12 January 2015
Tokyo, Japan

Social Enterprise English Language School, or ‘SEELS,’ one of our investees, was featured in a recent article in the Japan Times. The story profiles their microfranchising model that “helps Filipinas set up and run international kindergartens and eikaiwa” – English conversation – schools, and the project that Kathryn Doria Goto and Cesar V. Santoyo, founder and president of SEELS, teamed up to work on for making a film titled “Accept Us Maybe.” The Toyota Foundation provides funding for its film development and production.

The article also explained the backdrop of the Filipino community in Japan and how the public’s perception of them has been changed. Santoyo admits that it “has been gradually improving.” He is concerned, however, that “…some middle-aged women are married to older Japanese men who are working class. They are already retired. Living off their pension alone is not enough.” He stressed, “So, for these reasons, a number of women could use assistance. The government should permit them to apply for welfare benefits if they are needed. The release of this film is timely, because this is something we want to advocate for. This is what we mean by social acceptance.”

The full article can be found below.

SEELS was founded by Santoyo in May 2011, shortly after the Great East Japan Earthquake hit northeast Japan. Since then, the social enterprise has been supported by Akira Foundation, financially and non-financially. SEELS creates job opportunities for more than 6,000 Filipino living in Tohoku, the northeastern part of Japan, by educating and training them to become English teachers. It provides English and international early childhood education services at an affordable price, which may fit well in the severe financial hardship condition of the families who fall under the middle income bracket, as well as in need of global-minded human resources.
14 June 2014
Tokyo, Japan

Some of you who are starting to read this article may feel like scratching your head by seeing the title that is compounded by the words you are unfamiliar with: ‘hermeneutic’ next to one of the most alluring but a big-tent term, ‘social innovation.’ Suffice to say, such distraction is not what we intend, let alone to be worth the true meaning of education. As Socrates once said, “Education is the kindling of flame, not the filling of a vessel,” we would rather assist you in action-oriented learning for social innovation than provide relevant information merely for external rewards such as grades or scores. Again, before getting any ideas or thought divergent, you are asked what this title means to you and us, and why it should be understood in that way. First, let us begin with the contours of ‘social innovation.’

This is the modified version of the original textbook that Hirofumi Yokoi wrote up for use in classes of Social Innovation at Global Leadership Program (GLP), The University of Tokyo: http://www.leadership.m.u-tokyo.ac.jp/
03 February 2014
Tokyo, Japan

(This is the original, full manuscript of his article which has been published in the book, “Innovation: How Innovators Think, Act and Change Our World,” written by Kim Chandler McDonald in October 2013.) [1]

‘Seedling of Innovation’:
For Akira Foundation (and me personally…), innovation is a thing not that can be deduced from the general principle or theory but that would inductively be realized and recognized over time from a subpar but meaningful move or performance which would otherwise have been treated with bias and prejudice and/or have been overlooked or neglected by the majority of people as a result of an adherence to an unquestioning embrace of the current and conventional socio-economic status and standards. More often than not, an innovative and disruptive idea or thought, product or practice, tends to gain less recognition and support from outside at its first phase of development or improvement. This is the most critical stage when it comes to identifying ‘something’ which we believe cannot be missed as a ‘seedling of innovation’ that may grow for social change and impact once provided appropriate ‘nutrients in the right soil.’ In such a way, to define innovation is to abstain from any prior perception, experience and even belief temporarily, especially when to identify the meaning of ‘being’ in each own case and examine its fundamental ontology in a context of ecosystem, or ‘being-with-others’ if I am allowed to use that phrase from in Heidegger’s book, Being and Time (1927). I think such a bracketing and Heideggerian phenomenological approach works well in this regard, and is empirically and practically applicable in the real world in defining innovation at the beginning and over time.

