When the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami struck the Tohoku region in March 2011, Mio Yamamoto was relaxing at her home in New Jersey. As the scale of the disaster unfolded, Yamamoto was shocked to her core.
“I was in New Jersey when the disaster happened. We all sat there and watched the news streaming all these awful images,” she tells The Journal.
The next day, Yamamoto went to a nearby shopping mall, where she saw banners with the words “Save Japan” inscribed on them. There, countless volunteers manned donation boxes and collected funds to help those affected.
“There was a lot of support coming from around the world, and I was really grateful for that,” Yamamoto recalls.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, she came to realize that the people in affected areas would need a great deal more support—especially when the initial influx of aid and volunteers began to draw down.
With a background in business and social impact entrepreneurship, Yamamoto wondered how she could use her skills to help those in need. “Some of my friends and I realized that, after the initial passion to help and funding to support victims slowed down, there would be a need to aid the communities in a sustainable way.”
Many people in affected areas, for instance, may not necessarily have the skills required to maintain their activities. One way she and her friends could help, she imagined, was to provide capacity building support — such as management skills and financial resources — for people on the ground. “That’s where we thought we could play a part.”
In the summer of 2011, Yamamoto and two co-founders created World In Tohoku (WIT), a not-for-profit organization that works in disaster-affected areas of the Tohoku region. Yamamoto is the managing director at the NPO, originally called World In Asia.
Through WIT, she, her colleagues, and their supporters have helped over a dozen social ventures with their capacity building, market expansion, and sustainability needs.
Yamamoto and her co-founders have a long history in social entrepreneurship. “I was involved in a social impact venture fund in Tokyo, and my co-founders were involved in a similar organization in Thailand and as academics,” she says.
A graduate of international relations from the University of Tokyo, Yamamoto did an internship at a Malaysian orphanage in 2003, while still a student. There she taught English and math, gaining experience that proved instructional.
“I saw that they had a lot of skills challenges at the orphanage — they lacked the staff to provide proper care for the kids, many of whom had psychological problems.”
When Yamamoto suggested that more expert professionals should be hired to provide the necessary care, she met with a heartbreaking — but thought-provoking — response: the orphanage did not have the funds.
“The director told me that they did not have the money to hire more staff, which made me wonder about my own limited skills and what I could offer in such a situation. So I decided to go to business school, which would give me the skills needed to help social ventures such as this one.”
Following graduation, and wanting to increase her knowledge of business, Yamamoto followed a career in the private sector, at a chemicals company in Japan. When the opportunity arose for her to relocate to the United States, she did so, going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she graduated with a masters degree in business administration.
Today, Yamamoto relies on her experiences in Japan and the United States, where she lives most of the year, to recruit supporters for WIT. Her connections in both countries allow her to recruit human resources and raise funds to support the NPO and its beneficiaries.
POWER OF MENTORING
WIT’s work involves three main pillars: matchmaking, capacity building, and mentoring. The latter is important for bridging knowledge gaps that inexperienced entrepreneurs face.
“Mentors are really important for social entrepreneurs, many of whom started their organization out of pure passion, but do not necessarily have all the skills needed to make it successful.”
Access to such expertise allows ventures to broaden their perspectives, knowledge base, and skills, Yamamoto adds. It also allows a social entrepreneur to tap into a mentor’s business networks and resources.
Mentors, meanwhile, benefit from such partnerships. In affected areas, they meet and work with people, many of whom they would not otherwise meet, broadening their skills and networks.
“WIT’s community of mentors and social entrepreneurs has become something like a big family,” Yamamoto points out. But, one may ask, what makes an effective mentor?
“Good mentors have the ability to listen to someone, understand their needs, provide insights from a different perspective, and provide the most effective support,” Yamamoto explains.
To date, WIT’s members, who are skills-based volunteers, have provided support for team building, leadership training, business-model development, corporate governance, market entry, and business-to-business matchmaking.
Over a dozen enterprises that provide services such as housing, education, elderly care, and assistance to support women, have received backing in this way. The result? Accelerated development, access to new markets, and a pathway to sustainability.
One WIT beneficiary is an enterprise that aims to revitalize the traditional Japanese craft of lacquerware. Although based in Fukushima Prefecture, the company wants to enter the US market, an ambition that has received a boost from WIT mentors. Another startup — called the Kizuna Mail Project — has created a knowledge-sharing service targeting pre- and post-natal mothers. The company bridges the information gap that sometimes exists in childrearing by providing up-to-date information via text messages and emails to those who are expecting and those who have recently become mothers. Having established a foothold in Japan, the company is looking to new markets around the world.
“After attending one of our sessions, one member from the United States decided to connect this social venture to the Japanese community in New York — where the service will be tested in the pre- and post-natal market there.”
As Yamamoto says: “We try to figure out ways to help those enterprises grow. This means all the connections that we have created are leading to practical advice and concrete results, both in Japan and other places facing similar challenges.”
Yamamoto admits that WIT itself is still something of a startup. Since its founding, the organization has had to find new ways to be sustainable.
“Like many other NPOs, we initially relied on disaster relief funds that had been made available in the aftermath of the disaster,” Yamamoto says.
But when that income stream ran dry, WIT had to pivot and find a new business model. Today, the NPO maintains most of its operations through a membership scheme.
“What is unique about WIT is that our members—who are recruited from the business community—pay an annual fee to be volunteers. They are then matched up with social entrepreneurs in disaster-affected areas. Members bring their experience and skills to bear and act as mentors, coaches, or advisers for each venture,” Yamamoto explains.
So, for instance, through the organization’s Cross-border Learning Journey program — involving entrepreneurs from Japan and the United States meeting at a retreat in Tohoku — members are introduced to ventures that may benefit from their support. Typically held over three days, the program allows participants — such as entrepreneurs, directors of social foundations, urban planners, business people, lawyers, journalists, and designers — to assess the vision and strategy of each venture. Participants then devise a support strategy.
Diversity has also been a hallmark of such retreats, with men and women aged 20–70 taking part.
Creating a social-impact NPO has not been without its challenges, however. In WIT’s second year, for instance, Yamamoto was faced with becoming its executive director, the incumbent suddenly having been unable to remain in the post for health reasons.
Since at the time she was still in graduate school at MIT, her ability to manage her time and output was stretched to breaking point. That said, Yamamoto believes there are a number of benefits to starting a social venture.
“If you want to create value in society, and wish to do that in a challenging environment, then entrepreneurship — whether you want to call it social or not — is a good way to go.”
And what makes for a good social impact entrepreneur? Aligning one’s passion with one’s career path is vital, she says. What is more, you sometimes have to be your own fan.
“Focus on your strengths,” she says. “While I’m far from perfect, I tend to look at my weaknesses and then try to improve them. But it is impossible to eliminate them all, so I focus on what I’m good at.”
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