The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Venture capitalist and impact investment trailblazer Eriko Suzuki knows a thing or two about mid-career change and taking on ever-greater challenges. After all, her career has straddled several fields—from investment banking to startups, retail to impact investing, and even venture capital.

And that’s not to mention an upbringing that began in Japan but has included time spent in the Middle East, North America, and Africa.

Today, she is a general partner at venture capital firm Fresco Capital and an advisor at impact investment company Mistletoe Inc. At the same time, she has created a women’s wellness community and raised a family.

How has Suzuki accomplished so much in such a short time? The secret is an integrated life in which work and family are seamlessly blended.

“At the end of the day, you’re not two personas—the one at work and the one at home. And you’re not a machine. I think it’s more natural to have a life that’s integrated, and that is increasingly possible thanks to technology,” Suzuki told The ACCJ Journal.

AN OPEN BOOK
Achieving a perfectly seamless work–life balance is not some­thing that Suzuki had easily managed. Her efforts to do so have been ongoing, and include struggles and missteps.

“I’ve learned a lot through failure,” she said. “I some­times failed in communicating with my teammates when my child was sick, for instance; or in communication with my partner. I thought I could fake it and act like everything was okay.”

Suzuki is talking about one of the most challenging moments in her life—a time shortly after she had her second child while also holding down a full-time, strategy and finance position at luxury goods retailer Coach.

While working conditions at Coach were an improvement on the long and stressful days as an invest­­ment banker, raising two children and working a full day remained a challenge.

At first, Suzuki tried to manage both ends of her life without fully leveraging the support of colleagues or her partner, giving the impression that all was well.

However, that strategy only served to raise expectations of her ability—expectations that sometimes didn’t match the reality of her inner struggle to cope.

As the stress of trying to be all things to all people mounted, it became clear that she had to change something or risk putting her health in jeopardy.

In the end, Suzuki chose transparency and sought greater support from family and colleagues.

“Finding key stakeholders or key supporters at work is always good. But unless you start voicing your concerns, no one will know about them.”

CHILDHOOD DREAM
Born in Tokyo, Suzuki’s early years were spent in the Middle East and North America, with stints in Africa and Japan. When she was four years old, her family relocated to Houston, Texas. Three years later, they were on the road once more—to Toronto, Canada.

When they returned to Japan for two years when she was a junior high school student, she suffered a “reverse culture shock,” she recalls. And then she was uprooted again, this time to Bahrain, an island nation in the Persian Gulf. That is where she spent her high school years.

Those early experiences living in diverse cultures had a major influence on Suzuki’s life and career plans. So, it’s not surprising that her work today revolves around impact investing, a form of investment that focuses on both returns and social outcomes.

“I had the privilege of living abroad from a young age, and had this passion for development and a sense of the inequality of opportunities. So I really wanted to work for the World Bank. When I was 13 years old, I thought that would be my career, and I really planned my whole life around that.”

LESSONS LEARNED
With a career at the World Bank beckoning, Suzuki won a scholarship to McGill University in Canada, where she double majored in economics and development studies with a minor in mathematics.

Between her second and third year at college, she took time off to work as an intern for a World Bank-affiliated organization with operations in Kisumu, a large port city on Lake Victoria, in western Kenya. There, she was tasked with analyzing perso­nal micro-finance models and infrastructure development programs piloted in the region by the European Union.

While that experience was invaluable to her as a young person, she admits that it had limitations. “It was a great opportunity, but, while I was there, I felt so incapable. I couldn’t speak many of the local languages in that region.”

But language was not the only issue.

“The work itself was quite bureaucratic. It was not bottom-up, it was not localized, and it wasn’t really empowering for the local community.”

What’s more, micro-finance models, which include such programs as providing loans for school fees, didn’t necessarily support sustainable development—especially entrepreneurship.