‘MENA’ to Mission:
First of all, innovation makes me feel ‘alive.’ This is what I always say in response to any questions of this kind. Suffice to say, innovation is not just for myself but also for others. Once again, our hermeneutical understanding is that the terminology or recognition of ‘innovation’ tends to be given and fallen from outside and the public at a certain point, inductively and intermittently, rather than being spoken out from ourselves (but needs to identify a ‘seedling’ of innovation on our own at an early phase). As such, it may be argued, counter-intuitively, that we may not be obsessed with and haunted by ‘innovation’ in such a monolithic way that it has captured people’s minds and hearts, phenomenally and prevalently in recent years. In other words, we always keep a categorical proposition that innovation is essential for ‘what.’ This ‘what’ is the thing we have been considering ‘essential’ and has driven us forward. For me, innovation is not a purpose or goal but kind of a spatio-temporal process that is ‘essential’ to reach out to ‘what.’ For Akira Foundation, ‘what’ precisely means our tagline, ‘Social Bridge between Japan and Global Village,’ which turns out to make our society and world more inclusive. In order to realize this ideal society, we found through our career and business that the following three elements should be factored in innovation: experiential learning (by seeing brutal facts), collaborative leadership, and sustainable development. To put it another way, innovation may be comprised primarily of those aforementioned factors under a clear vision and determined promise toward realizing that society for a next generation to come. To me, this proposition has been very critical and influential in shaping my vision and value, as well as sharpening my business skills, experiences and expertise at firsthand. It showcases my continued exposure to and business career in the world unknown and uncharted to me. For one, Lebanon was the first place I was relocated to and worked in residence with several international development corporations and charitable organizations such as MIT Enterprise Forum and Grameen Foundation in the field of microfinance and entrepreneurship in the developing and transition economies. I had a direct look and feel that, in the Muslim society, there exist unsolved, mixed issues of its diverse sectarianism and lopsided economy, people from which have great passion, ideas and potential to make a difference despite such chaotic, subsistence lives. That exposure led us to shape the fields Akira Foundation tackles, one of which is the ‘base of the pyramid’ (BOP) market where Akira Foundation has addressed several social, economic and environmental issues since its inception by working collaboratively with visionary believers and entrepreneurs through MSME finance, water pumping and desalination technology, among other social development projects across MENA and Sub-Saharan regions, and beyond. In a nutshell, I believe that such a relational and holistic perspective is very important inside and out of innovation, while keeping reminding us of the raison d’etre of Akira Foundation and myself to help make the world better and more inclusive.

The Ecology of Giant Sequoia:
If the premise of innovation is a string of developmental phases from vision, promise and relation to sustainability and impact, the most imperative part would be the transition from vision to promise and the greatest bottleneck behind the innovation is the development from relation to sustainability. Let me give you an analogy of it with the following fact: Giant Sequoia. When I lived in California, I visited the Sequoia National Park. Driving my car, my wife and I climbed up a meandering pathway toward the park. It is no giant tree until it is elevated at 5,000 feet where a certain climate of keeping soil “moist, rich, balanced ph, and well-drained.”[2] Even in that zone, Giant Sequoias do not stand closely side-by-side, given the fact that the sequoias compete with one another for “nutrients, water, sun and space.”[3] Good gardening techniques and irrigation systems enable Sequoia to grow over many thousands of years. This law of nature behind Giant Sequoia tells us some implications of a significance of social innovation. A vision in social innovation is analogous to a seed of Sequoia. Likewise, a promise in innovation is to a climate for Sequoia. Repeatedly, without placing a right seed in an appropriate soil and climate, even a good seed of having a potential to grow ‘giant’ would be dead. It must be true of innovation. Even having a good vision or ambition may be necessary but would not be sufficient unless it would be well prepared and planned as a promise to be implemented by carefully and profoundly reviewing and examining many aspects of it in terms of mission, cause, scope, resource, relation, viability, among other things. Practically, it must be critical whether to transform your creative or innovative idea or thought into the one which has implications and considerations at all levels and theoretical, empirical and practical rationales behind it, and is ready enough to proceed to a next phase of development in the real world.

