At first blush, it’s easy to be intimidated by the resume of Kaori Sasaki. She is the queen bee of women’s conferences and entrepreneurship, not only in Japan, but also around the globe—if one measures an international women’s conference by passion, personal connection, and level of individual satisfaction.
Little does she know that she had me at concerts by the Doobie Brothers and Pet Shop Boys, famous bands from the US and the UK, respectively, but that’s a twist in this story less familiar to her many admirers.
With two kids of her own, Sasaki is also responsible for the mother of all women’s conferences: the International Conference for Women in Business (ICWB). Now in its 20th year, the ICWB was made even more famous by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s selfie with speakers at the 2014 gathering.
Perhaps I took it for granted then when I shook hands at the conference and gabbed with a variety of world class women leaders—including contemporary artist Sputniko!, Yokohama Mayor Fumiko Hayashi, and Marina, daughter of the former Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad.
But that’s what ICWB attendees have come to expect, which is why the gathering is the place for what I like to call Brain Gain and Passion Fashion: You can learn and enjoy yourself with speakers who don’t just “speak and run,” but also stay at the event, many for the entire day.
This year’s ICWB had more than 1,100 participants and 61 speakers, and what I noticed is that you see a lot of people laughing and smiling. Personal empowerment is joyful, and that joy extends well beyond the gospel choir finale at this year’s conference—according to the ICWB, the gathering has enjoyed 98 percent endorsement by attendees over two decades.
Just like what the choir sang, amazing grace is an apt descriptor of Sasaki’s integration into Japan’s power centers.
Besides her longtime chairing of the ICWB, she is president and CEO of translation/interpretation company UNICUL International, Inc., as well as eWoman, Inc., a one-stop shopping portal for smart women consumers that also offers public relations strategy and consultation services, including web research, branding, and product development. Whew! Somehow this super busy woman pulls it off with a smile.
If that weren’t enough, she is the recipient of an honorary doctorate from her study abroad alma mater, Elmira College (2008), a four year, private, coeducational, liberal arts college located in upstate New York.
Born and raised in Yokohama, Sasaki describes her father as an entrepreneurial type, who changed jobs frequently but whose constant movement is probably what spurred on this woman-in-motion.
Sasaki’s success began early. She attended Catholic kindergarten and tested into the junior and high schools affiliated with the prestigious Yokohama National University.
“I was very lucky to get into the elementary school,” she says, a modest reference to the hard work and preparation she put into her studies to get accepted into one of Japan’s best university preparatory schools. It’s not unusual for the number of applicants who apply for such schools to hit six or seven times the capacity.
“At the very beginning (when she was six or seven years old), I was taking trains to go to elementary school.” Sasaki later moved closer to the school and was able to walk, whereas almost everyone else in her class was still taking commuter trains.
The much-touted story of Abe Lincoln’s miles-long walk to school has a Japanese correlation here: the importance of education and shared experience with others who value it can last a lifetime. A long commute allows children to share precious social time that extends into adulthood. I see it everyday riding the Tokyo Metro.
Of the students she met in her formative grade school years, she says, “We are very close and meet fairly often.” The friendship networks she formed in elementary and junior high school are part of her professional and personal network today.
Sasaki realizes, however, that her uniqueness is not just in professional networking, a practice promoted these days but one that is tinged with impersonal benefit and career advancement. A lot of people “net-work,” but her preferred style of connecting to others revolves around friendship, a skill she honed from childhood.
She loves meeting a variety of people with whom she can connect and introduce to others. This leads to the cohesive whole one sees on display at the ICWB. It’s not just a business-, academic- or private-sector gathering; it’s virtually everything—with business, academic, entertainment, and sports figures gathered under one roof.
A lot of speakers at business conferences may arrive thirty minutes before a talk and then leave 10 minutes after the conclusion of their speech commitment. “Most of the 60 speakers stayed for 10 and a half hours,” she says of this year’s conference. “They enjoy themselves. They are excited about it.” They meet people, and they trust her in putting them in a workshop or panel where they become very good friends with speakers who initially were strangers.
People who are first-timers at her women’s conference may not understand how different the ambiance is. Sasaki plans everything: from the timeline (how people might feel toward a panel in the morning versus the afternoon), lighting, lunch menu, to the music, all of which are designed to dazzle the senses and make people more in the mood to connect, converse, and inspire.
The setting is jam packed with panels and workshops, but the atmosphere is more homey than business-like.
“It’s a very emotional experience I intend to create. If I were just to ask someone to come and speak and go, I wouldn’t have to do it because you can meet that person everywhere. Thirty years ago, maybe, it was difficult to hear real voices, but now with YouTube and seminars, you have greater access to most speakers.”
How many international women’s conferences begin with a prime minister and end with the conference chair singing with a gospel choir! Which brings us back to the Doobie Brothers and Pet Shop Boys.
Sasaki has nearly 20,000 Twitter followers (@kaorisasaki), and I recently became one. I quickly tweeted the latter group’s 1986 smash hit video “West End Girls” to her after our interview, an inside joke in reference to her interpreting days when she rubbed shoulders with international superstars.
Sasaki graduated in 1983 from the Department of Comparative Culture, Faculty of Foreign Languages, of Sophia University. Then, in short order, she was an interpreter to the many musicians visiting one of the world’s top entertainment consumer markets.
Within four years of graduating from university, she had founded UNICUL, with a network of interpreters and translators who operate in 70 languages.
Sasaki is well known in Japan as having been a reporter for many years at TV Asahi, and an anchor for TBS TV’s “60 Minutes” in Japan. She’s even got a work-related injury; while on assignment in South Africa, she was shot in the leg during a political demonstration.
I’d say an honorary doctorate—for services rendered to humanity—is long overdue.
Dr. Nancy Snow is a speaker, university lecturer, and author who has been published in outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian. She is currently in Japan as a Social Science Research Council Abe Fellow, completing her next book, Japan: The Super Nation Brand.
. . . [Sasaki’s] preferred style of connecting to others revolves around friendship . . .