Born in Japan, Asami Matsumoto has had a global outlook for almost as long as she can remember: when she was just 16, she jumped on a plane and traveled alone from Japan to Wales.
Enrolling in an International Baccalaureate program at the United World College, an institution renowned for its internationalism, it was not long before she had set her sights on her next mission: attending undergraduate studies at McGill University, in Canada.
Perhaps feeling a little homesick, Matsumoto returned to Japan to complete a master’s degree at the University of Tokyo.
Not content with just being a student, she soon found a position as an intern with UNICEF in Ghana, where she first felt she was getting close to her goal to follow a career with the United Nations.
Still unsure of her talents, however, Matsumoto jumped on the corporate bandwagon after completing her studies. She entered Goldman Sachs Japan, for what she felt was a fast track to gaining experience and learning.
FINDING HER GOAL
While she admits to having worked with amazing people at the financial giant, “When the earthquake happened in 2011, I felt the need to go back to my original dream. So I quit Goldman and went to Pakistan to work on an educational project utilizing Japanese disaster risk reduction technology,” Matsumoto says.
Falling in love with her new life, she became a senior project manager developing railways with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
“While I was working there, I realized that Japanese companies have to be more innovative if they want to be more global.”
One issue that stood out for Matsumoto was the inflexibility of some Japanese corporations. In one case, it became clear that the cost of the imported technology was prohibitive for Pakistani locals, yet the Japanese company involved would not adjust its pricing.
A creative solution was required, but none was forthcoming.
“I felt there were so many people out there that can really appreciate and benefit from the best of what Japan has to offer—from culture, to services and technology — and that I could be a bridge between Japan and its partners,” she explains. This idea turned out to be the seed that would grow into her company, Active Connector.
Not long thereafter, Matsumoto read an article that described the struggles of international students who studied in Japan, loved the country, and desired to stay and contribute, yet struggled to find their place in Japan’s corporate world. Only one in four of these young people could secure a job here, according to the text, with most returning to their country of origin—their knowledge and passion for Japan going untapped.
“I felt that I can do something with those three out of four people [who left Japan after their studies] to be a bridge between our cultures.”
STRIKING OUT ON HER OWN
Identifying her true passion was a major breakthrough for Matsumoto. But there was the small problem of bringing it to fruition.
Matsumoto had a choice. She could stay with the agency developing railways, in turn pursuing that long-wished-for government/UN career, or she could go it alone and become a kind of “freelance diplomat.” She chose the latter.
“I thought to myself: am I crazy? But the more research I did, the more I wanted to do this.
More importantly, I started to interview international students, and they shared their frustration and their passion about doing something for Japan and the world. I felt that someone had to give them a voice.”
Reality soon began to bite, however. “I didn’t have any business cards or connections to any major companies. All I had was my passion and a one week schedule.”
Matsumoto’s passion proved to be her biggest asset—she told as many people as she could about her idea. Soon, friends began to connect her to their networks, and her own network kept expanding. But challenges remained.
“I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship—taxes, balance sheets, incorporation of a company, and so on. I found the technical side of creating a company difficult, but I’ve learnt from my mistakes.”
Moreover, Matsumoto benefitted from the wisdom of mentors, many of them C-level executives, who provided invaluable advice and contacts.
In 2012, Matsumoto created Active Connector, where she serves as CEO.
There are two main services, at present, that the company specializes in: matching international students with companies in Japan that are looking for global clients; and working with companies that want to test out new ideas by facilitating brainstorming and focus-group sessions with foreign students familiar with Japanese society.
The latter service, called Global Open Innovation Session, allows corporations in Japan to generate new ideas safe in the knowledge that they have at least received feedback from members of their target market.
“We try to curate the needs of Japanese companies,” Matsumoto said.
A Global Open Innovation Session typically lasts three hours, and can be carried out multiple times.
The session consists of 10 to 15 international students, who brainstorm new ideas with a company’s employees.
Ideas already in play can also be focus-group tested using this format.
“If a client has a new technology they wish to introduce in Vietnam, for instance, we can invite Vietnamese nationals living in Japan to give feedback on how the device could best be utilized in their country.”
The second service Active Connector provides is online and offline recruiting.
“We have a database of nearly 2,000 students already registered, and the number continues to grow,” she says.
Still, Matsumoto is loath to call Active Connector a hiring agency.
She says her company goes beyond matchmaking, with information dissemination a major part of company activities.
Active Connector provides information on jobs listed and meets with each student in its network to counsel them on a potential career path in Japan. Site visits to companies are also organized.
“One of the things we do is invite students to visit and meet with Japanese professionals. We may go to a company, a think tank, or even a government ministry, because a lot of international students are interested in work opportunities within the Japanese government.”
Since starting the company, Matsumoto has seen many Japanese companies start new ventures, and the students she works with really blossom.
Now more than ever, she clearly sees a need for Active Connector.
“A lot of Japanese people don’t have successful interactions with international people, because Japan is a largely mono-ethnic culture.
What we are trying to create are successful cases that show the Japanese that they don’t need to be afraid of foreign cultures and people, and that interacting with them can be fun and productive.”
Custom Media publishes The Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.© Japan Today