The main session was a jam-packed four hours covering diversity, entrepreneurship, and changes in men’s way of thinking, among other topics.
Though the doors weren’t scheduled to open until 9:00 am, participants formed a queue as early as 7:00 am, happily talking to one another and exchanging business cards. Accustomed to this scene every year of participants eagerly waiting to enter the Conference venue, the staff finished their last-minute preparations and opened the doors fifteen minutes ahead of schedule again this year.
Participants registered at the reception desk and then moved to the beautifully-laid tables in the main conference room to find seats. Many were taking photos and uploading images to various SNS. At 10:00 am, the conference room lights were dimmed.
With all eyes locked on her, Kaori Sasaki, Founder and Chair of The International Conference for Women in Business, took to the stage. Ms. Sasaki spoke about the incredible diversity of participants at this year’s Conference and some of the milestones being reached. Ms. Sasaki spoke passionately about this year’s overall theme: “How beneficial your actions are depends on how positive your actions are. Let’s make today a day where everyone, each and every person in attendance, really participates, instead of just looking on from the sidelines.”
To demonstrate her positive action, Ms. Sasaki also announced the introduction of a diversity index to indicate a company’s involvement in diversity. She spoke about the steering committee and how the index will function and called on companies attending the Conference to adopt it. Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare Katsunobu Kato, who has endorsed the index in writing, also provided a message of support that Ms. Sasaki read to the audience.
“Let’s keep this going until 8 o’clock tonight!” With these words of encouragement, Ms. Sasaki officially kicked off the 22nd annual conference.
The day’s first speaker was Yuriko Koike, Governor of Tokyo, who had thrilled participants with a surprise appearance last year. Ms. Koike impressed upon participants that women still have so much potential power in this era of low birthrates and longevity. She is also committed to “making the Tokyo Metropolitan Government into a model organization for female advancement”. Participants listened intently as Ms. Koike urged them to become “the first penguin”, the person who takes the lead and steps out into the unknown.
Next to the stage was Rubana Huq, an entrepreneur from Bangladesh. Along with employing 7,000 people in the area of manufacturing ready-made garments, Ms. Huq works hard to promote the empowerment of women. Ms. Huq introduced participants to some of the hard facts facing women in Bangladesh, including their sad history and the high mortality rate among pregnant women. She shed light on some projects she is working on in order to support women contributing to the ready-made garment industry and to change society. One such project is a housing support project. Ms. Huq’s passionate speech was met with a huge round of applause upon its conclusion.
Miwa Kato, Asia Pacific Regional Director, UN Women, was the third speaker on stage. Ms. Kato spoke softly, but her message was loud and clear: “There are currently very few leaders who do act positive. Spending all your time trying to read between the lines to sense the atmosphere solves nothing.” She sounded a warning bell toward any society that hinders people from showing ambition within their organizations. She called on all in attendance, saying: “Get into a position where you have the authority to make decisions as that is what will get results. Let’s all do this together.”
Keiko Honda, Chief Executive Officer of Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency spoke next. In a clear voice, she reflected on her own life experience from the days when it was still quite difficult for women university graduates to find work. She spoke about issues facing women today: “A higher percentage of women are going on to tertiary education, but they are not finding jobs where they can fully utilize their education. There are still too few women in the financial sector.” Ms. Honda cheered on the other women telling them what she would have told herself twenty years ago, if she could have: “Find and get whatever means success for you. Work in a positive manner to make that into reality. Get the results you’re after.”
Conference participants were then treated to a special surprise from Ms. Sasaki. In a video message recorded on a recent visit to Japan, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson welcomed everyone to the 22nd annual conference and complimented the gender equality efforts by the Japanese government and said that the British government wants to work on this with Japan. He said the British foreign office has now banned “manels” (all-male panels) as a step toward gender equality, which he considers to be of fundamental importance.
Next on the program were five talk shows. In the first talk show, Maya Morsy, President of The National Council for Women of Egypt, who had just flown 34 hours to get to Japan for the Conference and Miwa Kato, who had just delivered a speech, took the stage. Speaking about how she fought for her country, Ms. Morsy explained that the “Arab Spring” was still a very severe “winter” for women who were living amid discrimination. Along with expressing her wish for peace, she said: “If I could say something to you as a mentor, I would say that you need to become your own beacon of hope. You need to keep on dreaming.”
The next talk show featured three male leaders: Akira Matsumoto, Chairman of the Board & CEO of Calbee; Sachin N. Shah, Director, Representative Statutory Executive Officer, Chairman, President & CEO, MetLife Japan; and Naoya Araki, President and Representative Director of Hankyu Hanshin Department Stores. News anchor Minori Takao asked each leader about programs in their companies aimed at promoting the advancement of women, before delving further into an issue prevalent in Japanese corporations, the slow pace at which men are changing their perceptions. The male leaders, all already taking concrete actions that are getting concrete results, vowed to further strengthen their efforts.
Three female leaders at the forefront of their respective sectors, Kathy Matsui, Vice Chair at Goldman Sachs Japan; Makiko Eda, President of Intel; and Shannon Kalayanamitr, Co-founder of Orami, Southeast Asia’s largest e-commerce site for women, who came from Thailand for the Conference, took stage to discuss how Asia is changing and how this affects Japan. Author Kyoko Altman facilitated an insightful discussion on macroeconomic changes in each country and the microeconomic perspective of each company.
