Board Meetings Should be Structured According to Diversity and Gender

I’d recommend women be ambitious and relentless in reaching their goals. If you devote yourself to something passionately and persistently, you will achieve results.

Dear Future Women Leaders of Tomorrow:

I grew up in Japan, and my parents really encouraged independence. I sensed my mother, who didn’t have a job outside our home, regretted not having a career and did not want me to experience the same regrets. She encouraged me to attend university and dive into industry, which I did.

I didn’t have any mentors at the beginning of my career, but I did have a role model. A woman who went to university with me started her own company in 2005 after graduating. She served as an external director at several major Japanese companies and wrote a book on how to start a business as a woman, which was my inspiration to launch my own company later on.

Following university, I worked for Hitachi in various departments: sales, advertising, marketing, and PR. I worked hard and fortunately had the opportunity to learn from top executives while in my twenties. Hearing about their experiences and working alongside them helped me advance professionally and gave me insight into corporate governance during the early stage of my career.

In my twenties, I entirely devoted myself to my job at Hitachi. I began in a low-ranking position and moved up. Two years later, I got a new position in the advertising department, and this role was a good experience for me. I closely interacted with many of our headquarters-based employees as well as board members, most of whom were good, middle-aged, male leaders.

If you want to achieve something, use strategic approaches and aggressively pursue your goal. My job at Hitachi was incredibly difficult. However, I learned a lot which helped me start my own company. Because of the networking I did there, I had an advisor, a marketing consultant, who supported me in starting my company.

I created Global Stage Inc., a marketing and business consulting firm, which soon evolved into one of the leading companies in its field. Later, in 2013, I founded the Working Mothers Association of Japan, a business school for working women and mothers. Our children’s programs are focused on junior high and high school students, and we run occasional workshops (design thinking and STEM workshops) to help these students become the next generation of leaders.

One lecturer who gave a talk to the membership was a board member of a large tax accounting company. She had been asked to recommend a candidate to join Komehyo’s board. She recommended me. Soon I was introduced to the company and interviewed with one of the board members in charge of administration. I then met with the Komehyo’s President to talk about the company’s goals, operational geographies, and concerns about its future. When Komehyo held its annual shareholder’s meeting, I was voted in and subsequently joined the board. It is interesting because I first heard about corporate governance while at university but never explored it further until I joined Komehyo’s board.

Several corporate governance training courses are offered in Japan, but I’ve only taken one. It lasted a mere three hours and covered basic corporate governance fundamentals. When I worked at Hitachi, there was a considerable amount of training available to board members mid-sized companies don’t offer. However—and interestingly enough—I’d never considered myself a natural leader. To that end, I trained myself by attending seminars, workshops, and by gaining experience.

Before joining the Komehyo Board, I had gained experience running a global marketing company. Komehyo needed my advice and experience with crossing international boundaries. I think the other board members paid attention to my opinions and experiences that provided a perspective that they did not have. As a woman leader and board member, I am focused on goals and strategies, not on the fact I’m a woman.

Komehyo is a mid-sized company dealing in second-hand luxury brand goods. It’s organized in some areas and in others, it’s still in development. It still has an old, traditional system and has small overseas business sales. It only started to expand its business overseas about five years ago, although even that is limited to Asian countries. I’ve supported many companies in their expansion abroad and found they share similar shortcomings, one of which is failing to harness the power of technology. Komehyo just began developing AI-powered technology-based authentication solutions for luxury goods by scanning products to determine whether they are authentic or fake.

Unfortunately, I was the only executive who fully understood and could discuss the importance of business models leveraging AI software. What needed to be on the agenda included Komehyo’s investment in this technology and how we should transform our business model to take advantage of new technologies and also expand globally. I try to support the board, but feel it needs more tech-friendly directors. Our core business and trends change so quickly. Even though our branded luxury bag company is still number one in its market and category, it is a competitive market, and if other players entered this field, it would be a problem for us.

When I first joined Komehyo’s board, I sensed from the male board members’ facial expressions and body language that they were unsure how to deal with their first female executive since the company was founded. Most of the male board members were in their fifties and sixties. Their discomfort likely derived from their lack of knowledge of how to deal with female board members. Another woman joined at the same time I did, and we are still the only two women on the board.

Fortunately, the atmosphere has now improved. Some of our board members are old, yet still serve on the board because they have a lot of experience in the company. This routinely occurs in Japanese companies. In Japan, board members do not have set term limits. Board members’ terms of office are typically five or six years under the Articles of Incorporation. However, re-election is a formality, and, in effect, there can be indefinite term limits, so board members can stay on for much longer than that.

Komehyo has a corporate governance code and a set of more than forty rules and regulations under which board members operate. Once a year, before the shareholder’s meeting, its board members complete a questionnaire, and their answers are summarized. Only one of these questions pertains to gender diversity. Board members then decide what should be done for the following year.

Board meetings should be structured according to diversity and gender in general. In addition to the need for more gender diversity on Japanese boards, there is a large need for more diversity. I do feel I am alone on the Komehyo board in knowing or understanding the highly technical side of our business. I believe it’s important that board members see value in this important and innovative part of their company.

I feel the biggest challenge to gender parity on Japanese boards is the dearth of potential women candidates for those roles because female managers currently represent less than 10 percent of the Japanese workforce. The demand for women board members in Japan has seen an upward trend. In June 2020, I resigned from Komehyo’s board of directors at the shareholders’ meeting. I am now the president of Global Stage Inc. and Global Stage USA Inc., as well as the Working Mothers Association of Japan.

This past February, a recruitment firm recommended me to a Japanese restaurant chain company’s board, which was looking for executives to fill a few board seats. The company, which employs many part-time female employees, invited me to join the board. They wanted me to manage these part-timers, motivate them to work more, and foster a dynamic work environment. The company had a long history and a good reputation, but its board members were old and male. I don’t think it had any female board representation, which made things difficult. By that time, I had decided to move to the U.S. to the San Francisco Bay Area, and so I did not pursue a role on this company’s board.

Japanese corporations are looking to increase their number of female leaders. In order to qualify more women for board governance roles, both the Japanese government and corporations should focus on fostering leadership in young and middle-aged female employees. Even though women make up almost 50 percent of the Japanese workforce, Japan is still struggling to increase the number of women in board governance.

On the other hand, some women do not aspire to become leaders in Japan because they don’t see the benefits and don’t identify with the role. They are discouraged by the burdensome aspect of working longer hours and taking on more responsibility. As a result, they don’t want to work harder and don’t have ambitious goals. In Japan, women lack a go-getter spirit, partly because of their education and upbringing.

If you are a woman who wants to get married or have children, you have limited time to develop your career in your twenties. During this decade, just try to work and study hard. Everything should be challenging, especially for women. These experiences will support you in the future as you reach your thirties, forties, and fifties. Having a family and working at the same time is a good way to continue growing in your career. I’d encourage women to be ambitious and relentless in reaching their goals. If you devote yourself to something passionately and persistently, you will achieve results.

Sincerely yours,

Saori Osu