From Classroom to Boardroom

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2003

Entrepreneurs from Japan's teaching programs lay stakes many miles from home

by Marcus Chidgey

EVERY YEAR, THOUSANDS OF young people from all over the world come to live in Japan as part of the many teaching and exchange schemes. Most arrive with only a smattering of Japanese, but eager to begin their new lives abroad. They expect to stay for only one or two years. It's the opportunity for a post-university career break -- the chance to travel and to do something different before settling into their chosen careers back home. Little do they suspect just how profoundly their Japan experience could affect them.

The largest of these schemes is the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. What started as a small, government-sponsored experiment in education exchange has now, at the end of its 15th anniversary year, surpassed all expectations, bringing over 6,000 young people to Japan from 39 countries around the globe. Depending on their Japanese ability, applicants become either Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) or Coordinators of International Relations (CIRs). ALTs are put into a class with a Japanese teacher of English to team-teach "Oral Communication" classes, whereas CIRs tend to work in local government offices, doing everything from document translation to organizing local sports events.

If you throw that many young, intelligent and motivated people together in one cultural melting-pot, you can be sure that remarkable stories will emerge. Julian Ehrhardt's experience is a prime example. Deferring his place on a management trainee program in the United Kingdom, he arrived in Japan as an ALT in July 2000. Realizing that JET participants developed specific needs while abroad, he built a community Web site called Offering a well-presented mix of product deals, services and practical information, it soon became the No. 1 online resource for JETs. "I came into contact with many businesses wishing to target my members, and with the advertisers and partners I had built up by the end of the year, I was managing to draw an income equivalent to my JET salary."

With the continuing success of assured, Ehrhardt decided to leave teaching, turn down his traineeship and expand his business operations, forming Mojo Japan Ltd. "JETRO and Trade Partners UK were especially helpful and provided me with the support I required to set up an office in Kobe."

This process of cultural
exchange doesn't end when the
JET participant leaves Japan

The World Cup saw Ehrhardt's firm acting as consultants to an overseas sports marketing agency, organizing corporate hospitality in Japan for the likes of Adidas, Budweiser and McDonald's. He has recently opened a bar -- "Sally's Bar" -- in central Kobe, and his London-based design and communications venture, Digital White Ltd, has established an enviable client list over the last year. It has recently secured a contract to develop the entire web and print campaign for a major overseas bank in Japan. "There are strong opportunities [in Japan] for those with an entrepreneurial spirit and staying power. Participating in the JET Program gave me a strong network of contacts in the UK," Ehrhardt says. "Former JETs who move into fields of business related to Japan, in sharing an understanding and common experience, are keen to work with former JETs such as myself."

However, business has not been the only area in which the JET connection has been an advantage. The international charity Go M.A.D. was set up by former JET Angie Peltzer. After finishing university in the US, Peltzer started teaching as an ALT in Nagano in 1999. "I would never have been able to create Go M.A.D. if it were not for the opportunities that the JET Program afforded to me. I cannot put into words how amazing the JET community is," she says. "They have spent countless hours fundraising, and teaching their students about how they too can help children in need."

It was a volunteer trip to an orphanage in Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, during Peltzer's first year in Japan that provided her with the inspiration to start up her own NGO. "It was heartbreaking to see children sick with malaria and measles lying in their beds alone with no one to love or care for them. While the staff tried their best under the conditions, the facilities were hopelessly inadequate. The small amount of time and money I contributed as a volunteer at Sangkh-laburi really seemed to help."

On returning to Japan, Peltzer couldn't forget what she'd seen. "Going back to teach the rich, well-educated students at my school in Nagano and doing nothing somehow seemed wrong after my experiences at Sangkhlaburi." Finding that many smaller projects around the world were having difficulties recruiting volunteers, Peltzer knew the answer might lie in using the Web. "Over the next year, a group of us put together the Go M.A.D. Web site. The idea was to provide an information clearinghouse for small social projects all over the world."

Go M.A.D. has been hugely successful. To date, it has sent nearly 100 people on projects abroad raising nearly JPY1.5 million for charitable causes. In addition, its annual "Christmas Cards That Give" appeal has raised more than JPY5 million over the last two years.

Both Ehrhardt and Peltzer achieved a lot in the short time that they were on the JET Program. By taking advantage of what it had to offer outside of the classroom, they managed to create new opportunities for themselves that furthered their own ambitions. But then the JET Program was always intended to be more than a teaching program. Every participant finds a way to make the experience more relevant to themselves. JETs can be found doing anything from playing in village taiko festivals to organizing drum 'n' bass nights. As much as JETs soak up Japanese culture, they are exposing their local communities to foreign ideas and influence.

This process of cultural exchange doesn't end when the JET participant leaves Japan. Each person takes with them aspects of Japan that can be incorporated into life back in their home country. For Kelli Smith, it was the knowledge of how Japanese people work within a business environment. Two years working as a CIR (Coordinator for International Relations) in a government office in Kagoshima gave Smith the opportunity to put her academic background in Japanese language, culture and communication into practice.

"Working with the Japanese on a daily basis gave me first-hand experience of how understanding the cultural differences that exist is crucial to doing business in Japan. I already understood the theoretical side of Japanese culture, behavior and business practice. But it was while in Japan that I was able to learn more about the subtleties involved."

