The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

“You’re creating a problem for our society.”

That’s how one judge at a Tokyo court described Rina Bovrisse. At the time, in 2010, she was involved in a legal case of alleged workplace discri­mination against women. Despite the legal setback—and dismissive statements from recruiters implying she was a troublemaker for corporations—Bovrisse put her life back together.

Today, she is the founder of the Chateau School, the most expensive international preschool in Tokyo. What’s more, she’s found her mojo again.

Speaking to The ACCJ Journal about founding her school, Bovrisse said, “Entrepreneurship is amazing. It’s almost like creating your own sculpture. It’s heavy. It’s hard to carry it. It’s hard to engrave. But, once you’ve made the shape, it’s there. That’s the joy of it.”

Chateau School products: World Diplomacy clock, school bags, and uniforms.

FASHION CALLING
Born and raised in Tokyo, Bovrisse’s early childhood was typical for one who comes from a well-heeled family. She attended international schools in Japan for junior high and then went to boarding school in the United States for high school.

International by instinct, it made sense that she would attend college abroad. She is a graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, where she studied fashion, art, and design marketing.

Bovrisse had previously attended the school’s European campus, Parsons Paris, and the College of Central Saint Martin, one of London’s premiere art schools, for one year each.

So, it was clear from a young age that fashion was her calling. And it made sense that her early career would straddle some of the industry’s major centers: New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo.

“When I left Tokyo, it was during the bubble era, so everyone in Japan was super confident. And my dream since elementary school was always to work in fashion,” she remembers fondly.

Indeed, hers has been a globetrotting journey that gained steam during Japan’s economic boom in the 1980s and early 1990s, when she exuded a confident, happy-go-lucky attitude.

Her precipitous rise in the fashion industry in the 2000s, however, came crashing down when the global financial crisis hit in 2008. A year later, she lost her job.

CROSSING BORDERS
And it all started off so well. In 1998, Bovrisse’s first destination after college was Soho, one of New York’s trendiest neighbor­hoods. Over time, she would live in the city for 20 years.

In her first position, she worked in the Soho public relations office and showroom of Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons.

Not long after that, she was recruited by French fashion house Chanel, which also had a footprint in the city on 57th Street and Madison Avenue.

“With my background in Paris and London, I knew how to negotiate with Europeans. And, having grown up during Japan’s bubble, I had experienced how a luxury brand could be mass marketed. So, they thought that I was a good person to hire.”

Still in her early twenties, it was Bovrisse’s responsibility to travel between Paris and New York, visiting a showroom in the French capital and coming up with proposals for fashion products that predicted market trends for the showroom in New York.

“We were pretty much their first marketing team in the United States, and we were such a small team. The US market only recognized the brand as perfume when I joined, and we changed that perception to one of a fashion brand with completely new product and marketing strategies that targeted a wider range of generations. It was great.”

While still with the same company, she relocated to Japan three years later, in 2003.

“They asked me to help open their biggest boutique in the world in Ginza. I was the buyer for the Grand Ginza and 38 boutiques nationwide.”

Bovrisse was inspired by her son.

RETURNEE PROBLEM
As an only child, the move back to Tokyo should have been a highlight in her life. Not only did she receive a promotion, but it meant being close to family again.

Yet, no sooner had she returned than tragedy struck. Her mother suddenly passed away—and it happened while Bovrisse was in Paris on business.

Working up to 20 hours a day, and yet having not fully come to terms with her mother’s passing, she was somewhat at a loss. She couldn’t seem to find the time to process her grief, let alone the reality of her new work environment.

And the downward spiral was just beginning. As with many Japanese who return after having lived or worked abroad for many years, she felt discriminated against by colleagues.

“No one likes it when foreign-educated Japanese come back and work with Japanese people. They were very mean.”

It was not unusual for her to go to work only to find that a colleague had placed trash on her desk or inside her desk drawer, for instance.

“They hated me just because I was not Japanese-Japanese. So, the harassment level was really high.”

Rather surprisingly, some of the harassment came from female colleagues, many of whom were suspicious of her meteoric rise in the company. Bovrisse had become a senior executive by age 30.

WORKING LIFE

Following medical advice to make use of herbal remedies, Bovrisse decided to make adjustments to her lifestyle. She began working fewer hours and socializing infrequently.

“I told everyone that I need to leave at 10:00 p.m. rather than 4:00 a.m. Remember, this was a time before Japan became conscious of working hours.”

Even then, she “always wondered why we worked so many hours in Japan, even though I was working for the same French company as I did in New York.”

One reason, she explained, is that the staff in Japan worried excessively about details. What’s more, no-one wanted to make a decision, so meetings stretched from one hour to the next.

“And, if I pointed out that it was taking too long, of course, I would get attacked.”

