Japan Leadership & Entrepreneurship Panel: Global talents for D&I

April 21, 2022 17 min read

On February 4th, 2022, JPort by SPeak corp. hosted a panel discussion session titled “Japan Leadership & Entrepreneurship Panel: Global talents for D&I” via Zoom webinar, collaborating with Harvard College Japan Initiative (HCJI). HCJI is a student-run organization promoting various programs for greater exchanges and mutual understanding between students in the United States and Japan. Thanks to the support and contribution of Harvard students who have a lot of interest and passion for Japan, the scale of the organization has been continuously growing.

Event Summary:

For this webinar, JPort invited two senior panelists–Paul McInerney (Incubate Fund) and Szilvia Covary Krecsmary (Paidy)–and two student panelists from HCJI, Shawn Barrett and Matin Khadem.

Hiromi Karahashi, the CEO of JPort by SPeak cop., was in charge of moderating the discussion.

During an hour and a half long session, the senior panelists who had years of work experience in Japan and young student panels who just started their careers in Japan had a spirited discussion on their stories of settling in Japan and the current status of D&I for foreigners in the Japanese employment market. 


  • [Senior Panelist] Paul McInerney

Paul McInerney has been continuing his career in Japan for 32 years. He served as a Senior Partner leading the Consumer Sector in Asia at McKinsey & Company for 18 years. In March 2021, he became a General Partner at Incubate Fund - a leading seed-stage investor founded in Japan in 2010 with over $840 million AUM.

  • [Senior Panelist] Szilvia Kovary-Krecsmary

With a great interest in Japan, Szilvia entered a Japanese university after graduating from high school. Szilvia is a business and marketing strategist with a 20-year career, developing and building brands for a variety of Business to Customer (B2C) products, services, and platforms. She has built her career across 5 continents by working at industry leaders including Netflix, Dentsu, Ernst & Young, and J Walter Thompson.

In 2021, she published a book in Japanese called Start Up Nippon, focusing on how to create a more innovative and brighter future for businesses as well as individuals.

  • [Student Panelist] Shawn Barrett

Shawn Barrett graduated from Harvard College with an A.B. in Neuroscience, a Secondary Field in East Asian Studies, and a language citation in Japanese. After conducting neuroscience research in labs at Harvard and at the University of Tokyo, he took a leave of absence to work in Tokyo as an intern on the Global Recruitment Team at Sony HQ. He returned to work with the same team throughout the summer of 2021, and will be joining Sony as a full-time member with a split role, working on both the Global Recruitment Team and the Global Business Development Team.

  • [Student Panelist] Matin Khadem

Matin Khadem joined L.E.K Consulting’s Tokyo office in 2020. Prior to this, Matin worked as a researcher in the Graduate School of Economics at the University of Tokyo where his research was focused on evaluating policies related to Japan’s aging population and falling birth rate. Matin studied Economics at the University of Cambridge and graduated in 2017, after which he moved to Japan on the Daiwa Scholarship, a British program intended to strengthen ties between the UK and Japan. Matin was born and raised in the UK.

  • [Moderator] Hiromi Karahashi

Hiromi Karashi is the founder and CEO of SPeak Corporation. During the 8 years of studying in the United States, he realized the value of diversity by being with various people from different backgrounds. He founded SPeak Corp. in 2019 with the desire to make Japan more borderless. He has been striving to attract more global talents into Japan by operating JPort, a diversity recruitment platform.

The following is a summary of the panel discussion and Q&A session conducted during the live session.

#1. Senior Panelist Discussion

1-1. What do you think of the start-up landscape in Japan?

Paul: Total investment in startups in Japan reached billions of US dollars last year. The amount of investment has been increasing rapidly, almost doubled compared to the year before last. Large-scale investments are being made in healthcare, FinTech industries, and much more funding is expected in early-stage startups.

A growing number of Japanese startups are expecting global expansion, and more and more successful startups are being established or co-founded by foreign nationals.

