The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

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“Entrepreneurship is about breaking codes and applying new values. I think that applies to everybody. In this sense, a single mother taking care of a child at home can be considered a working mom—an entrepreneur, even,” says Ari Horie, entrepreneur, maverick, and mother of two children.

Originally from Hiroshima, Horie established her first startup—B! Minds/MoChiGo.com, a third language-learning platform for children and families—in 2012, before turning her attention to women entrepreneurs.

A marketing executive who worked for IBM and has been featured on international broadcasting networks, including CNN’s 10 Visionary Women in 2014, Horie is CEO and founder of Women’s Startup Lab (WSL), a women-focused accelerator based in Silicon Valley.

In an exclusive interview with The Journal, Horie speaks openly about the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs both in Japan and the United States, and the novel solutions her “lab” is trying to implement in this regard.

Tantalizingly, Horie says Japan is ready—now more than ever—for a women-focused startup accelerator, and encourages readers to “watch this space.”

Why did you start the Women’s Startup Lab?
Well, it goes back to when I first came to the United States at age 17 for a one-year foreign exchange student program. When I went back to Japan, my perception of the world had shifted so much that being in Japan did not feel like the right thing for me anymore. So I left for the United States again.

Because I did not speak English well, a lot of people stepped in and helped me out. As a result, I often developed beyond my expectations, which is to say that my life has not been as predictable as one plus one equals two. It has been the case that one (me) plus one (the other person who jumped in to help me out) equaled five (an unexpected result that led to my personal growth).

Moreover, as part of growing up in Japan is based on teamwork, and you are collectively held responsible for the mistakes of everyone else in the team (I played volleyball), I experienced early on in my life the power of the group and the community.

The United States, however, is a culture that is generally based on individualism, and I was greatly attracted to that. And while I think there is a lot of beauty in that, I think what is perhaps missing is the sense of teamwork that exists in Japan.

And as I wanted to keep the strengths of US culture while connecting it to the strengths of Japanese culture, and to do it in a magical way so that one plus one equals five, I decided to launch Women’s Startup Lab.

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How did the main concept behind Women’s Startup Lab begin?
The idea began with the concept of not knowing more, because there are a lot of things to know; through YouTube and Google and so on, there is no shortage of ways to find out the knowledge.

But the question I asked myself was: What accelerates knowledge? It’s people stepping in and telling you the things you did not know you did not know, thereby allowing you to access areas of growth that you had not imagined before.

This is also where the concept of hito—the Japanese word for person—comes in. The Chinese pictograph for hito suggests two people, one leaning on the other, which suggests the people leaning on each other to achieve success.

So the idea behind Women’s Startup Lab is not just about talented people hanging out and incubating your own company; it is also about getting to know each other organically and letting the magic happen—this is the idea of “hito-logy.”

In addition, we have developed programs that allow participants to deepen relationships and trust in a way that the magic I mentioned happens in a faster and more high impact way.

Is the WSL for women only?
As I mentioned earlier, the main idea of hito-logy is a focus on collaborative growth. In our case, it symbolizes a new woman entrepreneur being supported by a peer female entrepreneur—a seasoned founder supporting another founder who may be new to entrepreneurship.

The female entrepreneurs are also supported by a mentor, who may be men or women, as well as by an investor—who is also a hito. So the symbol, and the Lab, exist in different formats, but the main idea is that we need each other in order to grow and succeed.

Women’s Startup Lab is based on the concept of hito—male and female mentors support each other.

Women’s Startup Lab is based on the concept of hito—male and female mentors support each other.

What gap does the Women’s Startup Lab fill?
Back when I was still building the MoChiGo startup, I was—like so many others—trying to figure things out: how to network, gain funding, develop a product, and so on. That’s why I went to an entrepreneur incubator event, and that had a lasting impact on me.

At the event, there was a nurse with over 20 years’ experience at Stanford Hospital who had an idea for how to solve a problem involving challenges of getting doctors, nurses, and patients on the same page regarding how to administer the best medical care.

The problem was one of lack of effective communication between these three groups, and the nurse wanted to build a platform to minimize confusion and mistakes while increasing efficiency and positive patient outcomes. It was a brilliant idea, and she seemed ready.

