executive impact

Digital DNA: Rie Kawano thinks her way to success

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By John Amari for The ACCJ Journal

Rie Kawano is very open about why Cognitee Inc., the company she founded in 2013 and where she is chief executive officer, struggled in the early days.

Cognitee develops software powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to analyze the logical structure of communications, from text messages to emails to voice recordings. Negotiations, pitches, articles, and reports can also be examined.

Using the company’s metacognition software, which examines the content and form of ideas, clients can optimize workflow, employee training, and decision-making.

“We alleviate cognitive biases using technology, and thereby unleash creativity,” she told The ACCJ Journal.

Today, Cognitee’s corporate user base is expanding in Japan, while its network of data workers who help train the AI in Asia, North America, and Europe is growing.

However, that was not always the case. While Cognitee’s soft­ware initially gained traction abroad—in China and the United States, for instance—it struggled to make headway in Japan.

“Maybe I didn’t have very good marketing skills then, and we didn’t hear the consumer’s voice,” Kawano said. “So, I was very worried about how to sell our technology.”

But recent successes in seed funding and series-round funding, as well as domestic growth, tell a different story. The company, it seems, is hitting its stride. Cognitee’s software is being adopted by original equipment manufacturers as well as companies in telecommunications, finance, and human resources.

MACHINE LOGIC

Cognitee has one main product and engine, and the technology is called CogStructure. By identifying biases in a presentation, meeting, or brainstorming session, UpSighter Sales generates actio­nable information, allowing users to optimize operations. The software can be used in training programs for sales teams and call-center workers, for example.

“We can detect a ‘high performer model’ and compare each employee’s presentation or communications against that. And we can do that paragraph by paragraph,” Kawano explained.

Via CogStructure, companies can visualize the structure of their communications, whether written or spoken. Because both technologies can be deployed in situations where transforming qualitative data into quantitative insight is in demand, the software has wide applicability.

UpSighter Sales and CogStructure use AI as well as human trainers, many of whom are stay-at-home moms, to optimize development.

The latter support the software’s development by annotating and classifying data, which is then fed into the core AI and deep learning technologies.

EARLY STARTER

Cognitee’s roots can be traced back to Kawano’s experiences early in her life, and the successes and biases she faced as a teenage entrepreneur.

Born in the countryside of the Japanese island of Shikoku, Kawano was 14 years old when she discovered the power of technology to transform lives. Enjoying a largely sedentary life, the last thing on her mind was being active, let alone enjoying sports. And yet, there was an inexplicable drive to excel.

When one day she walked into her local bookshop and found a book on sports science, she was struck by an idea. “I didn’t like sports or to move. But I thought, ‘Wow. This is very good.’” Kawano was particularly attracted to the scientific aspect of sports science.

Inspired, yet noticing there was a dearth of information about the subject online, she wondered whether a platform could be created to solve that problem. It could.

A self-taught web developer, Kawano worked after school for three months to create a website through which to share information on sports science. Athletes, trainers, and doctors could also connect via the platform.

“The website was a matching portal site sharing information about sports science,” said Kawano, who was 16 years old when she developed the site.

DOUBTERS AND BELIEVERS

Kawano’s website received a modicum of success—professionals in the sports industry were able to connect via the platform. Her own stock, especially for someone so young, fared even better. She was invited to speak at an academic conference on sports science, for instance.

She even consulted for a professional soccer team, helping to connect their players to trainers and doctors. And by the time she entered college, the platform was a registered company.

Is that to say she did all that without a struggle? Far from it. Kawano recalls times when she was dismissed because of her youth—or because she is a woman. In some cases, the fact that she hailed from the countryside was an issue.

But she also remembers being treated without bias and having supporters. It was in part due to her early success as an entrepreneur that she was accepted into Keio University, where she studied business management.

Kawano managed the platform throughout her college years. However, as a recent graduate, she felt that she needed more experience in the corporate world.

“When I was 22 years old, I realized that I was still an amateur when it comes to organizing a business,” she said.

CORE VALUES

Giving up the reigns of the platform, Kawano worked as an analyst in Sony Corporation’s camera business for seven years. At the electronics giant, she explored new software business opportunities globally.

But then the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck in March 2011, and the subsequent nuclear disaster affected some of Sony’s manufacturing bases in the Tohoku region.

This seemed to coincide with a shrink­ing domestic and global camera business, leading Kawano to won­der about the future prospects of that industry. “The camera business was shrinking around the world, but I wanted to contribute to businesses that were growing.”

Not long after the triple disaster, Kawano joined the fast-growing social gaming developer DeNA Co., Ltd. As the company had plans to expand globally, she took the opportunity to enter their overseas business division.

But when the chance came to re-engage with her own entre­preneurial path, she did so, establishing Cognitee.

Looking back at her time in the corporate world, Kawano is sanguine: she learned a lot about herself, she says, and the values she wished to realize in her own company.

She says it is important that a business has social impact as a core value, and that a laser-like focus on revenue is not the only prerequisite for success.

CUSTOMER VOICE

Kawano was Cognitee’s sole employee for the first three years. In that period, the company was without a single client. Was there a reason for the lack of traction?

As noted earlier, Kawano’s lack of marketing skills at the time played a role, as did not paying close attention to the consumer’s voice. But then she turned things around. How?

The company pivoted over and over, she said. Cognitee’s first product was a premium-model, iPad-based app for brain­storming. Users could upload their ideas, and the platform would identify blind spots in their thinking.

Interestingly, more than 90 percent of users were non-Japanese, Kawano recalls. They hailed from China, the United Kingdom, and the United States. “Maybe it was because they want to use logical thinking and frameworks, which are suitable for Western companies or people.”

Despite most of her initial clients coming from outside Japan, Kawano struggled to find the right staff to market and grow her products abroad.

To help rectify this, she joined a three-month incubator program at Women’s Startup Lab (WSL), a Silicon Valley-based organization that empowers female founders.

After her experience at WSL, Kawano refocused on devel­oping the Japanese market. But today, with non-Japanese members now joining, the company is once again looking to create global products and services for the HR market.

POWERED BY PASSION

Where does Kawano’s entrepreneurial zeal come from? Family may account for some of it—after all, her father is a business founder himself.

But Kawano looks further inside of herself to find a reason: “I think it’s because I’m a competitive person. Because I was bad at sports, perhaps this is my way of overcoming that.”

Kawano positively bursts with enthusiasm when speaking about her company, now in its seventh year. This leads one to ask: What keeps her motivated?

“Two things,” she says. “The first is that I believe a lot in technology, because I was helped a lot by it. So, I hope to make technologies that increase everyone’s success in the future.

“Secondly, I don’t feel the need to give up because, in busi­ness, it’s really easy to see what you do. If you have a plan laid out, regardless of the circumstances you’re in, you can follow through with the plan.”

And if the plan goes wrong?

“You can adjust it and reach the end. And when you get there, you can see the results. That’s why I don’t feel the need to give up. If you have your mind set on something, you can get there. And if there is no harm to society, there is no reason to stop.”

Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

© The ACCJ Journal

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

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