The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Yuri Akahira knows how important it is to be confident and believe in your work. As a 26-year-old facing a room full of graying bucho, and working in Japan for the first time, she directed pitch meetings for her company’s Japan opening in 2008. Now that’s intimidating.

“You’ve got to be ambitious, and be an achiever. Sure, it’s nerve-wracking to call on a 60-year-old director and sell to them. Building a relationship is so important; I still keep in touch with my older clients from those early days,” she says.

A self-described trailblazer, in 2008 Akahira established Meltwater Japan, which provides business information, with three international colleagues.

Since 2011, she has served as managing director of the company’s Tokyo office. As the only Japanese speaker on the team at the time, in addition to closing deals with new clients she was also charged with localizing all company materials. This proved a mammoth task for someone who had never attempted that type of work.

“Looking back, we probably should have hired someone professional to do translations. I had to translate, create materials, even adapt our processes. No one could give me feedback, so that was tough,” Akahira reflects.

Together with her manager, they strategized how best to adapt the global Meltwater sales methodology to the Japanese market. Akahira disagrees with the notion that international brands entering Japan must start their operations from scratch, to successfully reach what some see as a difficult market. It’s important to maintain and adapt the company culture wherever you go, she argues, whether in Japan or sub-Saharan Africa, for that matter.

“The key is finding the right people, which is the most challenging part of the process,” she believes.

Ping pong, darts, and techno
Akahira attends numerous career forums and hires only bilingual candidates through the company’s lengthy recruiting process, which comprises at least four stages. “Sometimes we go to forums and hire no one,” she emphasizes.

The Meltwater Japan office staff mostly is made up of Japanese who have been raised or have studied abroad. Akahira grew up in Tokyo and did not attend an international high school, which was rare in the company at its inception. The average employee was 26 years old when she initially joined, and is now about 28. Fun is an ingrained part of the culture. Meltwater recently moved from its long-time digs in Shibuya, an area the start-up team chose because of its youthful image and reputation as a high-tech hub.

Now, they own a larger space in Ebisu, but the ping-pong table, dartboard, and Wii moved right along with them. On the day Akahira spoke to The Journal, techno music was pulsating throughout the open office, even before 9am.

Celebrations, even mini-cheers, are daily occurrences. When someone makes a sale, they ring the bell, and others celebrate with them. “Small celebrations are so important, constantly, to motivate people,” Akahira says.

Such examples of light-hearted team building are often missing from Japanese work environments, she believes. When asked about other differences between traditional Japanese and Western offices, she points to the lack of key performance indicators (KPIs) and associated consequences in many Japanese firms.

We have clear KPIs based on specific numbers. You must achieve, and then you get rewarded. It’s that simple.”
Formal, weekly feedback sessions and even spontaneous daily feedback help her team achieve their targets.

Public vs private
Akahira has not always been a business shark. After obtaining a double major in sociology and international development from the University of Oregon, she spent three years as a social worker at a women’s social service agency. There she managed cases involving violence against women, and supported homeless women in the Washington, D.C. area—which has one of the highest proportions of homeless women in all the United States.

“Working for women is and always has been my passion, so I was incredibly lucky to have landed a job as a social worker for women as my first job out of college,” she says. After three years, she felt compelled to seek experience in the private sector as well, before going back to school for her Masters degree.

Shortly after interviewing with Meltwater in Boston and New York, she was on her way to Singapore to work as a sales consultant. Just two months into her one-year stint in the country, she closed the company’s first big Japanese client, H.I.S. Travel.

She will always credit her public-sector experience with helping her become a better communicator and coach, however.

“I can put myself at different levels to communicate with anyone, from ambassadors to C-level executives (who we work with every day), to homeless women. This is not an innate ability; rather, it’s something you need to work to develop,” Akahira says.

She never ended up going for that Masters degree, as her new private-sector career rapidly took flight. Does she regret that decision?
“We have several team members with their MBA in this office, and they say that the practical experience they gain from working at Meltwater can be comparable to having an MBA. I still haven’t given up on the idea of getting my Masters someday, but business learning and on-the-job training are invaluable, especially for what we do,” she replies.

Akahira also extols the value of curiosity. “I ask a lot of questions; some people may feel a bit annoyed by this!” she laughs.

Women at work
Her passion for and devotion to women’s issues is something she has carried over into her current role. When asked her thoughts on Womenomics and the Japanese government’s efforts on this front, she is cautiously optimistic.

“I think [Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe . . . is doing much better than previous prime ministers, especially when you consider the activities of his wife [in support of women’s issues]. But, there is still so much room for improvement. The lack of support for women with children is a huge issue,” Akahira says.

“Plus, when you go back to the office after maternity leave, people still judge you [for leaving on time to pick up the kids, for example].
“Unlike Japan, Singapore is pretty good in terms of government and private-sector support for working women,” she adds.

For parents, be they men or women, to feel comfortable returning to the office, a sense of work–life balance is essential. Akahira firmly believes everyone should be able to leave the office at their designated finish time, if they were truly focused during working hours. She tries to leave by 7pm every day to set an example for her team.

“People need to work smart and efficiently. We need to teach that. I try not to open my laptop on Saturdays or check emails at night unless it’s urgent,” she insists.

When not inspiring, coaching, or celebrating with her team at Meltwater, Akahira makes time for networking and participating in community groups in support of diversity. She has mentored a young woman through the Tomodachi MetLife Women’s Leadership Program, and attends women-focused events hosted by the U.S. Japan Council, Nikkei, and FEW.

“I try to do as much as I can to help young women succeed. It inspires me.”

Brandi Goode has been the editor-in-chief of The Journal since May 2014, and helped lead the magazine’s relaunch last year.
Working for women is and always has been my passion.”