And yet, as with so many early-stage female entrepreneurs, who may not have the funds to create their ideal team from the beginning, the problem she was trying to solve did not match with the demographics of the audience she was speaking to—which was all male and young.

For women in such situations, the only way to attract resources and momentum is to rely on personal currency, or invite counterparts, usually males, who can help you pitch your idea to the community.

In this case, it was a community of engineers who were more interested in creating a dating app or one that allows customers in a bar to rate the beauty of women inside it—these were the pitches that interested them.

But they weren’t things that, in my opinion, would change the world. That’s when I thought: if we are to continue like this, then what we have to change is the demographic and environment that we deal with as entrepreneurs.

And that’s when the idea of creating a separate group that has a common thread that can gain the confidence of all involved—while achieving success—emerged.

So the lab allows women like that nurse to pursue their dreams. It has an ecosystem that is geared towards them; it means they don’t have to give in on a great idea.

What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
Fundamentally, being an entrepreneur is about being resilient. But I don’t know if you can say “I’m resilient, and therefore . . . .” For me, being resilient means continuing to be active about solving the problem.

Entrepreneurs are curious; they are problem solvers; they find a problem that they want to solve; and they are innovative in the way they go about solving that problem. The problem becomes an energy bar for their spirit.

What are some of the challenges you have overcome—as you have said elsewhere, you were raised in a single-parent family in a fairly conservative country?
Put in those terms, it is challenging to be different in Japan. And being different started off by having a pink backpack when in elementary school, among others who had a red backpack, or being a single child in a culture where that can be a stigma—as in you are the child of a broken family, therefore x, y, z.

But these are things in life that you can do nothing about.

Perhaps the most challenging thing or moment for me, when I thought there is nothing I can do, was when my mother was diagnosed [as having] cancer.

Although she had Japanese medical insurance while she was visiting me in the United States, where she was receiving treatment, it turned out that the insurance did not cover her treatment—contrary to what she had been told. And this is after she had paid into the Japanese insurance system for her entire life, and was still doing so at the time of her diagnosis.

So, when she became really sick, she had no insurance and we were put in the position of watching her struggle—her medical bills were so high that we considered selling the house.

That’s when I decided to take some time out and to find a solution—I picked up the phone, did my research, begged wherever I could. I simply said: “There is no way I can let my mom die. There must be something I can do.” I eventually found a solution, and when I did, I thought: “If I can do that, I can do anything.”

Talking about Japanese and American approaches to entrepreneurship: are there similarities and differences, generally speaking?
They are very different. And it’s not that one is better than the other. But if you think about it, Japan has historically got a craftsmanship mentality. They make something, perfect, and then put it in the market.

There is no concept of presenting something to the customer, and then getting feedback before going back to the drawing board to make it better. What this means is that sometimes the customer may not use the product, or you’re completely off.

In the United States, the rule is to present something that has a lot of bugs in it—you know, software that has a lot of bugs in it. This means you make a little bit of something and then present it, or you don’t even make it but just talk about the concept.

And then, if you have the concept, you act as though you have a product. You may even put it on E-bay for people to bet on it and thereby get feedback on pricing.

The idea here is to test, keep on testing, and to get customers involved early on. You may not even think of them as customers because you get them involved in your own startup process.

That’s why the word “lab” in Women’s Startup Lab is really important—we continue to test out the concept constantly. There is no such thing as, “We are perfect; we are with it.” Because when you stop swimming, you’re dead as an entrepreneur. You have to be constantly testing, moving, and iterating.

This is the very opposite of the Japanese concept of commitment, perfection. They are perfectionists who seek completion: “I did this much. This is who I am.” I think that goes against the entrepreneurship mentality.

Members of the company’s impact team: (from left) Martha Silva, executive assistant; Ari Horie; Shadi Nayyer, programs; Glen Allen, CBO

Members of the company’s impact team: (from left) Martha Silva, executive assistant;
Ari Horie; Shadi Nayyer, programs; Glen Allen, CBO

What are some of the iterations that Women’s Startup Lab went through?
It started with a three-month mentorship-only program, which was reduced to a three-week program following feedback from our users. Following more feedback, we added an educational element. Some then said, “We don’t want to be educated in a classroom—we are entrepreneurs, and we want to be moving around.”

