When one talks of tech companies or start-ups, phrases like “the boys club” come to mind. It has certainly been a hot topic in Silicon Valley and Japan is no different. Despite progress being made, SoftBank’s most recent reports indicate that roughly 30% of their employees are women, and only 6.6% of those women are in managerial positions. Clearly, still some progress to be made and Nana Kusakabe is one of the empowered women at SoftBank making a difference. One Young World Japan sat down with the HR veteran to get her take on what it takes to succeed in “the boys club” and what future leaders should expect if they are to succeed as well.
I usually start my talks with a question about education and its influence on career paths. There are quite a lot of people in Japan with degrees that have very little to do with their current job. But, this isn’t the case with you, is it?
No. I’ve always been interested in people and how they interact with one another. So, I studied history and cultural anthropology at Rikkyo University, dedicating my graduation thesis to the Nepalese and their current society.
What did you learn?
I learned so much, but the most impressive thing was that the world has great diversity and that there can be extreme inequality in our social structures and the social interactions that arise as a result.
Tell me about how you entered corporate Japan. Did you choose SoftBank or did they choose you?
When I was first looking to start my career, I was told that no matter what company I chose, every corner of the business world would undergo paradigm shifts in their business model as a result of the Internet. I knew then that I could grow if I chose a company that was taking on new online challenges directly. So, I chose SoftBank.
Like many of the new entries, I initially aspired to join the sales or corporate planning departments. But, I was assigned to human resources. I was disappointed at the news but soon realized that it was a better fit because of my interest in human interaction and behavior.
I know SoftBank is making progress with their D&I initiatives. How do you explain your success within the company when 7 out of 10 employees are still men?
There are plenty of women trying to survive in a man’s world by trying to adapt their personalities and communication styles to that world. I was the same when I first started. But, after years of experience working with people every day, I have come to strongly believe that knowing who you are regardless of gender is vital. I’ve always been a believer in being yourself and to not be afraid of who you are in order to achieve true success in the long term.
Tell me one of your crowning achievements while you were in HR at SoftBank.
I had a lot of successes over the years but, I’m probably most fond of the mentoring programs we’ve done. There are times when generic training is important but, when it comes to true human development, we learn best with one another. Mentoring goes both ways and we’ve created real value at SoftBank as a result.
2 amazing years! For those unfamiliar with the foundation, Mr. Son created it to find and foster exceptional young talent and trust me when I tell you that Japan has some amazing young people! You have a couple of them in your OYWJ family, I believe.
We do! Tell me more about your experience. What did you do while you were there?
Quite a number of different things, as a community manager. I helped developed a summer program that the foundation’s members could participate in; experiences in Silicon Valley and American universities like Stanford and UCLA. The foundation places a high value on the experience and network available only to its members.
And that brings us to today. How did you transition from the Masason Foundation to the newly formed SDGs department at SoftBank?
It was a natural evolution for me, I think. SDGs aren’t just about checking off boxes so that a company can feel good about its CSR activities. SDGs are best leveraged by integrating them into the actual business models, human behaviors, and belief systems.
Which SDGs do you personally connect with most?
Obviously, SDG 5. But, I’m quite passionate about 8 (Decent Work) and 10 (Inequalities) as well.
Speaking of “decent work,” how is your work/life balance these days? You sound quite busy.
Good, actually. The “work from home” culture has allowed me more time with my partner and my kids while keeping a high level of passion for my work. That, of course, has its own challenges but, for the most part, it’s been a positive experience.
Is your partner supportive of your career choices?
He is. We’re both usually quite busy. So, communication is key. At first, things were difficult as we had quite a lot of differences in our core values. But, as we talked things through, we created a deeper, mutual understanding of each other. There is a lot of give and take and he is very understanding now.
That’s great to hear. Balancing work and family can be extremely stressful. But, it sounds like you have developed a system that works for you.
For the young people reading this today who are just getting started on their careers and work/life balance, what message do you have for them?
Simple. As I mentioned before, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Focus on what you’re working FOR and don’t let labels or reputation hijack your values.
Thanks for your precious time, Nana. I’m really excited to see the great things you’re working on at SoftBank!
My pleasure. Thanks so much, Daren.