Even now, a lot of opportunities are emerging in the startup industry. Finding roles where you can actually take on a broad scope of work and taking huge responsibility at an early stage of the career is a big difference from working in large companies.

Szilvia: As Paul mentioned, my company, Paidly, was founded by a Canadian. Unlike Japanese startups having the vision and aspiration over global expansion, one of the unique aspects of our company is that we are more focused on how we can perform better in Japan. We believe that Japan is an economic giant in the world and has lots of opportunities in its domestic market. When it comes to Japanese startups, it is not only about going global but also should consider how we can contribute to the Japanese economy.

Another unique aspect is that we have assembled our company with foreign talents from 35 different nationalities. Diverse set-off perspectives are really the foundation of innovation. I believe innovation is about how we can change each other’s perceptions so that brand-new ideas can emerge. From that perspective, there are lots of opportunities for foreigners who can bring fresh ideas and viewpoints.

1-2. Do you think D&I has positive impacts on business?

Paul: D&I is definitely good for business. To give an example from me, the reason why I was invited to join a partnership from the Incubate Fund was that they wanted different experiences and ideas by bringing in someone from a different background. As the Incubation Fund grew, we at times had to cooperate with foreign investors who don't speak Japanese, and I could be of help each time.

Aside from these personal experiences, bringing people from different backgrounds is powerful in terms of solving problems and giving more diverse ideas.

1-3. What were the biggest challenges you experienced in Japan?

Paul: When I was looking for work in 1997, there was a recruiting book, which was literally an encyclopedia of all companies in Japan looking for employees. These books were sent to all university students in Japan. There were a huge bunch of books piled up in front of the doorstep and there was very little visibility into what opportunities were available and what different protocols I should follow.

Now, there is much more transparency as to what is out there. More information and opportunities can be obtained from senpais or personal connections as well. When I was looking for a job, there were no media available. I used to struggle with a lack of information and transparency at that time.

Szilvia: Besides transparency, another thing that has changed a lot is understanding. About 20 years ago, I tried the traditional way of finding jobs in Japan. I attended mass orientations of companies and bought recruitment suits. I was the only foreigner every single time I went to the recruitment fair, which was not a pleasant experience. When I got into a big consulting company, I was even asked, ‘Can you collaborate well with Japanese people?’, ‘Why would I invest in you even when you are a foreigner?’. The male-oriented in-house culture was not favorable to me as well. At that time, there was a lack of understanding of differences.

Now, there is definitely a better understanding of foreigners. Even in daily life, everything has become foreign-friendly in Japan. As the basic level of understanding has been evolving, there has been an evolution in recruitment to find global talents. It is really a tremendous change.

1-4. What are some positive changes toward D&I and foreigners in recent years?

Paul: For example, McKinsey in Japan has had lots of work to do with multinational conglomerates. The basic assumption when having partners from overseas global funds, which could bring more expertise and different perspectives, was to have more junior team members for project managers who don’t speak Japanese. However, about five to seven years ago, McKinsey needed to bring in more manager-level employees from overseas in line with the rapid growth. Although it went through a difficult process, McKinsey was able to learn how to work with people who didn't speak Japanese internally.

One big discovery was that if someone brings a different point of view, expertise, and strong work ethic into a company in Japan, there is a very strong acceptance in large Japanese corporations with the right context and set-up. If you make the effort to communicate with foreign workers, it will eventually work well. 20 years back, it would not be possible.

Szilvia: In recent years, many companies in Japan have had success using foreign talents strategically. About two decades ago, there was some appreciation for the black ship (kurofune) in Japan. If foreign talents are leveraged strategically, companies can achieve success quicker. If companies are approached correctly, foreign talents can bring different points of view and can make better output with different selling strategies. 

*Black ship: indicates foreign vessels that tried to come into Japan during the Edo period. ‘Black ship’ is an expression that refers to those transmitted from abroad, especially those that have a great influence and overturn established concepts in Japanese society or organization.

