An Interview with Japanese Business Owner, Yuka Imanishi
A vibrant, energetic, and warm individual, Yuka Imanishi (今西由加) is the founder of both chezmo school — which prepares Japanese students for studying and living abroad, and chezmo family — a tutoring service that pairs foreign international students with Japanese families and has become quite successful in the Tokyo metropolitan area. In the next few years, the company plans to expand nationwide due to increasing customer demands.
Unique Career Background
With an illustrious career background working at top companies such as Sony Music Entertainment — a Japanese conglomerate, Clarins — a French cosmetic company, Lotte — a Korean conglomerate, and others, Yuka has experienced both Japanese and international companies, worked with International artists such as Aerosmith and Jennifer Lopez, and even went on international business trips 3x a month for a period of time. However, as soon as she decided she wanted to start a family, she knew in her heart that she could no longer work until 3 am in the morning. Based on the role models within her company and in her external network, Yuka recognized that the women in charge did not have families. Since this was very important for her, Yuka began working at a foreign company that offered good work-life balance and a supportive environment for mothers. While there, she gave birth to her son.
The Start of Chezmo
Soon thereafter, she stumbled across an interesting business idea — an American subscription service started by two mothers, who sent packages catered to children from all over the world. Through this service, children of subscribers received souvenirs from countries such as India, Kenya, Turkey, etc., exposing them to new cultures at a young age, and offering a more international perspective. This wonderful idea sparked Yuka's inherent interest in launching a business that combined the best of what Japan has to offer, with that of the world.
By hosting international students in her home to expose her son to different cultures, and sharing her experiences with her network, she soon realized there was a need in the market for more exposure to international folks. Although many Japanese women wanted to become host mothers, they were unable to prepare a room, prepare meals, etc. As such, Yuka decided to match Japanese families with international students for tutoring and cultural exchanges. With the help of a wonderful co-founder, who is also a mother, Yuka launched her company in 2015 with a mix of personal savings and a small government fund.
The Mission Behind Chezmo
The purpose of both chezmo school and chezmo family is to expose Japanese children to different cultures from a very young age, prepare them to become globally competitive, and also understand diverse opinions. For the international students who tutor Japanese students, they are not only paid for their services, but they also have unique exposure into Japanese culture, homes, and lifestyles. And in many cases, the international tutors and the Japanese families create lifelong friendships and new opportunities.
For chezmo family, the staff screen, meet, and interview the international students first. Then, the student is matched with a family based on their interests and skill sets. And finally, one of the staff members joins the initial meeting with the family. Learning along the way, Yuka has continually adapted this program to better suit the needs of the tutors as well as the families. By having a curious and open-minded attitude, Yuka attracts similarly-minded clientele, who are flexible and eager to learn more. A diverse network of clients, students, and children ranging in ages from 2 to 13, make up the chezmo family.
Leveraging Family Support
By leveraging various opportunities such as a supportive family, Yuka was able to successfully launch her own business. For instance, she had the great fortune of having a remarkably supportive husband. When she was contemplating to stop working to take care of her son full-time, or start her own business, her husband insisted that she try something new. After all, he felt that if she were to stay at home all day, she would quickly become bored and not maximize her true potential. Not only is he pragmatic and logical, but he is also relaxed and optimistic. With such a supportive husband, Yuka can focus entirely on her business, and partner with her husband to take care of their son. Yuka even cited her husband as a prime factor for launching her business.
In fact, her case is actually quite rare amongst women entrepreneurs in Japan. In Yuka's circle, she happens to know 4 women entrepreneurs who have gotten divorced, after launching their own business. And divorce or never marrying was also quite common amongst the women entrepreneurs I have interviewed. After all, the learning curve is very sharp for the entrepreneurs, and sometimes the husband cannot catch up. For various other societal reasons, it's very difficult for successful women in Japan to be treated as equal partners. In 2016, Japan ranked 111 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap data. Even so, many exceptional people are challenging the status quo to create a more equitable society.
Best Advice Yuka Has Received
Not only did Yuka cite her husband as a prime factor for launching her business, but he also gave her some of the best advice she has ever received. As a pragmatic banker, he did tell her that only 5% of business succeed. However, he also told her it's worth a try, and strongly encouraged her to pursue her passion. By stepping out of her comfort zone, and taking a risk, both Yuka and her husband knew that she would learn an incredible amount in the process that would enrich both of their lives. Again, with the backing of someone she loved, Yuka was able to launch her own business.
Leveraging a Risk-taking Attitude
And yet another critical element, is her risk-taking attitude. In fact, her guiding principle is: “Your life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” For her, this means that she forces herself to do new things — no matter how small — so that she can be uncomfortable and grow! Without this open-minded attitude towards risk, she would have remained too comfortable, never realized her true potential, not grown as much as she possibly could, and not achieved everything that she has accomplished today. As a result, her willingness to take risks, is an essential element of her business success.
Leveraging a Positive Mindset
Armed with a positive mindset, Yuka remains optimistic, despite countless daily challenges. After all, she has to do almost everything herself. And sometimes, it's not fun at all. But by always looking on the bright side, Yuka does her best to tackle each problem as it arises — a pattern that I saw across all of my interviews. With an optimistic mindset, Yuka can enjoy both the good and bad times.