So she asked to be relocated back to New York. In the end, they found space for her in the office in Hawaii, which was a relief.
“We worked from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.,” she remem­bers fondly.

The school concept started as a creative workshop.

Working as a buyer for the French fashion house, she would live in Hawaii for three years. She also started a family there.

But Hawaii’s honeymoon period wore off. Indeed, she was back to work within three weeks of her maternity leave.

And the regular two-day travel between Hawaii and Paris strained the bonds of marriage and motherhood.

“I was never home. And we didn’t have any support.”

What’s more, not many women executives in the fashion industry at the time had babies. As soon as Bovrisse checked in to a hotel in Paris during business trips, for instance, she would hand her son over to a babysitter.

In the end, the strain became intolerable, leading to the breakup of her marriage. And, when the global financial crisis hit in 2008, she was among a number of US-based executives to be laid off.

Luckily, the company relocated her to the Tokyo office. But she was concerned about how that work life and travel between Tokyo and Paris would impact her son, and decided to give up her career at Chanel, the dream that she had spent a decade building.

Instead, she took a different path focused on local opera­tions and less international travel so that she could maximize the time spent with her son.

CORPORATE CULTURE
A return to Japan’s sometimes unforgiving corporate culture beckoned, this time with a major European fashion label’s Asia–Pacific operations.

“I was the first female executive in Tokyo to oversee entire operations in Japan, Guam, and Saipan—about 500 staff—and reporting directly to the CEO.”

But soon after she started, she alleges, a new iteration of harassment towards her female staff began.

“What I witnessed was something that I had not seen before.”

Such acts as leaders threatening staff or forcing them to buy company products—most of which were prohibitively expensive for regular employees—shocked her.

According to Bovrisse, it was when she started to make inquiries about the allegations that she was harassed.

During one meeting with a senior manager, she claims she was questioned about her looks and advised to lose weight to fit into the company’s brand image, which favored slim and young women. This, she felt, was done to hurt her psychologically and to silence her.

When she took her complaints to the company’s headquarters, “they only cared about the illegal sales entry because of an upcoming IPO approval in Hong Kong.”

Shortly after her complaints, she alleges she was forced out of the com­pany. That decision precipitated her gender discrimination case.

EDUCATION IS KEY
The civil case that she brought—and lost—lasted four years, ending in 2014. “The ruling was: ‘Well compensated women should absorb this level of harassment.’ And that came from a female judge,” Bovrisse recalls with dismay.

What was her reaction to the verdict?

“No words. My career was gone. I lost the career that I’d built since I was young. My life was gone. My motherhood was gone. I lost everything.”

Reeling from shock following her legal defeat, Bovrisse was without work and her professional and personal lives were in tatters.

A single mother with no one to turn to, she looked inside herself and examined her experiences for answers. When she looked at her young son, a thought occurred to her that would change her life.

“I was really horrified to send him to Japanese schools. From what I had witnessed in my case, Japanese don’t speak about the problem; they choose to suffer rather than voice their concerns.”

When she spoke to a group of young female university under­graduates about her experiences, none of them expressed any excite­ment about entering the working world.

That’s when the solution dawned on Bovrisse. “This is the problem. The more research I did, the more I realized that education is the key.”

BATTLE-HARDENED
The Chateau School began in 2011 in the small base­ment of a building on the famous Cat Street in Tokyo’s fashionable Omotesando district. Bovrisse’s young son “was its first customer.”

Today, the school comprises two locations in Azabu and has almost 100 students called Diplomats.

Harking back to Bovrisse’s international experiences, a key value for the school is to teach children about the world’s cultural values, highlighting more than 100 countries in just nine months through sensorial experimentation using three languages.

But why focus on early childhood education?

“I always had this guilt trip regarding my son—that I was never there for him, even though I was always with him.

For the first time, I wanted to do something that would be 100 percent for him. Education is the best gift parents can give to their children, and I wanted to create something special from scratch for him. He inspired me so much on this new journey.”

Chateau School is the only “lifestyle” preschool in Tokyo, and is open 12 months a year and on national holidays. Anything parents cannot get help with at work or preschool is handled by the school’s concierge.

From a personalized door-to-door school bus linked to parents smartphones by GPS to organic school lunches, dinners, and snacks, as well as lessons, tutors, parties, nursery during school holidays, and a digital daily journal that parents can check from anywhere in the world while they travel for work, everything is taken care of. And this month, Chateau School is launching its creative second brand, Candy School.

Bovrisse today brings to bear all her life’s experiences to her entrepreneurial journey. Have those experiences prepared her well?

“Yes,” she replies almost immediately. “I have no fear now.”

The flagship Chateau School Jewel Box in Azabu

John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.