The transition from relation to sustainability in innovation may seem most painstaking. Before becoming a full-fledged, innovation needs to be spread, mobilized, maintained and sustained in the long haul. To forge partnership or alliance is necessary to make the innovation more efficient and effective, and to scale it out for further impact. It also means resource consolidation, system integration, and/or fund development among actors, stakeholders, and funders. This may look as if Sequoias strived at competition (i.e., cooperation or collaboration in innovation) for becoming larger (i.e., becoming more impactful). Then, why would this part become a barrier for innovation? Let us go back to the analogy of Sequoia. For a Giant tree of Sequoia, a thing that it cannot control is ‘climate.’ To put it differently, it needs to be adaptable and responsive to the environment and ecosystem around it. This means, in our world and human activities, how innovation fits well in the environment where you bring about, addressing a mixture of constraints and influences: legal, political, economic, social, technological, and environmental. This might force you to play hardball and even compromise in some way. For one, that may hinder an innovator from exploring prospects, raising funds and building partnership. This actually has happened to our social business enterprises led by Filipino migrants and Lebanese entrepreneurs who have been underserved and/or misperceived, socially and politically. Given that the reform and change of macro-environment takes longer, innovation needs to weave its continued development and improvement, internally, with its responsive attitude and adaptive practice. In the latter case, we do take into account a comprehensive, top-down approach as well to policy making and lobbying by getting into dialogue with decision makers in government and public sector, and to higher education, training and capacity building for university students and young professionals in new emerging areas and crucial issues of social innovation. Last, a creative, meaningful partnership associated with the environment leads to sustain social innovation. Internally, an organization must continue to monitor and review its fundamentals and value creation “through innovation toward innovation.” Is its cash flow enough to make innovative activities go on? Is an organization transparent and accountable? Is it well decentralized and technologically innovative? Such tinkering processes for good governance and operational excellence are required for sustainable performance through innovation, well responsive to environmental changes and stakeholders reactions. This is another relevant challenge for innovation before being scaled out and impactful.

[1] McDonald, Kim Chandler, How Innovators Think, Act and Change Our World (London: Kogan Page, 2013) Available at: http://www.koganpage.com/editions/innovation/9780749469665 (Accessed: 3 February 2014)
[2] Giant-sequoia.com [online]. Available at: http://www.giant-sequoia.com/faqs/giant-sequoia-landscape-questions/ (Accessed: 3 November 2012)
[3] Giant-sequoia.com [online]. Available at: http://www.giant-sequoia.com/faqs/giant-sequoia-landscape-questions/ (Accessed: 3 November 2012)
24 June 2013
Tokyo, Japan

On May 2, 2013, Mr. Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan (MEXT) was invited to a reception party that took place at Capitol Hill and reached an agreement with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to double the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. and U.S. students studying in Japan.[1] Indeed, this may not seem to stand out among any other catchy news such as “Abenomics,” or a series of comprehensive economic policies led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, and “the 2020 Summer Olympics,” which Tokyo, Japan is bidding as one of the three candidate cities to host. However, it really does. In response, Akira Foundation (AFJ) is working on an upcoming Youth Exchange Program, dubbed “TOMODACHI[2] U.S.-Japan Youth Exchange Program (TOMODACHI-UJYEP),” with American Councils for International Education (ACIE), in line with the ambitious new steps to follow through on their foregoing commitments to a transformative change in how the Japanese educational system relate to internationalization which makes it more accessible for foreign students and nurtures individuals equipped with ingenuity and expertise to solve shared problems across borders.

In recent years, the number of students who choose to study abroad has dropped, significantly, from an all-time high of 83,000 in 2004 to 58,000 in 2010[3], which indicates that the seemingly demonstrable progress is now languishing. Japan’s chronic deflation may have contributed to dampen such an ambitious sprit that must be essential in revitalizing its society, and make it for broader international engagement, or ‘global village,’ where Japan have yet to be truly and concretely committed by their own citizens. The lifetime employment system in Japan is no longer an unwavering norm, which has caused more uncertainty and anxiety among new graduates, while employers are unrelentingly cutting costs further through a war of attrition. For one, the unemployment rate for Japan’s youth aged 15 to 24 still remains high above 9%, compared to the overall rate which is just above 4%.[4] Worse still, under such disturbing circumstances, a new social status or stigma labeled “Freeters,” “NEETs,” or “SNEPs”[5] has emerged, most of whom are prone to drain their potential and miss the most meaningful learning opportunities to live and grow through public participation. In 2011, the number of Freeters, NEETs and SNEPs combined reached out to about 4 million people,[6] and that phenomenon represents a brutal fact that social distortion and costs are looming across the society, especially among the youth.

