An Outstanding Example of Overcoming Insurmountable Odds to Create a Thriving Business

An Interview with Female Founder, Sachiko Okamoto

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Seamlessly switching back-and-forth between Japanese and English, Sachiko Okamoto and I had a delightful conversation in a vibrant room filled with captivating books, games, and pen pal letters. The founder of Willpower Learning Institute — an English School with more than 100 students and 4 teachers in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture — Sachiko truly adores her job!

Due to her kindness, passion for the role of teaching, and devoted attention to her students, Sachiko's students have stayed by her side, wherever she was teaching, for over 13 years. And even some of the children of her previous students, are now attending her school.

Although Sachiko ran into many obstacles along the way, everything led to her current success and fundamental happiness with the way her life turned out!

The Early Environment of a Future Entrepreneur

Honestly speaking, Sachiko did not have a natural affinity to learning English. But she had an avid interest in making friends from all over the world, dreaming that someday, she would even have a Chinese roommate in the United States, which actually came to fruition later in life. Deep down, Sachiko wanted to someday live abroad and leave her suburban hometown of Kameoka. By doing so, she felt she would be able to explore more of what the world had to offer, and discover herself.

In high school, Sachiko spent all of her time playing volleyball, as part of a club activity after school. Deeply passionate about volleyball, Sachiko spent less time studying, and didn't do as well on her university entrance exams as she had hoped. As a result, her parents strongly encouraged her to attend the local university in Kameoka, which had a unique partnership with Oklahoma State University (OSU).

The program was organized such that students would spend the 1st year in Stillwater, Oklahoma — a sister city of Kameoka — to study English. If they passed the TOEFL exam with a score of 500 or more, then they were accepted into the OSU-Kyoto program, allowing them to spend another two years studying English in Stillwater before graduating from OSU.

While it was a very challenging course for Sachiko, she truly enjoyed learning entirely in English, and steadily improved her skills. After spending a few years in America, she had also fallen in love with the language, country, and way of life. So when she graduated, she knew she had to stay longer.

Sachiko's Alluring Adventure From LA Back to Kameoka

Sachiko moved to Los Angeles, California (LA) for two reasons. One, she had a good friend living in LA, who seemed to have an exciting life. And two, she was in love with the Doors song “LA Woman.”

It turned out to be a fantastic decision to move to LA, as Sachiko soon met her future husband. After a few years, Sachiko returned to Japan to save money and prepare for graduate school on her own, but the couple maintained a long-distance relationship.

While in Kameoka, Sachiko was accepted int o a social work graduate program by Cal State Fresno. However, her parents refused to financially support her.

Simultaneously, she found out that she was pregnant, so her boyfriend returned to Japan, and the two got married.

That's when she embarked on her new life, as a full-time housewife with a husband who worked at a Japanese company. Within a span of a few years, she gave birth to her second child. With two young children and a husband to take care of, Sachiko became extremely busy and put her graduate school plans on hold to take care of her new family.

Overcoming Obstacles That Led to Life as an Entrepreneur

However, life took an interesting turn. After all, life throws many curveballs in the way of what we think we want in life. But, not everyone recognizes the importance of a positive perspective, as it always tends to work itself out in the end.

In the Buddhist philosophy, life is all about overcoming countless obstacle in your path with a positive mindset. After all, everyone experiences the challenges of birth, aging, sickness, and death. And every experience in lief is interconnected and has deep meaning, if we only have the heart to listen and appreciate all that comes our way.

For many years, Sachiko’s husband had suffered from a mild form of depression, but in 2004, he took a turn for the worst. Falling into a deep depression, it became increasingly difficult for him to leave the house, let alone go to work. Within a few months, it became apparent that he was unfit to continue working at his company. Soon thereafter, the couple divorced, and she officially, became a single mother with 3 mouths to feed.

Due to this extenuating circumstance, Sachiko was forced to return to the workforce in 2004 with her most marketable skill — teaching English.

Initially, Sachiko tirelessly searched for a job in Kameoka that offered the flexibility that she so desired — one that would allow her to be a working mother of 2 young children.

Soon, she learned of an opportunity at an International Exchange Center, but there was no place near the workplace, where she could leave her children after they finished school. Fortunately, Sachiko's parents were able to take care of her children for 3 days of the week.

The Entrepreneurial Phase

The International Exchange Center only offered English lessons up until the 3rd grade. So the parents of her students asked her to create a private class for them. Never once thinking she would actually start a business on her own, Sachiko was initially surprised by the parents’ requests. But she soon began teaching private English lessons, and gradually increased her clientele.

And this was the start of her future business. Inspired by her student's motivation to learn English and the flexibility that having a business would offer, Sachiko launched the Willpower Learning Institute in 2013.

