Empowering diverse businesses requires recognizing the unique values that women bring, not just supporting them because of their gender. MPower Partners, as the first women-led VC firm in Japan, is breaking barriers and opening doors for a more sustainable and equitable future. For today’s episode, we have the pleasure of having one of MPower Partners’ General Partners, Yumiko Murakami. She talks about how the company is empowering diverse businesses in Japan and supporting women-led companies, with a larger proportion of such companies than any other firm. She discusses the root causes of biases, the challenges in Japanese culture, and the reality of the role gender plays in businesses – none! Yumiko shares her expertise on a range of economic policy issues and her insights on how to get men to listen and appreciate what women bring to the table. She also delves into the importance of sustainable ESG, the long-term vision of MPower, and more. Tune in now and learn more about the future of diverse business leadership.
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Japanese Women Leaders Are Empowering Diverse Businesses With Yumiko Murakami
How The First Woman-Led VC Firm Is Opening Doors In Japan
Before I get into our wonderful guest, Ms. Yumiko Murakami, I want to invite you to see where your presentation skills are strong and where you might need a little support by taking our free online assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where perhaps a bit of support could get you the results you need and the recognition that you deserve. My guest is Yumiko Murakami, who is 1 of the 3 founders of MPower Partners in Japan. It is the first women-led venture capital firm in Japan that focuses on environmental, social, and governance values and admits diverse applications.
They are funded and are supporting several companies of which 40% are female-led. That’s a higher percentage than anybody here. It’s not specifically about supporting women. It’s about recognizing the values that women bring. That is what got me interested in talking with her, besides my own lifelong interest in Japan. Her official bio is Yumiko Murakami is the General Partner at MPower Partners. She’s the former head of the OECD Tokyo Center. Prior to this, she worked for twenty years in the global financial industry, mostly as a managing director at Goldman Sachs in New York, London, and Tokyo.
She’s a leading authority on a wide range of economic policy issues such as corporate governments, tax guidelines, diversity, education, trade, and innovation. Yumiko sits on several government advisory panels, including Prime Minister Kishida’s panel on the New Form of Capitalism. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School, a Master’s from Stanford University, and a Bachelor’s from Sophia University. She is the daughter of an entrepreneur and she had interesting things to say about adult diapers and a business case for adult diapers. I know you’ll enjoy this interview. Onto the conversation with Yumiko Murakami.
Yumiko Murakami, I’m so glad to have you here as a guest. Welcome.
Thank you so much for having me.
You are a very internationally renowned person. I’ve had an association with Japan and family members there for many years. As we were saying earlier, you’re the first person I’ve interviewed who’s based in Japan. I’m excited to get a chance to interview you. Before we get to the many questions I have for you, let me ask you. If you could interview someone who was no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?
If I could interview my late mother who passed away a couple of years ago. She was one of the very few female entrepreneurs at the time. She became a store owner. She started a drugstore at the age of 48 after 5 children. The 1st store led to the 2nd store led to the 3rd store. Within the first ten years of her business, she owned the largest franchise of drugstores in my hometown. During this time, I was already in the United States. I did not watch her grow her business. She eventually sold her company to another very large company. She was very successful in terms of making this business a very successful enterprise.
I did not have a good chance to talk to her about the experience that she had as a female entrepreneur in Japan. Now that I’m a venture capitalist, I invest in ventures and companies. A lot of the companies that I invest in are run by female founders. I would love to ask my mother, “What was it like to be literally the only businesswoman or business owner?” That must have been so crazy. If I had even five minutes with her, I would have some questions.
You could have more than five minutes. This is your dream interview.
I’ll be like, “How did you convince male?” Everyone else was males or older men, whether it was the banks that she had to work with, vendors, or investors. Everyone was a guy. If I were talking to her, “How did you manage to convince them that they should be dealing with you?”
What year was it?
She began her business, I believe it was around 1990.
Good for her. Didn’t you say that your grandmother had been something of an entrepreneur as well?
She was a teacher. Again, if you think about Japan’s context, women did not work at all. There were only very few professional occupations or jobs women could take. Being a high school teacher was one of the very few professional positions that women could attain. She became a teacher, and my mother, who was a housewife for a long time raised five kids including me. I guess when she had me, she was watching her own mother being a professional. That was very unusual. She had in her that there was something that made her want to do something a little bit more than being a wife and staying-at-home mom, which eventually led to this business.
By the way, at that time, I was already in the United States. I did not like the idea. I felt as if my mother with no business experience, I thought she could fail. In my mind, it was too risky being a woman and a housewife in the very male dominant society of Japan. How could she do business? How could she run a successful business? Eventually, I attended school in the United States. I got a job as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs. I knew how hard it was for anybody and an entrepreneur to make a business out of nothing. She literally started from nothing so I was worried about her.
I’m curious, when I was first learning about Japanese society, one of my sisters was a journalist for many years and lived in Tokyo writing for a Japanese newspaper for three years. I heard lots of stories and I was involved in some artistic projects that had to do with Japan over the 1980s decade. What I was told was that if you were allied with a company, it was more important to be an employee as part of a unit of a recognizable brand, so that any entrepreneur, male, female, or whatever they are, was already at a social advantage. Is that true?
That is very true. I must say it’s definitely changing. The culture is changing and it has become a lot more open to entrepreneurship. There are many more startups compared to the time that your sister was in Japan. There’s a still very strong culture in Japan, which values lifetime employment. You go to school, you graduate at the age of 22, you join an established company, and you stay with the same company for the next 40 years. That’s expected.The Japanese culture is changing, and it has become a lot more open to entrepreneurship. Click To Tweet
Does anybody still use the term salaryman?