#2. Questions from student panels to senior panels

2-1. From Matin to Paul: Do you have any thoughts on the healthcare industry in Japan?

Paul: To think about the startup landscape in Japan, healthcare is a prominent industry. When it comes to working in Japan, people are likely to imagine working in a traditional and commercial business like retail and banking. However, in reality, healthcare is an extremely promising industry that is growing rapidly. Synthetic biology and AI-driven diagnostics are huge industries as well.

2-2. From Shawn to both: How did you get to study at a Japanese university? How did you navigate your college life with language barriers?

Szilvia: I had one year to learn Japanese before coming to university. Through a year of intensive learning, I was able to have enough Japanese skills to pass the university entrance exam.

Through the language, we can learn the culture, which is a big component to be successful in a foreign country, especially in Japan. Knowing the language and culture of a country elevates your understanding of how people think. Language skills help you to negotiate with them with a better understanding. In the case of Japanese, learning a proper business language is important as well because there is a huge difference between colloquial and business Japanese.

In addition, connection to other students and senpais is a huge asset for both personal and professional levels that will allow you to adapt to life in Japan and receive career-related information.

Paul: I agree with the importance of connecting with others because foreigners often struggle with the Japanese language and its working environment. Have the courage to talk in Japanese and give yourself opportunities to speak in Japanese. With the use of technology and cooperation from colleagues, you can improve your Japanese remarkably even if you are working day-to-day in English.

Japanese people tend to be interested in you as a foreigner. They are often curious about how you learned Japanese and why you are working in Japan, so take advantage of that.

Szilvia: To tell my personal story, I often went to local shops selling bento to practice my Japanese. At that time I was so determined to speak to them because people in bento shops did not speak English at all. Through this kind of personal interaction, I could challenge my language skills and learn more real Japanese. These kinds of personal connections actually helped me a lot even after I got a job.

#3. Senior and Student Panel Discussion

3-1. What was the process towards getting your current job?

Shawn: My path was quite straightforward because Sony was the only opportunity I applied to. When I was in Harvard, Sony submitted their internship posting for the HR position on their job board. As I was a part of the Harvard College Japan Initiative at that time, I immediately applied to the Sony internship and eventually got the position. Although I studied Japanese for 3 years at the time of the application, the post indicated that I am not required to know any Japanese to apply. So the interviews were conducted in English.

Matin: I also took an unconventional approach. Since I originally came to Japan for the purpose of studying, I did not intend to work in Japan. I started learning Japanese after coming to Japan so I was purely focused on language during the first year. While continuing research, I realized that I looked forward to working in Japan.

When I was about to start my job search, I had a friend working in L.E.K. Consulting, which is my current workplace. Thanks to the introduction of the friend, I was able to get an informal interview opportunity. It is great to talk to people who are working in Japan and reach out to them to get informal approaches. By going through that kind of process, I did not apply to many companies. Instead, I just utilized my personal network.

3-2. Do you think it is important to build a network in Japan to sell yourself and find a job?

Szilvia: Network definitely helps to get a job and career in Japan. I landed my first job through personal connections as well. There was a company where I worked part-time when I was a university student. The director of the company considered me positively and gave me a job offer after graduation. Having these kinds of different communities and connections truly helps you get career opportunities not only in Japan but also in other countries.

As a foreigner, it is so easy to be in a foreign cluster, so to speak, but try to be conscious of building bridges with Japanese communities and people. It will help you understand how things work in Japan and give you more trust and credibility.

Paul: In terms of network, I think it is important to have the ability to identify individuals, work in the space you are interested in and have connections with senpais in the same university or same country to get some information or direct introduction. Even if you are not doing something like this, learning about different companies and industries like today’s event is important as well.

On top of that, it is important to know your strengths but it is also important to understand the difference in yourself. If a company is willing to hear your different perspectives and embrace that on board, it will be a great indicator to see whether it is a good company for foreign talents.