Upon returning to the UK, Smith took employment with a Japanese-owned electronics manufacturer, where she recognized how important her Japanese skills were in an international business environment. "There were significant communication difficulties between Japanese and British employees. It wasn't a language barrier, but a lack of cultural sensitivity that had a direct adverse effect on the working environment and on the effectiveness of the company as a whole. I became acutely aware of my ability to build relationships and work effectively with both the UK and the Japanese staff due to my understanding of the true nature of both these cultures."

With this experience in mind, Smith founded Rikai (the Japanese Business Culture Specialists) in 2001. Rikai helps companies interact with the Japanese, by ensuring that they are aware of the social, cultural and etiquette differences. Rikai means "understanding," which Smith sees as a critical factor in any successful business relationship with the Japanese. Rikai has developed a comprehensive program of training and consultancy, preparing delegates in anything from business meeting etiquette to coping with their daily lives in Japan.

The success of English teaching and exchange has been mirrored in the private sector and has been extremely lucrative for companies such as AEON, GEOS and NOVA. Together with the smaller eikawas, they employ large numbers of foreign language teachers ready to satisfy the demand for additional juku lessons. Many people also come and find teaching work under their own steam.

Caroline Pover became one such teacher after an impulse decision took her to Tokyo in 1996. She quit her primary school teaching job in the UK in search of adventure abroad. A friend had suggested that she go to Japan, and one long-haul flight and 24 hours later, Pover was sitting on the steps of Tokyo's Ebisu station, waiting for a contact to meet her. The contact forgot she was coming.

"I spent 8 hours waiting at Ebisu station, during which time I called language schools listed in a book I had brought with me and asked them for interviews. I set up five interviews for the following day (a Friday) and started a full-time job at a technical college on Monday. The contact turned up at 11 p.m., full of sincere apologies!"

In those first six months, the reality of being a foreign woman in a big city, in a culture that still places social and professional restraints on women, dawned on her. "I met a number of women, both foreigners and Japanese, who all had similar experiences to me and so I decided to start a magazine to help bring together internationally-minded women and offer them a forum."

"I came with an open mind. I had no
idea that I would end up running three
businesses, and I still consider myself
an 'accidental entrepreneur'"

Being A Broad was popular, but after 13 issues it couldn't survive the high printing costs. However, the continuing support of the Being A Broad online network encouraged Pover to keep going. She set about interviewing 250 women about their experiences in Japan for the basis of a book that she financed, published and distributed herself. Being A Broad in Japan: Everything a Western Woman Needs to Survive and Thrive became a best-seller, receiving widespread critical acclaim. Public speaking dates, press articles and TV appearances followed.

Pover now publishes other authors' books through Alexandra Press (named after her mother), and has recently launched a new venture, Go Girls -- an online language teacher and student matching service and community exclusively for women. Go Girls staff member Satomi Matsumaru says, "As a language service it's practical. Students can gain feminist ideas in an indirect way through its philosophy and events. It's better than outwardly saying 'girl power!' This style is better for Japan."

Pover comments, "I had no expectations; I didn't know how long I would stay but I knew I would teach English. I came with an open mind. I had no idea that I would end up running three businesses, and I still consider myself an 'accidental entrepreneur.' With no business background, I am learning things all the time. It continues to be an amazing experience."

Success comes in many forms. Revolutionizing the telecoms market and changing the way Japan makes its phone calls is all a far cry from teaching in Tokyo's eikawas, but Brad Pavloski, World Link president and CEO, now runs a multi-million dollar company. After hanging up his teaching cap in 1994, Brad set up the discount telecommunications firm together with his brother, Patrick.

"Every time I picked up the phone to make an international call back home, I wondered why I was paying so much in Japan for what would be relatively inexpensive in the States. There was certainly a gap in the market there." After several months researching procurement strategies, the brothers put together a business plan and secured the financing to launch.

With a network marketing strategy that is proclaimed to be one of the best in the business, World Link is rivaling major players like NTT. It has been featured on CNN Headline and Business Asia news and in a raft of articles in the Japanese press. With an HQ in Wisconsin, USA and a Customer Service Center in Tokyo, it's a truly international operation.

Not content with winning a sizeable chunk of the international calls market, World Link has just launched its first domestic discount service, gearing up to save businesses and residential customers thousands of yen on their bills. "After nine years in the industry building our customer base and developing good relationships with our suppliers, it's our purchasing power that has really helped," says Pavloski. "What we save, we pass on as far as possible to our customers. Now for the first time, we can offer these savings on national rate calls."

Asked about his drive and motivation, he says, "For me, coming to Japan was never about building a career in EFL teaching. When I arrived I knew I'd be setting up in business in some form or other. Teaching English was the way in -- it provided me with the chance to breathe and assess my options."

Clearly, foreign language teaching opens up a new world of possibilities, changing preconceptions and disrupting the best-laid career plans. From innovative business startups to life-altering personal relationships, many ex-English teachers find that their destinies have been shaped by their time in Japan. @

Marcus Chidgey was an ALT in 2000 - 2001 in Kurashiki-shi, Okayama prefecture.

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