The obstacles facing women looking to start their own businesses in Japan can be overwhelming. Startup Lady Japan is a community trying to help them. Founder Amee Xu tells us how.
Founded in Tokyo in 2018 by four female entrepreneurs, Startup Lady Japan is an organisation that provides mentoring, resources and training to female entrepreneurs. Started by four women, Amee Xu, Moeko Suzuki, Koko Sato and Steffie Harner, it was born out of a frustration at the lack of opportunities they knew existed for women working alongside them and the huge barriers to entry they saw to entrepreneurship. Via education and training, they hope to help turn the tide.
Japan’s work culture, notoriously tough with its long hours and little vacation time, is also famously behind when it comes to gender equality. “The short answer is, Japanese work culture is not very welcoming to women,” says Amee. “A lot of women are hesitant to take up leadership positions when they’re offered to them, the main reason being that they understand being a manager at a company requires very long hours. You’re expected to put in a lot for no pay, even if you’re a working mum. You’re expected to look after your kid and care for the home. So, this is not just a governmental problem, but also social pressure, and that is not an easy problem to solve.”
The idea for Startup Lady Japan was spurred by the quartet’s collective experiences as women in the workplace. For Amee, it was the things she noticed while working as a recruiter that shocked her the most. “Things such as mothers not being able to find a daycare or not being able to come back to their jobs after they marry. It was these societal phenomenons that made me want to do something for women in Japan,” she says. “I think the government is doing a lot, but they haven’t tackled the root of the problem.”
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To do their bit, Startup Lady Japan functions on a subscription-based membership model, giving information to women keen to enter the startup space and holding events. Free members become active parts of the Startup Lady community, whilst paid members get access to training, resources and seasoned business mentors such as Maki Rui Nagamori (Founder of Carry On Inc.) and Chika Tsunoda (Founder of Anytimes Inc.) amongst others. In addition, they host events such as their monthly Startup Lady Night, which features successful female entrepreneur speakers and educational workshops. Much like the women they hope to support, the road to get here hasn’t been easy. “We can talk all day about the problems we had,” laughs Amee. “We have like 10 million great ideas going and a lot of different directions, so we are really trying to hone in on some very simple and achievable goals. We want to work on opening it up to entrepreneurs from all over the country and the world. A large part of our organisation is giving them knowledge that is applicable to anywhere in the world so we can expand our membership more globally.”
Alongside expanding that membership, Amee sees the main hurdles that face her mission centred on deep-rooted social and cultural norms that need to be overturned. “A lot of it rides on educating the next generation, men included. If Japanese society becomes more equal in terms of the share of family responsibilities, I think women will start embracing management positions. But, that can’t start from a very superficial level like policy changes. Our main objective is to help female entrepreneurs, but it is our philosophy that if we want to create an equal world, we can’t go towards a gender bias where we exclude men,” she explains. In addition, there are social barriers that stand in the way of entrepreneurship in Japan, regardless of gender. That’s why it ranks as the fourth-lowest in global entrepreneurship in the world. “There’s a trend in Japan where it is good to be stable and work for a big company,” says Amee. “People work in one company for more than 10 years or even their whole life. It’s a very risk-averse country and everyone knows they have to take a leap of faith to get things started.” Combating the two is certainly challenging, but it’s the key to opening the doors – to everyone, as far as she sees it. “Our overall philosophy is to create a world where men and women are treated equally. One way to do this, especially for Japan, is to provide support and education and make sure that female entrepreneurs are on a level playing field with men.”