In terms of selling yourself, it is necessary to appeal to your strengths, but above all, don’t be afraid to put out your own perspectives and to be yourself. Once you join, they will figure you out anyways.

Matin: Many students tend to think they have no network, but actually they have, to a larger extent. They just don’t realize. Do not underestimate who you actually know. It could be like the brother of a friend or a professor whose lecture you took. It is much easier to connect with these people. Even if people around you do not have the direct answer to your problem, they may know someone you may need.

In terms of selling yourself, building your own story and brand is certainly important but it has to be authentic. Think about your own story as early as possible. In particular, you must work on linking yourself to Japan. ‘Why Japan?' is a very important question to consider before getting a job in Japan. You are the only person who understands why you are going through this path. In addition, set clear goals that you want to achieve within three to five years. Once you organize a series of thoughts, try to be able to clearly express your thoughts. It will help your job interview.

Shawn: I completely agree with what Matin said. From a students’ perspective, I think the most important thing is to take a closer look around you, such as professors and classmates, to see what is available. To give you a personal example, the first thing I did after entering Harvard and choosing a major was to conduct research–I looked at the principal investigators who specifically had connections with Japan. I found the one who was the head of the neuroscience lab in Harvard and had a high connection with the University of Tokyo. I joined his lab so that I could get the opportunity to come to Japan. Another example is the HCJI club I was a part of. By being a member of that club, I was able to have a bunch of different opportunities to talk to various Japanese students. It is also the reason why I'm working at Sony. If I was not in that club, I would have had no chance to see the message informing the internship position at Sony. 

Enlarge your area to increase the possibility you can take advantage of it. Opportunities always come out of nowhere. Even students outside of Japan can be helpful so try to get into as many situations as possible to increase possible opportunities.

#4. Your message to prospective students who want to pursue a career in Japan

Matin: For information gathering, participating in various events and opportunities is very important. If you are outside of Japan, you might have a lot of worries but there are plenty of resources online. It is also great to participate in events like today.

In addition, think about ‘Why am I in Japan’, ‘Why does it have to be Japan’ as early as possible. Then, consider what you truly want to do. Practically think of where you will be in the next two to three years.

But in the long-term, be open and flexible. Life does not always go as planned. Do not limit yourself to expected possibilities.

Shawn: More and more Japanese companies are willing to have foreign talents even without Japanese language proficiency. For instance, Sony is highly focused on bringing more foreign talents from all around the world, trying to diversify the roles that are available. I think a lot of other Japanese companies will be following this path soon.

Be open to brand new possibilities and roles. Opportunities for foreign talents are growing so keep your eyes open. I guess it will be easier to obtain a job in Japan as time goes by.

Szilvia: It is definitely becoming easier to land a career in Japan. Actually, the Japanese government is positive towards foreign workers, considering recent legislation and policies.

I think startups tend to be more open to foreign talents. Young talents actually can get more opportunities in startups quicker than in big companies. Sometimes entering major companies might be more challenging and frustrating. I believe startups are a good place to make your mark and accelerate your career.

Keep your eyes open to any possible opportunities. It’s definitely the most important in pursuing your career.

To add one more point, do not underestimate the power of your personal story, even the smallest part. It actually helped me create personal connections here. It perhaps can also open many doors for you. The power of your story is a huge asset in spreading your network.

Paul: It is a wonderful time for people who are about to enter the workforce and are interested in Japan to get career opportunities. Now, major Japanese companies are understanding the need to change. Startups are even more open.

I would say to be confident! You will be very different from others once you go into a Japanese company. Be confident in yourself because you can bring different values and perspectives into the company.

#5. Audience Q&A

Q1: (To senior panelists) Last decade, there was a problem of not appreciating the level of education in Japan. What do you think of it? Have there been any changes over the past decades?

