?
In Japan, I believe it is women, not the government, who help solve regional problems in the 21st century.
Services by volunteers do not expand their activities and are not expected to last long. So, I have no doubt that a community business is the answer. One person’s strength may be small; however, if each one of us is trying to find the best way of working together, that would result in something big. We would like to put that into practice.
Japan is still seeking a conventional model of economic growth and there are some people who are excited about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics bringing economic development once again. It seems they have yet to learn that competition and efficiency does not build a secure society.
It is now important for women to play a leading role in creating a community where people can help one another.
TNW: We have heard that you are a prolific writer. Do you plan on writing a book about your experiences?
KO: I would like to write a book about Japanese female entrepreneurs to convey their wisdom and skills to readers in other Asian countries. Considering what Japan can contribute to other Asian countries hereafter, I believe that what Japanese women possess can help jointly solve their social problems. That is because industrial countries like Japan have a negative legacy such as pollution problems.
We have already started a transfer of skills programme and exchange visits of human resources. In Indonesia, among children, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of its rapid economic growth, some have a developmental disorder. So, we have undertaken human resources development in remedial education (rehabilitation) with a Japanese female entrepreneur who has 20 years of experience in the field.
In Japan, we have just published her book about “how to monitor children” so that we can learn about a baby’s development and notice changes in children. That is why development disorders are also a growing problem at schools in Japan.
TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?
KO: My mentors are the women I have met who have started a business on their own. These women are not institutionally dependent and they are economically independent. I have a lot to learn from them as they have such a strong mind.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you that you’d like to share with our readers?
KO: I’m now paying close attention to business succession in Japan. I believe quite a few people think twice about starting a business because of a large capital investment.
However, Japan has much expertise and industries that might come to an end because of aging with no successors.
While they are equipped on the hardware side, the key is how to hand down techniques or expertise from a current owner to a successor. I would like our school to help solve such problems, facilitating such business succession.
I believe that WWB Japan has come this far with female entrepreneurs because we as a group have created unprecedented mechanisms. For instance, at a time when women had difficulty in borrowing money, a loan was secured “on one’s dream” at our Citizens’ Bank. Along with regional financial institutions, the bank also offered a loan to community projects. Since its establishment in 1985, our fair trade business has not only supported developing countries but also created employment at home and started instantaneously to sell domestic products to back heartwarming handmade goods by the use of local materials and farm produce.
We believe it is each one of us, not politicians and bureaucrats, who changes society.
We would like to continue to put that into practice while cooperating with female entrepreneurs, young people and people in other Asian countries.
Lucy gained a First Class Honours Degree in English Literature from the Open University before developing a career in Senior Customer Service Management. She has recently taken a change of direction and is enjoying a new challenge in Bid-Writing and Business Development for a mobile alarm and tagging company. Alongside this and being a mum to two young daughters, she is pursuing her passion for writing, editing and publishing by interning with The NextWomen where she is inspired daily by the stories she reads.
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