The neon-laced skyline glowed through the tall windows on the 42nd floor. Papers were spread all over the black wooden table, next to a cup of roasted green tea and plate of warabimochi. I perused the reports of several companies in the portfolio, attempting to make sense of the data—market trends, products, divisions, projections, and other nuanced details. How could I possibly use all this data and start another Silicon Valley here in Japan?
But first, let me backtrack a few steps to explain how I had come to bear this responsibility.
After basking in the Costa Rican beaches with high school friends and spending a week in New York City early this past June, I stuffed two suitcases in preparation for my summer abroad in Tokyo. Having spent two months learning Japanese and possessing no clue as to what my internship would entail, I felt shaky at best about my impending flight.
Sixteen hours later, I was greeted by bullet trains, a foreign language, and—as a person acquainted with terse and blunt urban rudeness—a strange abundance of polite pedestrians. As it was rainy season in Japan, I was also greeted with pouring rain.
A fellow intern directed me to a tower in Minato ward in Tokyo to meet Takuya Hane, a former Japanese instructor from Harvard, and my boss, to learn about the company Active Learning. I initially assumed that I would be working on education, but his company focuses on consulting for various entities, such as government bodies, technology companies, schools, startups, gyms, restaurants, farms, and a mixed batch of other businesses or institutions.
Mr. Hane explained that there is currently complacency with innovation in Japan, and that he aims to stimulate a new era of creative thinking through collaborations of companies, tactics, and workers. He also told me that workers in Japan are deferential to the authority of society and their work environment, and many were afraid to voice their opinions. I did not grasp this at first. How were employees of companies of the likes of Sony not able to create new products?
I, however, soon came to understand why. Many people wore black suits in the sauna of summer, worked through the day in a corporate job, and employed a mechanism of cathartic release through drinking copious amounts of beer, whisky, and other alcoholic beverages. Every single person I met in
Japan adhered to an implied code of decorum. Those who lose their wallets or other belongings had them returned, all cash and cards intact. Each employee, as a symbol of respect, cleans the work environment each morning. Tokyo is extremely safe. I never felt more at home outside in the street at 4:30 in the morning. And I couldn’t tell you how many times I jaywalked on a red pedestrian light, across empty roads, amongst gaping crowds.
As I noticed, most, if not all, people follow the expectations put forward by society. I was, and still am, impressed. I suppose it is the homogeneity of the country that assisted with such a stable culture. Reflecting upon Mr. Hane’s mission of his company, this objective of disruptive creativity, I realized that stability is the issue at play. All this time, I doubted my capabilities of being useful, because what skillset could I offer? Explain the basic principles of macro and microeconomics? Leverage the skills I gained from the Crimson and HFAC comps? This is the real world.
Instead of placing me with a host family, as originally intended, Mr. Hane let me reside in his high rise. In late July, he assigned me to intern at a private venture capital firm called Mistletoe. This company acts as a hub for startups by providing investments and support teams to startup companies. I was tasked with fostering the overall entrepreneurial ecosystem. Another intern and I scrambled to find a solution to such an assignment. We employed the Google searches in the beginning, but we soon (as suggested by our supervisors) moved on to examine affiliated companies and companies under Mistletoe’s portfolio.
Networking came to dominate my time in Japan. I visited the executives of hardware working spaces, Google’s business division, coding academies, startups of every kind—including technology, food, and social media—and other funds. I had a seat at the table with those who run businesses, and I was to pull information from them about Japan’s potential to be a fruitful entrepreneurial environment. If I were a CEO, I would question the opinions of a 19-year-old, but the executives appeared to appreciate my insights and questions. Their eagerness for their work and their willingness to work with me infected me with enthusiasm, as I felt responsible for their businesses as well.
Many companies explained that complacency does exist, and it is stunting Japan’s growth. More creative juices are needed, but I needed the ingredients to let them flow, such as market analyses. After pitching an idea to employ a student growth system to the CEO of Mistletoe, who happened to launch Yahoo Japan, I felt relieved, and inspired.
Eventually, I was placed with a host family. Mr. Hane had recently married, and, I suppose, he needed the space. One weekend, my new host family threw a barbecue in another prefecture where many middle-aged people came. They all looked with curious, raised brows at me and my twin brother—we were by far the youngest guests among the bankers, artists, politicians, and serial entrepreneurs present.
One man was curious enough to ask why we were here, and we explained that we were interns for different companies. As a CFO and CSO of a digital health company called FiNC (which operates as a platform for advice on wellness), he then proceeded to ask us for some assistance at their office in Tokyo.
By the time I made it to their office, I was a seasoned learner on the job—especially compared to my experience level when I first arrived in Japan earlier that summer. After being greeted by executives and coders cracking into their reference books, my brother and I were tasked to assess and develop the market entry plans of the company. Using due diligence and searching for trustworthy databases, we projected prices and sales in the near future. After presenting to the executive board of FiNC, my brother and I rushed to catch our plane.
The real world can be tough. There may not be any parental assistance, too much ramen may be consumed during too many late nights, and more often than not, you may not know what you are doing with your career. But my time in Tokyo helped me develop a greater understanding of what motivates dreamers: embracing the unknown. Whether it is forming strategic collaborations, establishing another Silicon Valley, or decentralizing health care, we put our best foot forward when we venture into the unknown and the undeveloped. No matter how much preparation you have, your true job will always be learned on the fly.