Here is another “silent epidemic” that surrounds the youth: suicide. Strikingly, more than 30,000 people took their own lives in Japan every year until 2011, when it was marked for 14th straight year[7]. Suicide is now the most common cause of death among people aged 20 through 39 for six consecutive years[8]. This is an enormously idiosyncratic phenomenon and chronic social disease in Japan. Given that the Japanese are more introverted, or “inward-looking,” the Japanese youth would lose even a few glimmerings of hope, let alone his or her bright future that lies ahead, without taking any suicide prevention measures that must transgress traditional clinical approaches at an early stage.

Since its inception of AFJ in 2009, we have tenaciously addressed the foregoing socio-economic issues among the youth and, in channeling change and making collective impact around our specific initiatives, explored the ‘posse’, or “the mixed coalition,” among an extensive collaborative network of interested parties[9] including governments, universities, NGOs/NPOs, corporations, advocates, researchers, volunteers, entrepreneurs, among other people and organizations. The newly developed TOMODACHI-UJYEP is an embodiment of our reciprocal approaches to and collaborative partnerships with a far greater diversity of stakeholders. The main purpose of the program is to empower the youth who are disrupting, and to nurture them to harness their capabilities to bring a much more creative, innovative and intuitive approach to solving problems on an international stage. We select 6 high school students and a few accompanying teachers from each region of Washington, D.C. and Tokyo, and design and develop the program that empowers Japanese and American students through cultural and educational exposures while providing them with a unique hands-on service perspective.

We must acknowledge, however, that this is an experimental trial, but nonetheless, many private and public institutions and individuals have already shared our values and work together to support the program which is underlain by the following common causes: leverage youth’s innovative and creative characteristics; nurture them to find their own, authentic meaningful lives; and inspire them to become engaged global citizens who commit themselves to “sustaining creative, collective and cooperative (3Cs) development”[10] in our global village. To date, the TOMODACHI INITIATIVE, the bilateral public-private partnership launched in 2011 by the U.S. Embassy and the U.S.-Japan Council, strongly supports the program, financially, through the “TOMODACHI Fund for Exchanges” funded by Toyota Motor Corporation, Mitsubishi Corporation, Hitachi, Ltd., and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Inc.[11] Meanwhile, ACIE and AFJ are working collaboratively to develop their own three-week programs in both Washington, D.C. (plus the New York trip) and Tokyo (plus the Tohoku trip).

The program will kick off with a media conference with Vincent C. Gray, Mayor of Washington, D.C. in late July 2013, when 6 Japanese students and 2 teachers from Keio Shonan Fujisawa Senior High School fly to Washington, D.C. for participation in the program. For the U.S. program, a variety of institutional supporters including US-Japan Council, Grameen Foundation, United Way, Ashoka, and Architecture for Humanity, will help the Japanese students gain a sense of social responsibility and global awareness through unique service-based learning at firsthand. The students will also have a chance to meet and discuss topics of U.S.-Japan history and relations with U.S. congressmen at Capitol Hill, while engaging in the team-building workshop of ‘Sustainability Projects’ related to built environment, food/nature or water, through their video production.

For the Japan program, AFJ is carefully reviewing the balance of program partners and contents between cultural immersion and social entrepreneurship which is phenomenally emerging around the Tohoku region where the massive earthquake and tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. Keio Shonan Fujisawa Senior High School and Keio University Shonan Fujisawa Campus will provide educational and cultural exchange programs to American students, and in parallel, the students will be asked to form a group to present their own ideas or thoughts to address social and cultural issues in Japan through the entire three weeks, supported by J-Seed Ventures, which will host the three sessions every Friday to teach the practical, creative way of crafting and improving a business model, ‘Business Model Generation’. In the final week, American students will move to the Tohoku region and visit volunteer organizations involved in relief and sustainable recovery work. The Japan program will start from early November, 2013.

