|NPO:||Mirai No Mori|
Leading a non-profit organization is a career choice that probably doesn’t occur to many young (or older!) people, but for Kozue Oka it felt like a natural fit. Her rapid rise from intern to Executive Director of Mirai-no-Mori has brought challenges and learnings, but she is stepping up to lead the organization as it grows and sets ambitious goals for future impact. OYWJ Director Tove Kinooka sat down with her to find out more…
Tell us a bit about you – where did you grow up, and what did you want to do or be when you were a child?
I grew up in Yokohama, and am the youngest of four siblings. I liked playing outdoors, but I didn’t have a clear image of what I wanted to do. However, my mum works for an NPO for autistic children, and I often helped her out – I really enjoyed that, and saw that although she worked hard and it was sometimes challenging, it was really rewarding, and that stayed with me. Also, my sister and brother studied abroad, so I saw them talking to diverse people from other countries and was curious to learn more about life outside Japan.
Being the leader of an NPO is not a typical career choice for graduates in Japan. Is it something you always wanted to do, or if not, how did you end up in this role?
I went to a liberal arts university and did some different volunteering and study-tours while I was a student to try to figure out what I wanted to do. I couldn’t picture myself working for a big corporate! I researched some outdoor education initiatives in Northern Europe and thought they looked really interesting and aligned with my curiosity in studying abroad. My university had an exchange program with Stockholm University, so I did that and experienced first-hand how nature can nurture children and enable them to learn from their peers and surroundings. When I got back to Japan I wanted to do something like that, and knew that I really didn’t want to go through the typical Japanese job-hunting, so instead I did two internships – one at a government environmental education organization, making policy and guidelines, and the other at English Adventure, the grassroots outdoor education company that gave rise to Mirai-no-Mori. Through that experience, I discovered that the grassroots work was what I really enjoyed, and I was lucky enough to be offered a position with English Adventure after my internship. When Mirai-no-Mori became an independent entity the opportunity came up to work on that full time, so I started as a Program Manager then moved up very rapidly to become Camp Director, and then the Executive Director.
What do you find most rewarding or enjoyable about the work you do?
At the beginning, when I was a Team Leader, it was the direct interaction with the children. The real impact of our work – the resilience and leadership skills the children learn – is very long term so we can’t see that right away, but seeing quiet children become more talkative, or the shy ones open up, and sharing experiences with them was really wonderful. As I moved up through the organization at first I felt a bit distanced from the children and missed having so much direct interaction, but then I realized that I’m the one who connects them all – the campers, volunteers, sponsors, team leaders – and creates the community, and knowing that is really rewarding in a different way.
In your role, you need to communicate and build relationships with many different kinds of people: children, care home staff, corporate sponsors and executives, camp staff… Is that something that you find comes easily to you, or something you’ve had to work on?
I’ve definitely had to work on it, and I’m still learning every day! At the beginning I was worried about my English, particularly with corporate sponsors, and put a lot of time and effort into writing very polite, formal emails – then I’d get a reply saying “Hi Kozue, that’s great! I transferred the money today!” which was a bit of a surprise to me! I’ve learned that I need to have different “modes” for communicating with different stakeholders to develop strong trust and relationships with them, and I’ve found my own ways of doing that.
Aside from the communication, what do you find most challenging / difficult about your role, and how do you deal with that?
Being in a leadership role! I didn’t really know what it meant or what to expect when I agreed to be the Executive Director. I really enjoyed the program development side and wanted to spend lots of time on that, but I was also in charge of the fundraising, admin, liaising with the Board of Directors, and prioritizing all of that was – and still is – difficult. Now, as the organization is evolving and building a structure for sustainable growth, I have to be able to see the big picture and bring everyone together on that journey. For a while that felt a bit overwhelming, but with the support of the Board and some coaching, I’m now finding it really interesting and motivating.
What have been your biggest learnings so far as a leader?
Having to take full responsibility! In the beginning the operation was small so I felt I could handle everything well enough, but I realized that although we were growing there was a limit to what we can achieve with just me thinking and working on it. I’ve had to learn to reach out and include others in the process, and to be brave enough to take risks or make decisions when I’m uncertain what the outcome will be. I’ve also had to learn to clearly explain the purpose of what we’re doing, as without that understanding it is difficult to get agreement from others, and there is a danger that I myself will get lost in the process.
What kind of leader do you aspire to be?
Someone who can bring everyone together, but isn’t at the centre of everything. I also want to lead by example – I can’t expect the children to have confidence or know how to ask for help if I’m not modelling that myself. I think that if they see me struggle, but then also see how I handle and get through a tough situation, that is a powerful learning and example.
Do you have any role models, or female leaders who inspire you?
Lori Henderson, one of our Board members, and Executive Director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan. When I was struggling she opened up and shared her experiences of being a young female leader at the BCCJ with me, and that was such a powerful learning – her story, but also the fact that she was willing to share it with me. She’s a very warm, caring person, but also has so much energy and gets so much done! My mum is also a role model for me – how she leads her life, doing a job she loves and believes in.
The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. What aspects of gender inequality would you particularly like to challenge here in Japan, and how can we do that?
I’d like to challenge the gender segregation of activities in education – like “boys can go camping and learn survival skills, girls can do baking”. We don’t have any gender segregation at our camps in either the activities or the staff roles – the children always ask “who’s the boss?”, and I can tell them it’s me, and that I’m supported by very diverse group of big-hearted people. Most of the care home principals I know are men, and I think here in Japan we’re very used to seeing men as authority figures, so I would like more organizations to follow our example and challenge that.
What would you like the world to know about the work you do at Mirai-no-Mori?
First of all I’d like more people to know that these children – growing up in care homes – exist. It’s a very taboo subject in Japan; nobody talks about it, and there is still a lot of social stigma. These children also have dreams for the future and a valuable role to play in society, and we can empower them to make that happen.