“When I started work, I had a great respect for women in traditional companies in Japan. If you look at the conversion rates—for women who managed to get full-time positions in the workplace—they have been pretty low,” serial entrepreneur Emi Takemura told The Journal.
This is the reality in Japan despite the nation’s 1985 Equal Employment Opportunity Law (EEO), which was intended to level the playing field between genders in employment, recruitment, job assignment, and promotion.
Despite the EEO, “a lot of companies didn’t know how to utilize women, so many of them left the workplace. Of the people I know who worked for Japanese commercial banks after graduation, for example, none are still working in the industry, despite graduating from top universities.”
Takemura is a graduate of Keio University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and is co-founder of Peatix Inc., a global event registration, management, and ticketing platform. She is a much-sought-after consultant and mentor who works with government, business, and the start-up ecosystem in the Asia–Pacific region.
In her myriad roles, she advocates for the advancement of women in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics—more commonly known as STEAM fields—and promotes new methods for preparing children for 21st-century careers.
Originally from Osaka, but with experience building businesses in the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asia, Takemura speaks candidly to The Journal about her career and desire to pass the lessons she has learned as a global executive to the next generation.
Recalling her early forays into the Japanese workforce in the late 1990s, Takemura says Japan’s corporate culture was simply not conducive for most ambitious, internationally minded women.
“If a company asks a woman to move to a branch in Kansai from the one in Tokyo, the expectation is that she will not leave her family; it is the man that is expected to relocate, not the woman,” she remembers from personal experience.
On another occasion, she recalls a male interviewer asking her questions in a manner that simply left her feeling undervalued, if not positively unwelcome.
Such subtle, structural biases mean women have been more likely than men to remain on the lower rungs of the career ladder, assuming they are allowed on at all. Some drop out of the workplace entirely.
“I hope this is changing but, traditionally, there were a lot of structural problems—be it working hours or issues concerning relocations or job roles, where managers didn’t know how to utilize women.”
The lack of a clear path for career advancement was a factor in her decision to invest in skills—such as business administration within a global company—that allowed her to tailor her career to her goals: working in an international environment and following her passion for building businesses.
From a young age, Takemura wanted to experience life outside Japan, far away from a sheltered upbringing in Osaka. This ambition, in part, owes to the tales of adventure and the presents her father brought back from business trips abroad.
“My dad was a gateway for me. As a doctor attending international conferences, he always brought back memorabilia from Italy, Egypt, or wherever, and talked about them so excitedly.”
That said, it came as a surprise to her family when, as a junior at Keio University, Takemura took a year off to study in the United States. That decision had profound impact on her future career choices. While living in Seattle, Takemura landed an internship with a construction company.
“That was a game-changer for me. While I didn’t speak a word of English initially, after about nine months, I could speak enough to get an internship as a research analyst.”
Importantly, her boss was a woman “fresh out of an MBA who became my role model.” Seeing how well her young boss was doing encouraged Takemura to pursue graduate studies herself.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career, but my time in Seattle made it clear to me that I had to get my graduate degree in the United States.”
YOUNG AND BOLD
However, no sooner had she returned to Japan and graduated college than frustration set in. Takemura encountered a rigid graduate entry interview processes, that, despite leading to job offers, often left her feeling undervalued or pigeon-holed.
Despite the challenges, she landed her first job in an international organization—a two-year stint as an equity sales trader at investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB) in Japan.
Although naturally adventurous, Takemura found her interest in the outside world furthered by CSFB’s international portfolios. “I wanted to see [the world] with my own eyes.”
After completing the MBA program at the Wharton School, Takemura took a position in consulting with McKinsey & Company in New Jersey. Looking back, she is grateful for her time there, as it allowed her a chance to identify her real passion.
“I was torn between marketing, which was my major at Wharton, and consulting. And as I felt that going into corporate [work] straight after college would be limiting on my career, doing a wide range of consulting at McKinsey seemed to be the best option.”
As the public use of the Internet took shape in the mid-1990s, Takemura was in the right place at the right time to dip her feet into a technology that would change the world—and her fortunes.
Many of her clients at McKinsey & Company were in the IT and telecom industries, so she found herself ahead of the curve when the Internet expanded.
Executive positions in leading US and Japanese companies followed: Excite Japan Co. Ltd., Amazon Japan G.K., and The Walt Disney Company (Japan) Ltd. Indeed, after McKinsey, Takemura not only entered a senior management role at Excite, where she drove their product development strategy. At age 30, she was also on the company’s board of directors, making her one of only a handful of women of any age in Japan to hold such a position.
“It was a crazy and exciting time,” she recalls with a laugh. “I was working a lot, but it was a great gateway into the Internet space and, essentially, I was able to rise to the occasion.”
Takemura and her co-founders launched Orinoco KK (then Orinoco Peatix KK as part of Peatix Inc.) in 2008 while they held regular jobs in other companies—in her case, while she was on maternity leave from Disney.
At first, she was an investor in—and board member of—the fledgling company. In those early days, the co-founders didn’t have any day-to-day duties at the start-up. But, due to poor results early on, that soon changed.
“Initially, we let others run the company while we maintained our regular jobs and worked on the platform on the weekends. We quickly found out that, without a ‘soul’—that is, the founders at the heart of its daily operation—it is very difficult to run a company.”
The first product was managed by a team of developers tasked with implementing and managing the vision of its hands-off investors and founders. Originally, the platform allowed creators, such as musicians, to sell their products and creations directly to consumers.
Unfortunately for Takemura and her co-founders, the idea never really took off—in part due to its missing “soul” and because the platform had a less-than-optimal design, so few people found it beneficial. The result? Sluggish growth.
Between late 2010 and early 2011, Takemura and her co-founders abandoned the original product and pivoted to launch Peatix, an event planning and marketing platform. As a result, they have gained a number of venture capital backers.
An established businesswoman, Takemura has evolved into the role of mentor for women and emerging start-ups—especially in the education sector—where she is helping establish many incubators and community-based organizations.
In 2015, Takemura co-founded Unreasonable Labs Japan, an affiliate of US-based Unreasonable Institute, a global network of social entrepreneurship accelerators. Focused on providing entrepreneurship education, Unreasonable Labs Japan works with early-stage start-ups to help develop sustainable business models that have social impact in their five-day boot camps.
In 2016, she established FutureEdu Tokyo, a loose-knit network of volunteers that inspires parents via media—especially at the elementary level.
Where does Takemura see herself in five years?
“I would like to stay in education for a while, especially working with girls in STEAM in Japan. Here, there is a horrible streamlining into two categories—sciences and humanities—when kids are thinking of applying to college.”
One result of such filtering for women is that there is a dearth of female technical founders of companies, a problem she faced herself.
“I was a founder, but not a technical one. Had I been a technical founder, I feel that I would have been able to do a lot more, because whenever I wanted something technical done, I had to ask or hire someone else to do it—and that was a limiting factor.”
While she admits that it will take some time to improve the situation, Takemura adds: “Technology can be really empowering and, especially for women, it can raise their status in the workplace and society in general.”
Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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