[1] The Mainichi, Minister eyes scholarship for short-term overseas study (2 May 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://mainichi.jp/english/english/newsselect/news/20130502p2g00m0dm014000c.html (Accessed: 9 June 2013)
[2] The TOMODACHI Initiative is a public-private partnership forged after the Great East Japan Earthquake and led by the U.S. Government, the Japanese Government and the U.S.-Japan Council, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. (http://usjapantomodachi.org/about-us/)
[3] Japan Daily Press, Government to encourage more Japanese college students to study abroad (7 May 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://japandailypress.com/government-to-encourage-more-japanese-college-students-to-study-abroad-0728362 (Accessed: 9 June 2013)
[4] Ministry of Internal Affairs & Communications, Japan Unemployment Rate (31 May 2013) [Online] Available at: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/japan/unemployment-rate (Accessed: 9 June 2013)
[5] The Wall Street Journal | Japan, Ranks of Unseen, Unemployed ‘SNEPs’ Growing (19 February 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2013/02/19/ranks-of-unseen-unemployed-sneps-growing/ (Accessed: 9 June 2013)
*Freeters are “those in the same age group who aren’t fully employed, but who make a living through various part-time jobs.” NEETs are “those between the ages of 15 and 34 not in education, employment, or training, who aren’t actively looking for jobs (excluding full-time housewives), and who therefore aren’t considered part of the workforce.” SNEPs stand for “solitary non-employed persons” and are “defined as those who didn’t associate with anyone outside their families during” “a random sample of two days of activity among non-employed singles between the ages of 20 and 59.”
[6] Ibid.
[7] The Japan Times, Suicide toll below 30,000 for first time since 1997 (15 March 2013) [Online]. Available at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/03/15/national/suicide-toll-below-30000-for-first-time-since-1997/#.UbOB7OWCjmI(Accessed: 9 June 2013)
[8] Ibid.
[9] Weinstein, Jeremy M., Transforming Multilateralism: Innovation on a Global Stage in Open Government Partnership (Stanford: Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2013, Volume 11, Number 2), p.4
[10] Akira Foundation, HP: Mission [Online]. Available at: http://www.akira-foundation.org/aboutus/visionmission (Accessed: 9 June 2013)
[11] Embassy of the United States Tokyo, Japan, HP: Press Releases: Five Major Japanese Companies Join as Key Partners in the TOMODACHI Initiative (18 April 2012) [Online]. Available at: http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/p/tp-20120418-01.html (Accessed: 9 June 2013)
07 July 2012
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Converging 50,000 delegates from 192 nations, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 took place from June 20-22nd. The participation in “Rio+20” at such a large-scale conference was a landmark event representing the enthusiasm, diversity, inclusiveness and passion of the stakeholders involved.

However, the conference filled with these positive vibes where participants live up to high expectations is yet to lead to tangible, actionable outcomes. Facing up to the challenges of putting agenda and action plans into practice, the global civil society carefully followed the negotiation processes of the leaders of the world and advocated for the desired change: “The Future We Want.” It gave me great hope to see young voices heard, the people of the world concerned and impatient for such a desired change and future, the global community taking active measures towards a better world rather than passive unresponsive approaches, and the private sector bridging with the global society in a more collaborative way.

Most notable was the unique Yasuni-ITT initiative led by Dr. Ivonne Baki from the Government of Ecuador which chose to forego oil extraction from the Yasuni rainforest in an attempt to preserve the biodiversity and ecosystem of that rich area, home to considerable diversity within species and ecological complexes of which they are part. Led by a growing developing country which puts values at the heart of its actions, the Yasuni initiative is a gift for mankind that Ecuador generously offers. The international community is encouraged to support this initiative and invest in it, in such rare outstanding endeavors where a long-term and human-centered vision triumphs over a short-term and narrow-minded view concerned only with lucrative options. It is also worth mentioning that Ecuador legally recognizes “the right to nature,” presenting an exemplary model for other nations to follow.

Having also visited the Athlete Park where different countries were exhibiting, I passed by the Japanese Pavilion which housed innovative organizations such as Fujitsu; Toshiba; IHI Corporation; Mitsubishi; the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI); among others. The pavilion demonstrated the unique technologies, perspectives, and relationships and respect for others that the Japanese value and bring to the world.

It was truly an inspiring journey during which I have met people from many countries who reinforce the beliefs that:

-We are one.
-Earth is our common global village.
-Our similarities far outweigh our differences.
-Our shared values, planet, resources, and future must constructively bring us all together.
- We are individually responsible for shaping the world!

The key participation of indigenous people made me truly appreciate the beautiful diverse texture of the rich composition in this world.

Finally, the trip would not have been complete without visiting the most breathtaking sights in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and its world-famous monument on the top of the Corcovado Mountain recently named one of the new 7 wonders of the world!

I am grateful to Akira Foundation and the World Economic Forum Global Shapers who encouraged me to pursue this opportunity and contribute to the youth participation at Rio+20.

1 / 212