That’s when I decided to throw them out onto Union Square where they have to talk to strangers about their idea—they have to give a presentation but feel uncomfortable doing it; they may even encounter insults or people simply walking by, but they still have to perform with confidence and have a clear vision about their idea.

As an entrepreneur, you always have to be grounded. You have to perform at your best—and keep up the energy—even while someone is yelling at you.

And we’ve made many other changes, some of which were not liked by everyone, and some people left because of them.

So then the question was: Is it the program; is it the case that we did not articulate the reasons for the changes well enough? Perhaps it was just bad timing? But I didn’t compromise my commitment to the program, or the need to deliver something that I had promised.

What has entrepreneurship taught you about work and life?
You have to be true to yourself to understand what you’re good at, as well as what you’re not good at—which means being clear as to where your passions are coming from. Accepting who you are begins with really knowing your strengths.

What’s more, you need to have strong values—values will guide you through difficulties. If you have values that you can align with your work, it will allow you to say the things you need to say even when it’s hard to say them, or it is difficult to commit to them.

And it’s worth remembering having a startup is not a job; it’s your life’s work, and you can align that with having fun.

But knowing yourself also means accepting the fact that you may not be an entrepreneur—which requires that you are addicted to finding and solving problems. And if you are not that kind of person, it is okay to say so and to do something else.

With your experience of Japan and Silicon Valley, what needs to be done to improve the ecosystem for women entrepreneurs in Japan?
There are many steps we can take. Government policy has to change in many ways—tax and loan structures have to make it easier for entrepreneurs to do their work. Even if you have a great idea, it cannot he harnessed if there is no system to support you.

As I mentioned earlier, accepting who you are is important. Japanese may not be as individualistic as Americans, so they need to know their strengths—which is teamwork—and the environment in which they live.

So, instead of forcing the Japanese to think as Americans do, we should focus on the way the Japanese think, and to make that a platform for entrepreneurship.

The same applies to men and women entrepreneurs: fundamentally, they think differently. If you keep telling women to think as men do, and to act as they do, then it is not surprising that men keep thinking that women are not capable, which leads a lot of women to lose confidence.

So we need to identify the strengths of the Japanese, and of women, and then to harness that in an environment that supports entrepreneurs.

Do you think Japan needs its own Women’s Startup Lab?
We have been discussing that lately. In a sense, there is nothing for us to lose by expanding into Japan. If we fail, it means only a few people can benefit from our work; and we if succeed, it means there are more.

But there really is no sense of failure, in my mind, because I’m not here to prove to the world that I’m right or wrong. I’m simply doing the work that I think matters and that will have lasting impact. I think that Japan is ready right now for us to come over and share our wisdom and resources with them. So it’s probably the right thing.

Turning to work–life balance: how do you balance the two?
Sometimes people want to tackle problems based on what they understand right in front of them. Often the problem is not what you think it is. You need to step back and ask: What is your definition of success? And this applies to a business and to the individual.

Unless you know your own value of success, you really can’t build anything.

I’ve been opposed to the term “work–life balance”; it’s as if “balance” is the right way. If you look at history, many of the people who have had an impact and changed the world were hardly balanced people; they were close to crazy; or they were really unbalanced.

Horie with her children

Horie with her children

It’s only after the fact, that we say what they did was kind of good, and we call it genius.

I would cross out “work–life balance”—forget balance; it doesn’t mean anything; who cares about balance. What matters is “work–life design”—which means you get to design it any way you want.

For me, work is a life worth living for, and some people express this through projects; through work; some people express their life’s passion through raising children—and I think that should be recognized; it should be honored.

I mean, all mothers are all working moms, whether we are inside the house or at the office—we are all working moms. We all work, period. So the conversation begins with what is “work–life design” or, simply, what is your life’s design?

Are you optimistic about Women’s Startup Lab?
I’m totally optimistic. I think we are in the right place. There is a lot of good energy and I think we reflect what the market wants right now.

And if I fail, then that is not what the market wanted. It’s nothing personal about me; nothing to point a finger at; it’s just a failure in execution.

But, given all the attention we are getting, I think we are in the right place.