Ruriko Koko Sato never thought she’d become an entrepreneur, let alone help lead a community of women business founders. But as one of the creators of Startup Lady, that is precisely where she finds herself.
Together with Startup Lady co-founders Moeko Suzuki, Amee Xu, and Steffie Harner, Sato is helping the association grow its influence across Japan.
Established in Tokyo in 2018, Startup Lady has a goal to support female entrepreneurs via networking, mentoring, training, and resource sharing.
From a handful of members at its inception, Startup Lady has grown to more than 700 members, including established business owners and aspiring founders.
Not only are leading entrepreneurs now sitting on the association’s board, corporate partners and volunteers are also jumping on the Startup Lady bandwagon.
For Sato, these past 18 months have been filled with personal and professional growth, as well as a feeling of joy that comes from giving back to a community she cares about greatly.
“I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. I kind of just fell into this,” she told The ACCJ Journal. “But, as a co-founder, I lead a number of departments at Startup Lady. I feel inspired by the people I meet every day, and I feel inspired by my team. I’ve gained so much by meeting wonderful people that I would otherwise have never met.”
Sato’s path into a leadership role in Tokyo’s startup community could not have been foreseen early on. After all, she was born in Switzerland and raised mostly in Austria, with stints living in Japan, Belgium, and Yugoslavia. She attended college in the United States.
Sato spent her school years—elementary through high school—in Vienna, where she went to international schools. She spoke English as her first language.
When the time came to think about college, she chose the United States, in part because of a desire to leave her comfort zone in Austria.
That choice, in hindsight, proved critical: it set her on a path of service, advocacy, and entrepreneurship—skills that she would rely on to help Startup Lady expand.
Unsure of her goals, Sato first attended San Diego Mesa College, a community college, before transitioning to San Diego State University. Her major in hospitality management had a focus on service industries. This included meetings and conference design, events, and management.
While still in the United States, she entered the workplace—at first, volunteering with a non-profit organization (NPO).
“I joined as many campus clubs as possible while I was a student and started doing a lot of volunteering in my free time, which eventually led to a job doing advocacy work in San Francisco and Washington, DC, for an NPO,” she said.
In her advocacy role, she liaised with local, state, and national officials, including members of the United States Congress.
And while her advocacy and volunteering diverged greatly from her college studies, they aligned well with her desire to help others.
“I was doing public policy work, though my degree was in something else. But I’ve always been very passionate about helping people and making a difference.”
Making a difference for Sato meant volunteerism, something that gave her a newfound focus, especially within minority communities in California.
To that end, her first position was with Silk Road Productions, a San Diego-based company that produces events—such as film festivals, music and art events, trade shows, fundraisers, and galas—for a variety of clients, including NPOs.
While volunteering at the production company, Sato was introduced to non-profits in the area, such as the National Asian American Coalition (NAAC), the largest advocacy group for Asian-Americans in the United States.
The NPO’s remit includes advocating for greater social and economic inclusion for its constituents and, more broadly, minorities.
With the NAAC, Sato’s work was far reaching. In addition to Asians, she helped the Latin and African-American communities, among others.
“So, we assembled a variety of minority groups together and then we presented our case of how minorities don’t have access to, for example, proficient data, resources, or training.”
Communication and cultural barriers, Sato points out, often lead to socio-economic exclusion for groups with members who don’t speak English as a first language. Lack of access to social services, banking, and political systems are examples of challenges that lead to diminished opportunity.
“The overall idea was to make sure institutions were providing equal opportunities by delivering the necessary support through transparent and accessible information and training. That’s why we, for example, put together a financial empowerment initiative.”
Sato worked at the NAAC for two years and gained skills that would stand her in good stead for her next step in life.
When her parents made the move from Europe to Japan in 2015, she joined them. Here, she found work as a recruiter, but left after a year to become a business consultant.
Shortly after, she met the co-founders of Startup Lady. Today, Sato splits her time among business consultancy Endeavor SBC, managing Startup Lady’s marketing, events, and back-office operations, and her own economy startup focused on personal wellness with fellow Startup Lady co-founder Xu.
At first, Startup Lady strived to become a channel on video content platform YouTube. There, its founders would discuss the challenges that women face when establishing a company.
However, given the limited bandwidth of the co-founders at the time—they all had other jobs or ran their own companies—it soon become apparent that they had to pivot.
Tapping Sato’s background in event production and the co-founders’ network in Tokyo, the association focused instead on producing offline events. This was around March 2018.
“It was in April 2018 that I joined Startup Lady. We were doing something called BizHub—it was a business hub event. It was a testing ground to see if we could actually start launching events,” she explained.
“We realized that we need to be more focused on building a community and bringing women together. We needed a place for women to find each other in person in this ever-connected digital world. The human touch was what was missing.”
Startup Lady was registered as a “general incorporated association” in the summer of 2018. At the core of the professional association is a desire to encourage women to make a difference.
“Amy and I were brainstorming one day, and we were like, ‘Okay. What do we want to show? What do we want to do? What is the impact? What is this disruption that we’re trying to cause right now? We wanted to encourage women to be the change they wanted to see.”
Indeed, the association’s mission is summed up in their slogan: “Be the game changer.”
As for their ultimate aim? That can be gleaned from their logo: a pawn who made it to the other side and became a queen, the most powerful piece on a chessboard.
The logo has the stylized letters SL embedded into the shape of an hourglass, indicating that change was only a matter of time—if there is a will.
In some of Startup Lady’s branding, the logo appears on the character of a female superhero.
Despite its uncertain early steps, Startup Lady is now growing steadily and with focus. The association is being courted by corporations and ecosystem providers, such as co-working companies that host events or support members with affordable office space.
It’s clear there is demand for the association, especially among women in Tokyo. Why?
Sato’s experience in the recruitment industry in Japan—where she helped women searching for short contract positions—is instructional.
“There were some very sad stories that I hadn’t personally encountered growing up in Europe and being in the United States. There were women talking about power harassment or sexual harassment from all levels. There were people who have PhDs, young with their whole career ahead of them, but they would say, ‘I just want a job that is easy or lower level so I don’t get stressed out.’
“There were many who had amazing jobs but had to quit—or they had to take long-term breaks and absences from the workforce due to mental health breakdowns from a combination of the pressures they faced every day.”
In some cases, she said, women who had worked in managerial positions—but had left due to marriage or starting a family—sought a return to work. Their sights, however, were set many levels lower than before.
And if they were hired as contract workers, “their jobs only paid hourly, or their contract ended after three months, and then they were like, ‘What’s next?’ ”
Such clients, Sato added, were often “people under constant duress given their circumstances or the manner in which they were treated. Sometimes they would call me and cry on the phone.”
“It was really shocking to hear these stories.”
Startup Lady was created not just to support such women, but to inspire them to change—and to be changemakers themselves.
Reflecting on the impact that the association is making, Sato struck a note of surprise.
“I knew that we would be able to effect a positive impact, but I couldn’t fathom the extent of the effect that we would have on this community. I find the startup community very inspiring. I love what Startup Lady is trying to do. What is, for me, surprising, I guess, is that people were looking for a group just like ours and really want to be part of this change with us.”
Custom Media publishes The ACCJ Journal for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.
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