Journey into the World of Entrepreneurship: Stanford e-Hiroshima Guest Speakers, Risa Ishii and Takaho Iwasaki
Stanford e-Hiroshima is an online course for high school students in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, that is sponsored by the Hiroshima Prefectural Government.
Launched in fall 2019, Stanford e-Hiroshima is offered by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE) in collaboration with the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education.
When asked in a 2013 interview with the Stanford Graduate School of Business about the impact he would like to have on the world, Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki (MBA, ’95) stated, “In my current capacity as governor I would like to create social and economic systems that would continuously create innovation and entrepreneurship. This will enhance our ability to create sustainability, wealth, security, and safety.” Six years later during the California-Japan Governor’s Symposium at Stanford, Yuzaki again spoke about his desired impact specifically in the context of Hiroshima–Silicon Valley relations. To achieve this, Yuzaki knew that a global mindset in students in Hiroshima would need to be cultivated, and with his vision, Stanford e-Hiroshima was launched in fall 2019.
With the cultivation of a global mindset as an objective, Stanford e-Hiroshima Instructor Rylan Sekiguchi invited two young Japanese entrepreneurs in the United States to speak as part of the 2020–21 course. The first speaker was Risa Ishii, Senior Partnerships Manager at Plug and Play Tech Center, a company in Silicon Valley that fosters innovation and supports entrepreneurs from around the world. The second speaker was Takaho Iwasaki, Founder and CEO of MajiConnection, a company in Honolulu, Hawaii, that aims to support entrepreneurs, innovators, and businesses in Japan and Hawaii in building relationships with each other.
Ishii’s talk was called “What I’ve Seen in Silicon Valley: Its Special Ecosystem and What We Can Learn from It.” She was born in Shizuoka Prefecture and graduated from high school in the United States and from Waseda University in Tokyo. Ishii spoke about the uniqueness of the Silicon Valley ecosystem and underscored the diversity of its workforce and critical availability of venture capital. In referencing the “Silicon Valley mindset,” she advised, “Don’t think that you are too young or that you do not know enough to do anything. Just act and see what happens. It’s okay to fail … and be open to adjusting.” Concerning Plug and Play, she noted that it aims to reform the corporate mindset to promote collaboration with startups. A chart that surprised the students was one which showed that in the 1990s, Japanese companies accounted for eight of the ten largest in the world; today, no Japanese companies remain in the top ten. Given this, she stressed that Japan needs to encourage study abroad opportunities and to welcome more students to Japan as a way to attract global talent. Ishii closed by stressing that students need to “think of how each one of us can contribute to the society and look into unique opportunities in areas that Japan has strengths, like disaster management and prevention and caring for the elderly.”
Iwasaki’s talk was called “Why I Am Supporting Startups in Hawaii.” Iwasaki was born in New York and raised in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. She studied at International Christian University in Tokyo and also received an MBA from the University of Hawaii, Manoa. She interned at Plug and Play where she met Ishii. While in Silicon Valley, she decided that she wanted to help small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas and strongly believed she could do this in Hawaii. She founded MajiConnection in 2019 and her first event was “Island Innovation Demo Day,” a pitch event during which Hawaii-based startups pitched ideas to Japanese investors and companies. The event inspired Hawaii startups to go to Japan and Japanese companies to come to Hawaii. “A lot of people never believed that I could make it successful because Hawaii had never been a business place for Japanese SMEs,” commented Iwasaki. Despite this, she succeeded by cultivating a global mindset among SMEs in Hawaii and Japan. She also noted the conducive environment in Hawaii for doing business with Japan (e.g., manageable time difference, managing the relatively low language barrier, and strong Asian cultural influences). She closed by noting, “I strongly believe that if Hawaii and Japan work together on common problems, we can tackle a lot of real problems that cannot be solved by ‘continental startups’ [those on the U.S. mainland] in areas like high-cost and non-sustainable energy, marine debris and plastic waste, agriculture and food self-sufficiency problem, and tourist-based economies.”
Iwasaki’s comments prompted a student to remark on a challenge that places like Hiroshima and Hawaii face with young people moving to larger metropolitan areas like Tokyo and on the U.S. mainland, respectively. Iwasaki commented that indeed many young people in Hawaii seek higher education and more diverse types of employment on the U.S. mainland. That said, she noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have returned to Hawaii because of the lower rates of COVID-19. She noted that this trend may happen in Japan as well because of the high costs of living in big cities like Tokyo and the increased reliance on and acceptance of telecommuting in the workplace.
Another student piggybacked on this point in asking about students moving from Hiroshima to bigger cities like Tokyo for higher education and Ishii’s concern about the decline of Japanese students going abroad to study. The student pointed out the financial burden of living abroad in the United States. Ishii noted that the Japanese government realizes that Japan needs to send more people abroad and encouraged students to look into scholarships and fellowships that are available in Japan, like Tobitate, the Yanai Tadashi Foundation’s International Scholarship Program, and those offered by universities in the United States.
Keeping in mind the geographic similarities of Hawaii and Japan as islands, one student pointed out the relationship between the UN Sustainable Development Goals and companies in Hiroshima and asked how companies in Silicon Valley and Hawaii are helping to reach the SDGs. Ishii pointed out efforts on the part of companies like Google and Tesla that are trying to go carbon neutral. Iwasaki noted that transporting oil to Hawaii is very expensive and this has prompted many people to consider the importance of sustainable energy.
After reflecting upon the comments by Iwasaki and Ishii, Hiroshima Board of Education Superintendent Rie Hirakawa added, “I hope that all students—and especially girls—are inspired by young women entrepreneurs like Takaho Iwasaki and Risa Ishii. I am just one of two female prefectural superintendents in Japan and hope that Japan’s new global mindset will underscore the importance of diversity, including more opportunities for women.” Yuzaki agrees and in the 2013 interview noted, “I believe diversity is very important in an organization.” To this point, Ishii reflected, “As a girl who grew up in a rural area, I understand the importance of filling in regional gaps in terms of education, not only domestically but also internationally. I was able to feel the positive energy through my monitor from the students of Stanford e-Hiroshima and I hope that they will continue to drive themselves to create changes in society.” Iwasaki echoed Ishii’s sentiments and added, “I really enjoyed teaching and talking with the students of Stanford e-Hiroshima and was very impressed by how passionate they are to study and try to contribute to their community. I hope we can continue this program for those students and would like to be part of it again.”
SPICE is grateful to Hiroshima Governor Hidehiko Yuzaki whose vision made this course possible and to Superintendent Rie Hirakawa of the Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education for her leadership. SPICE also extends its appreciation to Teacher Consultant Rika Ryuoh for her unwavering support of Stanford e-Hiroshima.