Sachiko's Supportive Environment for Entrepreneurship

Sachiko's immediate and extended family were instrumental to the success of her business. On the day she moved in, her parents and relatives helped with moving, organizing, and setting up her new school.

Her father — previously, a school principal — became the President of the school. Her uncle — previously, a tax accountant — became the Secretary General. Her sister — an artist — launched her own art and calligraphy school that her children were able to attend after school. And finally, her parents provided the initial loan to help her get started.

With the strong support of her immediate and extended family, Sachiko was able to establish her business — one that would allow her to create her own schedule and be her own boss. Now, she finally had the flexibility that she so desired from the workforce.

Of course, Sachiko still led an extremely busy life, tirelessly working to increase her clientele, raise her children, and win the hearts of her students. Fortunately, with two entrepreneurs in the family, her children were able to attend her sister's art and calligraphy school, as well as her English school. Plus, as an added side benefit, her children quickly learned English, and grew to become a valuable asset for the business.

And because her school's educational environment was vibrant and fun, her children's friends naturally became students. And thus, Sachiko was able to go from having no source of income, except a measly government subsidy, to a thriving business with over 100 students and 4 teachers.

Sachiko's Words of Wisdom

Based on her own personal experiences and through stories from friends, Sachiko deeply understands the thought patterns, concerns, fears, and endless, daily task list of a typical Japanese housewife. As Japanese people in general are group-oriented and conscientious of maintaining harmony in both the household and in society, it's no wonder that a typical Japanese mother will neglect her own personal wants and needs, in favor of doing something for the family.

And because the educational system is so rigorous, parents (usually the mother) have an infinite amount of responsibilities related to their children's education. Further more, Japanese mothers are revered as the main educators of children.

Thus, they become too busy taking care of everyone and everything else, that they do not leave time for themselves. Of course, this isn't a problem specific to Japan; rather, it's a global phenomenon of mothers sacrificing themselves for the benefit of their families, and giving more than receiving.

But the most important issue, is how these women feel. If they were to pursue something personal such as a business, they would feel like they were being selfish by taking away precious time from the family.

Sachiko provided the following general advice for women.

1. Pursue What You Believe is Right

Sachiko's perspective is that life is too short to not pursue what you wish to do. And she also advised Japanese women to not worry so much about what others think. A deeply communal society, Japanese people are taught from birth to be conscientious of those around them. A billion unspoken rules dictate societal behavior, so it's practically impossible to not care about what others think. On the flip side, it makes for an extremely safe, considerate, and warm culture.

In this context, Sachiko strongly advised Japanese women to:

“Do what you think is right!” Or, “自分が正しいと思うことをするのが良い!”

While there are pros and cons of caring about how you are perceived and what others think, it's best to find a middle-ground of respecting others, while also doing what you need to do. And Japanese women can get started, by doing one small thing per day for their own benefit.

2. Reframe Your Perspective

Instead of thinking that you are taking time away from your family by starting a business or doing something for yourself, Sachiko advised women to reevaluate their mindset to:

If I do what I truly believe is right, then I will become more satisfied with my life, thereby positively affecting those around me, particularly my family.

Transforming the mindset from one of worry and negativity to one of delight and positivity, will undoubtedly uplift and brighten those around you. While this is easier said than done, even a tiny change in perspective, is often all it takes to make a profound shift in one's life.

3. Ignore Negativity

If someone opposes your business proposal, then Sachiko advised women to save their ideas for the future, and never give up on pursuing it! After all, you never know when the timing will be right.

Sachiko's Future Endeavors

In the next 3-5 years, Sachiko would like to expand her business to include a student exchange program in both New Zealand and Japan for two reasons. One, a fellow OSU alumni currently lives in New Zealand, and could be her local partner. With her help, Japanese students could study in New Zealand, and New Zealand students could likewise, study in Japan.

And two, it would be an ideal location for the students to live and study. This exchange program would be a great opportunity for students in both countries to expand their horizons, increase their awareness, learn new ways of thinking and different perspectives, and hopefully, even stimulate the local economy of Kameoka.

Recently, the Willpower Learning Institute welcomed it's very first, sponsored American teacher from San Francisco! Although he's only been working for a few weeks, he's already earned the hearts of his students through his kindness and engaging stories. Plus, with many fascinating stories to share from America that are opening the childrens' minds to more possibilities.

With the addition of a sponsored American, Sachiko's school now has a grand total of 4 teachers (plus a President and Secretary General), over 100 students, and plans to expand various arms of the business.

An exciting future awaits for women entrepreneur, Sachiko Okamoto, and all of the people she touches.

Thank you very much for reading this article. Enjoy my other articles with fellow female founders.


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