Here’s a taste of what’s waiting for you in Yuko’s chapter in Scrappy Women in Business. Bon appetite! – Kimberly
Although I’ve lived all my life in Japan, where society’s expectations and treatment of women differ greatly from those of men, I’ve lived anything but a traditional Japanese woman’s life. As a young girl growing up in a small town a long train ride from the center of Tokyo, I embraced two opposing dreams. On the one hand, I imagined that I’d grow up, get married, and have five children. At the same time, I dreamed of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or some person of significance in the business world. Looking back, straddling both of those possible futures ended up diluting my resolve to follow either one, and it wasn’t until much later in my life that I found my true calling—to contribute to the global changes that are happening in the exciting world that we share.
In the beginning, I was most interested in English language skills and cross-cultural awareness, but I grew to realize that a set of core human skills unites us across linguistic, cultural, and other boundaries. English and cultural awareness are tools, but true breakthroughs in communication, and in building relationships, occur when people can walk in another person’s shoes and connect on a heart level.
In the early days of my current career I had the opportunity to work for one of the biggest companies in the professional development education industry. I was responsible for establishing alliances with educational institutions outside of Japan and sending thousands of Japanese business people (mostly men) overseas to experience first-hand what it meant to be an international business professional. I was quickly promoted to manager and received a dizzying series of raises—most of which were kept secret because they came much faster than was typical for a person in my position. Now I was finally making more than I did as a waitress!
Our company already had a location in Houston, which isn’t high on the list of places people in Japan hope to visit. I was chosen to oversee our expansion on the East Coast in our Washington, D.C., office in Virginia, which enabled me to make many trips there over the next five years. From my base in D.C., I traveled all over the US, visiting potential partner schools that would offer our services. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? But most of what I saw consisted of the inside of airplanes, taxis and hotels. However, I did get a feel for how tough it was to be a global businessperson. Picking up and moving from one city to the next in a foreign country, being far from family and friends, traveling from hotel to hotel, I gained an appreciation for the human challenges that our clients faced as their companies grew internationally.
I learned to be ready for anything, and to take the unexpected in stride. Often things don’t go as planned. Suitcases went one way and my airplane went another. Flights were canceled, leaving me without a place to stay for the night. Rooms were sometimes filthy, and the bar sometimes closed before the stresses of the day had been dulled by a sufficient quantity of the dry martinis I enjoyed at the end of a long day. Through it all, I managed to enjoy the little miracles and pleasures that I encountered along the way. And I learned a lot, and grew strong. In particular, I gained the ability to quickly make decisions and adjust to whatever situation I found myself in. Now, whenever it seems that things are going wrong, I look for the nuggets of wisdom or personal growth available in the situation. “Never give up!” has become a guiding philosophy of my life.
Over the years, trends toward the “internationalization” of Japanese businesses turned into the now-popular “globalization” movement. Through it all, I continued to support this growth through educational and experiential programs that broadened the minds of participants. Just going abroad doesn’t necessarily result in acquiring a global mindset, however, so we developed programs that included real-world experiences, tough challenges, and rich opportunities for people to grow as human beings as well as business leaders. Seeing the changes in their faces convinced me that we were doing the right things to enable them to be ready for the changes and challenges ahead. I was finally doing something I could really believe in!
Becoming an Executive
After 23 years of working in this industry, I was finally promoted to an executive position. On that particular day, I was invited to a meeting with the founder and CEO of our company, and was told about the promotion. This was an especially big deal because I was the first woman within our company to be promoted to an executive position, what we call being a “board member” here in Japan. The promotion wasn’t based on age or seniority, as is still the case in some Japanese companies. The overseas programs we’d been running had grown into global programs in Japan, taught by consultants from abroad, and the revenues and profits of this new business had grown significantly over the past couple of years. Our success was undeniable, and I think my promotion was a direct result of that, and of my ability to communicate effectively in complicated circumstances where many parties need to reach an agreement to achieve some desired result. Some people say that I single-handedly started this new area of our business, which now accounts for the fastest-growing part of our business. But I’m mature enough to know that no one does something of this magnitude alone, and I owe much of the success to the wonderful people who have been on this journey with me. (Nevertheless, I always enjoy hearing how people appreciate my contribution to this work!)
I’m still holding on to my dream of helping to usher in the changes that Japanese businesses need to make in order to help solve the problems of our world. I even have the audacity to imagine that I might somehow be contributing in some way to world peace through my work. Of course the world has so many problems that I also sometimes wonder whether one small Japanese businesswoman can make any difference at all. Although I’ve been tempted to give up many times, my belief has grown stronger since I’ve started building my scrappy mental muscles. Now I’m guided by the inspiration that I first heard from my friend, Scrappy Kimberly Wiefling: “What seems impossible is often merely difficult.” And I understand the importance of inspiring others. Personally, I’m doing whatever I can to help in my own way to contribute to a greater purpose than my own life here on earth. I hope you’ll join me in that adventure. It’s exciting!
Dear Ms. Yuko Shibata,
Thank you very much for sharing your story.
I mentally noted more than several times where I felt very resonated with your expereince (what you’ve gone through to reach where you are today).
One thing I am certain – I am in my mid 30 now – if I keep going with what it seems to be my “Calling” whose course was corrected, readjusted, and righteously analyzed over the course of my studies & work, and living, ten years later, I may achieve something incredible!!!