The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

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“All children are born brilliant. They are curious. They love to explore. And they love to have fun,” Barbara Zamora Väätäjä tells The Journal. For Väätäjä, a child’s education is not a trivial thing. After all, she is a mother and the founder of Zava Holdings Inc., the company that manages Moomin International Kindergarten (MIK).

The first Scandinavian school in Tokyo, MIK offers “personalized and fully integrated early childhood education and care in English using Finnish curriculum and early childhood Scandinavian learning traditions where play is at the center of learning.” The school caters to children aged 18 months to six years.

MIK is not the only item on Väätäjä’s entrepreneurial agenda, however. Above the school, in the same modern building in the Akasaka business district, she runs a shared office and events space called the Scandinavian Center. Her hope is that together they will become a hub for education, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

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ANCESTOR’S TALE
At first glance, it appears that entrepreneurship came to Väätäjä by way of necessity. It was when she was expecting her first child back in 2011 that she felt the urge to establish her company. Realizing that there was a dearth of progressive educational offerings in Japan for her soon-to-be-born child, she decided to create MIK.

But a closer inspection of her family reveals an entrepreneurial lineage that includes a succession of self-employed and self-starting entrepreneurs.

“I come from a people who have never worked outside of their family. My mother’s side, for example, comes from a long line of coffee growers,” she explains.

A naturalized US citizen, Väätäjä is originally from Guatemala, a Central American country on Mexico’s southern border. While her formative years were spent in the country’s bustling capital, Guatemala City, she often visited her maternal family in the countryside. There, she played in the rivers and surrounding banana fields, enjoying a “childhood of freedom.”

It was during those heady days in the Guatemalan countryside that she first learned the virtue of hard work and self-reliance. “They work the land before the sun comes up,” she adds.

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GLOBAL CITIZEN
When she was 16, she and her immediate family relocated to Washington, DC. This is when Väätäjä’s sense of individualism and adventure emerged. Attaching herself to a friend from Tunisia, she quickly developed a love for French. Later, she would add Japanese to her linguistic toolkit, which already included English and her native Spanish.

Väätäjä’s first love, however, was not languages or education; it was accounting—a skill that would later serve her well as a business starter. As there were no undergraduate courses in the subject at her college in the United States, she instead chose economics as her major.

Väätäjä spent her junior year abroad living in France and the United Kingdom. Before her return to Guatemala, her knowledge of French landed her an internship in the London offices of Credit Suisse, a multinational financial services company.

At the Swiss bank, she had the opportunity to speak with major French clients. That experience exposed her to finance and helped boost her confidence.

After graduating and returning to Guatemala, a friend living in New York encouraged her to relocate there. Within days of her arrival in the Big Apple, she got a job in finance.

Wall Street proved to be the making of her. Working for investment bank Lehman Brothers, Väätäjä began as an analyst in the bonds market. The experience is something that she looks back on with some gratefulness.

“At Lehman, I was given a lot of responsibilities when I was really young, and I’ve come to really appreciate that.”

But life at Lehman was not a piece of cake. As the only woman on her team, it took a while for Väätäjä to learn to navigate the male-dominated culture.

At one point Väätäjä was only moments away from quitting, but was convinced otherwise by a concerned senior colleague, a woman who encouraged her to change teams within the company.

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In her new role in the sales department, she managed her own team and clients. She also thrived under a new manager—a man who not only praised her when she did a good job, but who also put her feet to the fire when she did not meet her own high standards.

Indeed, during her years at Lehman, Väätäjä was able to build several small businesses within the firm, and at the same time earn an MBA from New York University.

FINNISH INFLUENCE
Even while on Wall Street, Väätäjä had a burning desire to go it alone. “I didn’t know what business I wanted to create, but I knew that was what I wanted to do.” In 2007, just before the Lehman Shock, she had an opportunity to relocate to Japan.

Having struggled to settle into the corporate culture, in part due to the language barrier, she decided to take time out to study Japanese. And as the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in March 2011, she established her company.

Her first business idea was to set up a coffee distribution company in Japan—a move that harked back to her origins. But the numbers did not add up. The startup costs alone were prohibitively high.

With the birth of her first child approaching, she decided to do her homework on how children learn. Väätäjä read widely on early childhood education and examined education systems from around the world. The research was revealing.

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“Can you imagine learning that your baby has multiple intelligences, and that everything we do with them in the first six years has direct impact on how they think and how they learn during their entire lifetime?”

Her reading lead to Finland. Not only is it her husband’s country of origin, but the nation’s education system has been praised around the world.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for instance, has placed Finland at or near the top since 2000, when it began assessing and ranking the performance of 15-year-olds from around the world in math, science, and reading.

“What I admire about the Nordic countries, especially Finland, is their way of thinking. They put a high premium on education, great teachers, and helping children thrive early in life by allowing them to remain curious and to learn in a non-pressure environment through hands-on experiences and real-world application.”

“They also have a sense of sustainability and quality, and of what is beautiful, simple, and useful. And that can be seen in their education system, companies, designs, and technology,” Väätäjä says.

Unsurprisingly, the Nordic way can be experienced throughout MIK and its annex—the Scandinavian Center. There one finds Finnish teachers, products from Moomin (a brand based on a Finnish comic book, which Väätäjä uses under license), Danish architecture and interior design.

STARTUP SPIRIT
How does Väätäjä see entrepreneurial life? “Being an entrepreneur can be a challenge but is also very exciting,” Väätäjä explains. “You have to prepare yourself mentally for that and remain curious and learn from your mistakes. Also, you may have to go without pay for a while, so make sure you have some savings to rely on.”

As parting words of wisdom for budding entrepreneurs, Väätäjä simply says: “Just go for it. I think the opportunities in Japan for many kinds of business are just tremendous.”

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John Amari is a writer and editor from the UK who specializes in articles on startups, entrepreneurs, science, tech, and business.
What I admire about the Nordic countries, especially Finland, is their way of thinking.