“The enterprise aspect was lacking,” she said. “What else can a person do to sustain their livelihoods after they’ve received a loan—whether it’s starting a honey production business or increasing their stock of cattle?”

Seeing the shortcomings of a top-down approach to em­powerment, Suzuki came to a simple realization: “This bureaucratic type of work is probably not for me.”

For a high-flyer with a passion to do good, the rough-and-tumble of investment banking seemed to be the next big step on the path to social impact investing.

With colleagues at Morgan Stanley.

BABY STEPS
Suzuki’s first step into work was at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo, where her focus was on mergers and acquisitions for financial institutions. That was in 2008.

“It was a really interesting time because, just as I entered investment banking, the global financial crisis happened.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the crisis, many in the invest­ment world—including Suzuki—wondered about their future. But Suzuki recalls family support: “I was young at the time, and my father, who is a banker, said to me, ‘It’s a great experience; try to learn from it.’”

Three years later, with a wealth of real-world experience under her belt, Suzuki transitioned to UBS Group AG, a global investment bank headquartered in Switzerland.

While the work she did at UBS was similar to what she had done at Morgan Stanley, there was one difference: while at the Swiss bank, she had her first child.

“Especially in investment banking in Japan, that was not a common thing to do,” she said.

Having a child and continuing her work was a “huge deal” at the office, but Suzuki was pleasantly surprised to find that her team was supportive.

“At the same time, everyone, including myself, was clueless as to how a mom could work in an investment bank.”

Suzuki’s working day at the time typically ran from 8:00 a.m. to midnight. To make things work, she had to reduce her hours and take a 50-percent cut in salary.

“I then had to find daycare, and it was a struggle. The system was very inadequate to accommodate someone like me. It still is in Japan.”

MAKING AN IMPACT

Suzuki’s largely positive experience as a working mom—espe­cially at Coach, where her colleagues offered “co-parenting” support—did not happen without challenges.

At UBS, she was racked with guilt because of her reduced hours, and felt the arrangement was not fair to her colleagues.

She also believed the reduced hours would work against her future prospects, as she would be classified as not having worked full time. That sense of guilt and perception of missed opportunities precipitated her transition to Coach.

Yet, even with improved working arrangements at Coach, a nagging question resurfaced: “Am I going to do something impactful, especially social-wise?”

Tapping into her network, she connected with Skycatch, Inc., a San Francisco-based startup that provides drone-based imaging services.

Looking to enter the Japanese market, the company initially sought Suzuki’s advice and eventually hired her as their Japan country manager.

But when the opportunity to extend her footprint in the innovation space—and realize her dream of making an impact—presented itself, she joined Mistletoe, Inc. as director of in­­vest­­ments. Mistletoe focuses on startup investment, research and development, joint ventures, and ecosystem development with the goal of creating a sustainable human-centered future using technology.

“It was like a dream come true, because impact investing is a growing field—even in Japan.”

Today, Suzuki is still part of the family at Mistletoe, even as she maintains her role at Fresco Capital. Indeed, Mistletoe made an investment in Fresco’s third fund, which recently closed.

THE INTEGRATED LIFE
Having transitioned from banking to retail to startups, and now investing, what does the future hold for Suzuki?

“I’m super-excited about my work right now. Through Fresco, I’m looking forward to investing in startups, and crea­ting a new generation of enterprises and economic influencers,” she said. “We get to play a little part in how founders think, how they build teams, and how they make their mark in the global market.

“And in Japan, I’m very passionate about women’s empowerment. I just think that diversity in thought and diversity in background creates better, more interesting, and richer societies.”

To that end, Suzuki has written a book entitled How We Live Will Be How We Work (Daiwashobo 2018), and created MIKO (formerly known as Future Females Japan), “a women’s holistic wellness community where we meet twice a month to practice mindfulness—be it yoga, meditation, or life-coaching.”

And the ultimate goal of MIKO? “To integrate our lives and work, collectively, for a better society.”

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