Once she started her own business, Yuka realized that she had the ultimate freedom to manage her own time. After all, she is her own boss. But, it's both a blessing and a curse. Even if she works 24/7, she would never be done. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, Yuka views it from a positive perspective — she now has the utmost freedom and flexibility to create her own schedule, her own business, and her own future.
Yuka's friends who work in Japanese companies often complain to her about the lack of flexibility, freedom, risk-taking, and ability to say what one truly thinks. Particularly amongst her female friends, they often feel like they don't have the freedom to choose anything that they do, and they feel very constrained. In this type of stifling environment, it'd be difficult for these women to unleash their creativity and their potential. Whereas, in her own business, Yuka not only has the ability to be as creative as she desires, but she is also able to quickly innovate her business by listening to what her clients think. And while she didn't study abroad in Miami until she was 20, Yuka had always liked free environments that stimulated her creativity and allowed her to explore.
The Importance of a Strong Network
Through an extensive network of both male and female entrepreneurs, Yuka has incredible access to role models, mentors, and advisors, all of whom help stimulate her creativity and fresh ideas. Whenever she needs business advice, she has a strong network of people she can quickly reach out too. In fact, she met with nearly her entire network before starting her business to bounce ideas off of them, and hear what they had to say. Plus, whenever she has a challenge that she cannot solve by herself, she'll contact her network and realize that they too, have once suffered through a similar obstacle. As such, her network has been and will continue to be a key part of her success.
Knowing this, Yuka also joined an online forum for women entrepreneurs, started by Kahoko Tsunezawa — the founder of Kids Line. By paying a monthly membership fee, Yuka can attend monthly events in Tokyo, exchange ideas within their closed Facebook group, and meet with members individually offline. By leveraging this network and her existing network, Yuka has gained wisdom and solutions to problems. Always seeking to meet new people and expand her network, Yuka is constantly growing and developing more ideas for her business.
By leveraging these opportunities — family support, flexibility, a positive mindset, an extensive network of entrepreneurs, and a risk-taking attitude, Yuka has been able to co-found both chezmo school and chezmo family.
Advice from Yuka Imanishi
Finally, let's wrap up this article with advice from Yuka Imanishi.
1. “Your life begins at the end of your comfort zone!”
It goes without saying that without stepping out of your comfort zone, your life will never change. Some of the best public speakers such as Gary Vaynerchuk recommend that you spend more time creating your ideal life, bit-by-bit, on a daily basis. In one of his videos, he even suggested that the time spent consuming information on various social media channels could be channeled more wisely by creating your own venture.
Regardless of where you are in the world, this generally holds true. But in Japan, the traditional culture has always emphasized the importance of the group; rather than the individual. In fact, a common Japanese proverb is “the nail that sticks gets hammered down,” or 出る釘は打たれる in Japanese. And for Japanese women, they are encouraged from childhood to pursue specific, acceptable positions in society prior to marriage. Once they do get married, society pressures them to work at home and become a full-time housewife. In other countries, the respect paid to mothers may differ, but in Japan, the mother is revered as an important caretaker of the future Japanese citizen. Due to a multitude of societal expectations and personal desires, women are not participating in the workforce as much as they could. Although different statistics regarding female labor force participation exist based on who conducted the survey, the World Bank's International Labour Organization's database in 2017, found that the the labor force participation rates for Japanese women ages 15 and older in 2016 was 50%.
Based on this context of low labor market participation, Japanese women have significant potential to make a dramatic difference in the future economy of Japan. As a result, Yuka's advice for women to step out of their comfort zone, is quite profound. She contended that if you are too comfortable, you will never grow as much as you possible could.
Specifically, Yuka is recommending that women take small steps towards the life that they want. For example, they could make an appointment with someone they have been meaning to meet for a long time. Or, they could spend 10 minutes or an hour, googling a new service or product that they are interested in pursuing. By making the dream of starting a business, or some other major project or task, into bite-sized, manageable chunks that can be achieved on a daily basis, will make the huge goal seem more manageable.
Another issue is that women worry about what others think, especially their husbands, and how they will be able to manage caretaking with managing a new project or business. But Yuka warns that if they continue to stay in a protected environment, they will never be able to change their life. Instead, if they step out even one toe into an unknown, they will soon realize that their perspective has changed and the scenery is different.
By making yourself uncomfortable from time to time, you learn how much more you are capable of and gradually learn how much more you can accomplish than your perceived limitations.
2. Dream Bigger
Recently, Yuka met with an exceptional mentor, who used to be in charge of billion dollar businesses and has now started an NPO in Kyoto. His advice for her was to “create a bigger business.”
Paired with this advice, he also started brainstorming with her to come up with examples of how she could expand her business into realms she had not yet considered. Through this eye-opening conversation, she realized that she was limiting herself unnecessarily, and it was critical for her to dream bigger. An extremely successful meeting, the two are thinking of more opportunities to collaborate. And most importantly, Yuka learned the importance of dreaming bigger than she could possibly imagine by herself.
By bouncing ideas off of advisors to stimulate more impactful and large-scale ideas, always seeking to meet new people and expand her network, having a supportive husband, a positive and risk-taking mindset, and constantly forcing herself to step out of her comfort zone of perceived limitations, Yuka has been able to achieve what very few women in Japan have — her own business.
Thank you very much for reading this article! Enjoy other articles, featuring women entrepreneurs in Japan.
This article was originally published on Women 2.0 — one of the best women's networking organizations in the world.
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