The morning flew by for the fully engaged participants and the course luncheon, created especially for the Conference, was served. After a lively discussion over lunch, it was time for the afternoon program to kick off.
The fourth talk show of the day featured Shinjiro Koizumi, Member of the House of Representatives, and Kaori Sasaki. Mr. Koizumi, who also attended last year’s Conference, spoke passionately about positive action aimed at the future, including the unique meeting he held last spring which was open to those “zero years and over” and his “child insurance plan”, which is receiving a lot of attention. At the end of this talk, Ms. Sasaki surprised the more than 1,000 participants by inviting them to join Mr. Koizumi and her for a group photo.
Last on the stage were Olympic medalist Yuko Arimori and neuroscientist Kenichiro Mogi. News anchor Minori Takao guided the discussion with Ms. Arimori talking about the real struggles she faced in making it to the medal podium twice. Mr. Mogi also delivered a powerful message: there is no difference neurologically between the brains of males and females, so everyone must believe in his or her own potential, regardless of gender.
The 5th talk show closed to thunderous applause and the participants took a short break to move to the other conference rooms for the Round Table discussions starting at 3:00 pm.
Ten themes to choose from including policymaking, investment, workstyle reform, journalism, human resources and voice training.
True to the day’s theme, the positive action on the part of the 1,000 participants did not stop, even during the breaks. Many attended the booths of sponsor corporations set up in the foyer, listening carefully to explanations of each company’s products and taking pamphlets to read later. Some purchased books written by the Conference speakers, while others bought Kaori Sasaki’s best-selling Action Planners for the following year, which are always released on the day of the Conference. Several participants took the opportunity to meet and talk with the Conference speakers.
Participants were able to attend two Round Table sessions, choosing from five different themes for each session. Four of the available Round Table discussions were conducted in English, with no interpretation.
Themes available in Session 1: “Women in Politics and Public Leadership”, “Women in Investment”, “Work-style reform: The reality”, “Changes in the board room”, and “Voice-training workshop”.
Themes available in Session 2: “Education for future leaders”, “Entrepreneurs make a difference”, “Women journalists are changing news media in Japan”, “HR evaluation of work-style reform”, and “Be a manager. Do it better”.
These Round Table discussions provided a valuable opportunity for participants to interact directly with various speakers who are currently taking positive action at the forefront of their respective fields. Speakers included Maya Morsy, President of The National Council for Women of Egypt; Mayu Shono, an entrepreneur who produces products from regional Japan; Toko Shirakawa, a journalist who covers the falling birthrate; and Isoko Mochizuki, a newspaper journalist known for her in-depth analyses of activities in the Prime Minister’s office.
More than half of the allotted time for each Round Table discussion was spent on interactive discussion. As soon as a facilitator invited questions, hands shot up with questions, shrewd observations, and proposals based on different perspectives, all enhancing further discussion. Regardless of their age, life stage, nationality or gender, all participants—from students to executives—actively and readily offered their own forward-looking opinions and advice.
Lively and meaningful discussions continued in each room right until the very end. “Exposure to various opinions based on new ways of looking at things has really broadened my outlook.” “What some of the students had to say has motivated me.” “Seeing how passionate everyone was, I felt like I would be losing out if I didn’t also ask a question.” These are a few of the comments received from excited participants as they left the Round Table sessions. The speakers, too, were urging participants to continue their discussions at the following party, the culmination of the day’s events.
The Party was a time to reflect, enjoy a special live performance talking about peace, and network to share the passion of the day!
Eight hours into the Conference, the participants were feeling empowered. At 6 pm, the networking party began in the main venue, which had been transformed into a party space with an exquisite gourmet buffet.
Kaori Sasaki invited Reiko Kashiwabara, Mitsubishi Corporation, Eiko Shintani, Calbee, Inc.and Rikako Akita, KOBAYASHI Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. conference Gold Partners to the stage. Each company spoke passionately about why they support this Conference. Next on the stage were individual Matching Sponsors and the students they sponsored to attend. One of the sponsors said, “I used my bonus to provide support to a student and I am confident that I made the right decision to do so.” One of the students said, “Along with this being an opportunity to think about social issues, it was also an opportunity for me to think about how I should be acting.” Their excitement was palpable, leading participants to break into applause yet again.
Kenji Isezaki, a disarmament and peacebuilding specialist, is also a trumpeter and band leader. His band, Jazz Hikeshi, performed live jazz at the party. With a wine glass in hand, participants listened intently to his words regarding peace which he shared between songs. After enjoying the delicious food and wine, participants exchanged business cards and immersed themselves in conversation.
At 7:45 pm Kaori Sasaki once again took to the stage. She invited speakers Miwa Kato, Keiko Honda and Shannon Kalayanamitr to join her in a message: “Let’s all move forward together.” Even after Ms. Sasaki presented her closing remarks, an endless line of participants waited to exchange business cards. Many participants, reluctant for the day to end, lingered throughout the venue.
In such a positive, inspiring atmosphere filled with energy and hope, it is impossible to not be deeply motivated by the stories and experiences that were shared. Having already demonstrated an “Act Positive” attitude by attending the Conference, participants resolved to continue to take positive actions the next day and onward. We look forward to hearing about their progress at next year’s Conference!
The 23rd International Conference for Women in Business will be held on July 22 (Sunday), 2018.
Please register here to receive email updates on next year’s Conference.