Paul: Historically, people having Ph.D. and high degrees have had narrow paths. I think it seems to be changing. In the case of McKinsey, they dramatically changed hiring from 100% MBA completion to 50% for MBA and 50% for Ph.D., masters, and expertise. Professional services are putting more importance on academic degrees in terms of accepting different points of view and experience.

As for traditional major Japanese companies, opportunities are still narrow.

Startups are different from big firms. They are willing to receive people from different backgrounds and academic degrees can be one of the differences. However, keep in mind that startups appreciate much more what skills and value you can bring in.

It depends on whether it is professional service, a multinational conglomerate, a traditional Japanese company, and startups.

Szilvia: I think it progressed during the past two decades but as Paul said, it is more about skills that you can bring in rather than mere degrees. If you can bring intellectual skills into your work, an academic degree will be valued.

Personally, I am a huge believer in life-long learning. I keep encouraging myself and my teammates to continue learning so that it can bring more value to the organization. Each individual can contribute to the organization in a variety of ways.

Q2: (To student panelists) How did you manage to get a job in Japan despite graduating overseas? Was the Japanese language a challenge through the job-hunting process?

Matin: I had one interview which was in Japanese. Of course, you need the baseline of language, but target your Japanese level depending on the industry or job you are pursuing. Japanese proficiency level varies depending on job requirements. In the case of L.E.K., my current workplace, Japanese employees are a minority. So, the in-house language is close to bilingual, where English is the main language.

Shawn: Although all interviews were conducted in English, I have a conversational level of Japanese. As I had an experience of living in Japan before, I was not really worried about the Japanese language. The positions that Sony offered did not require Japanese language skills at all. There are some cases, such as research and development (R&D) jobs that take place in Japan, that Japanese proficiency is not a qualification to apply for.

Though Japanese is not required in the beginning, after getting a job and moving into Japan, there are some Japanese language training sessions provided by some companies like Sony. I’m not sure how many Japanese firms are open to those who do not speak Japanese at all but there are still options for English speakers.

Q3: For those who are working as English teachers in Japan, how would you recommend they transition their job into business?

Paul: I have a number of friends who actually made that transition. I recommend looking around where industries are accelerated and understanding the different industrial geographics of Japan. Pragmatically, Tokyo is focused on the economic activities of Japan. If you are looking for work in a corporate context in Japan, Tokyo is a good place to get opportunities. If you are interested in getting connected with startups, Kyūshū, Kōbe, and Hokkaidō are good regions to take a look. In general, Tokyo is a great place as a starting point.

If you are specifically interested in a certain sector, LinkedIn is very helpful as well. Japanese people on LinkedIn tend to be more open. One thing I do not recommend doing is to make connections at random. Try to make limited reach out via personalized messages.

Q4: What method did you take to practice business Japanese?

Matin: I think it is good to practice business Japanese by reading Japanese news via online applications. You can set your learning target around N5 or N3, and the translation will be provided above for difficult kanjis. There are a lot of apps out there so try to check it out. Beyond that, try to practice it with people around you as much as possible.

Szilvia: Watching the Japanese news was the most helpful for me, especially business-focused mainstream media like The Nikkei (日本経済新聞). It provides a good base of expressions and vocabulary. Being able to speak polite Japanese is necessary to work in Japan so try to get used to it and keep practicing. 

#6. Closing note by the JPort team

During the panel discussion session, the four panelists actively shared their thoughts on the current situation of D&I in Japan, the startup landscape of Japan, and opportunities and challenges for foreign talents seeking jobs in Japan. They also shared their own personal experiences and stories to help international students and talents.

The spirited discussion of all panelists and active participation of audiences, allowed for this event to be a fruitful information session without a minute to be wasted.

We hope this article will help those who were not able to participate in the live session to gather information about the employment market and D&I status in Japan.

We are planning various informative events in the near future that can help international students find career opportunities in Japan as well as hiring managers to enhance D&I within their organizations, so please continue your journey with us by following our social media platforms to be updated with future events!

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JPort Student Support Team
We create Borderless Japan

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