Yes. Salaryman is still alive. It’s a mainstream way of living. As I said, society is changing, but the salaryman terminology that you mentioned is still very much the mainstream. What you said earlier in terms of how Japanese tend to have this very controlled and risk-free life because if you join a company, you’re still in the company. You know that you get paid every month for the next 40 years. There is a seniority-based compensation and promotion system. The longer you are with a company, the more senior you become and the higher your salary becomes. The unemployment rate in Japan has been extremely low. Very few people get fired.
The labor law is extremely strict. In that environment, people tend to become very risk-averse. As you said, your sister pointed out the risk-taking appetite among Japanese people. I must say it is very low. It’s almost nonexistent. That’s partially the function of the labor market becoming more fluid and there’s more mobility. Companies are becoming more open to flexible employment systems versus lifetime employment systems. That is changing. You know that word salaryman. The notion of the salaryman is still very much here. It’s interesting to see how things are changing, but it’s slow.
Going back to your mother, I would think that people who run corner stores, you’re not part of a corporation. You are an entrepreneur if you run the corner grocery store or the corner drug store. Is there a family tradition that keeps you within the pattern?
To give you a little bit more background of my mother’s business, she did start with one little corner drugstore, which did well. She ended up expanding her franchise. Her company became one of the largest companies in the Western part of Japan. She was selling $200 million a year. At that point, she sold her stake to one of the largest companies in Japan. What was interesting was I wasn’t with her when she was doing this. I was already in the United States, but afterward, I learned that one of the interesting things that she did when she was starting this drugstore business was to understand the unmet need of an aging society. That was so interesting. My hometown, which is in the Western part of Japan is called Shimane, which is very countryside and middle of nowhere.
You probably know that in 2023, Japan is one of the fastest-aging societies in the world. It was shrinking very fast. The demographic challenge is extremely severe. Of 126 million people now, that would drop below 200 million by 2050. That is going very quickly in terms of how quickly our population is shrinking. This is 2023. Back in 1985 or 1990 when my mother was starting her business, it was not very obvious this was happening in terms of the Tokyo population or larger cities. They were not seeing this demographic challenge as yet, except for my mother who was already starting to see signs of demographic change in her hometown because she was already starting to see signs of a declining population.
She realized that there were going to be new needs and demands from this market, which was going to potentially create interesting business opportunities. Now, I’m not sure in the United States, but at least for Japan, it’s true that there are more adult diapers sold than baby diapers. Who would’ve thought many years ago that was going to be the case? My mother knew adult diapers were handy. Why? Because she was taking care of my father’s aging parents. In Japan, even now, it’s the woman’s responsibility to take care of not only her own parents but also her husband’s parents.There are going to be new needs and demands from this market, which are going to potentially create interesting business opportunities. Click To Tweet
I think that’s around the world. It’s happening all over the world. It’s usually the women who are taking care of them.
If you’re not taking care of older parents, you don’t know that you need adult diapers because you don’t do it. You don’t do anything. My mother was able to see how important it was for her company to provide that kind of product lineup. She started to sell all these nursing care products, like diapers and other things that are important when you take care of older parents. That differentiated her business versus everyone else. By the way, all the other larger companies in the drugstore industry, they’re all run by men so they have no clue.
They’re not the ones who are changing adult diapers.
This does well because she was able to identify these unmet needs because she was the only one who was able to see why this was important for customers. She was the one who is actually doing it. It goes to show you how advantageous it could be if you are different from everyone else or if you are the only female entrepreneur who thinks about these things because no one else thinks about it. The market is huge for nursing care products. It is unless you have done it or your female friends and talk about it, “It’s great to use adult diapers.” Guys never talk about it.In the 1990s my mother saw a need for adult diapers and founded a drugstore chain to supply them. A man would have never thought of that. Click To Tweet
That’s a wonderful story. What brought you to creating MPower Partners with your friends, which is a venture capital firm? It’s focused on ESG and tech-enabled solutions but also supports female founders. Is it more about sustainable ESG, is it more about female founders, or is it just that the female founders are the ones who think about that?
We don’t have a gender lens investment approach, meaning we don’t have a target for female founders in terms of investments. If you look at the investments that we have made so far, we have ten companies in our portfolio and we continue to make investments. 40% or 4 out of the 10 companies are run by female founders. That’s much higher than if you look at the entire venture landscape. Female founders are less than 5% or so and 2% of the capital supposedly goes to female founders, which is terrible. We allocate 40% of capital right now, and that’s not because we have this target of 40% like, “Let’s make sure we put 40% of the money into female founders.”
It’s because we happen to have a very fortunate deal flows where quite a few minority founders would come to us. Also, because of the fact that we are women and we don’t have any biases against either men or women, we tend to look at all business opportunities, whether they are run by men or women. We tend to have a much wider range of investment opportunities and we pick the best ones that we think would make the most sense. They happen to be 40% women. It goes to show you how biased a lot of times the selection process is.
If you are not exposed to these great female founders, you’re not going to have 40% of your investment in this particular segment of the population. It’s important for people to realize that there is unconscious bias in selecting what companies you want to meet and what companies you want to do due diligence on. If you make sure that you remove that unconscious bias from that selection process, chances are you’re going to be able to find great companies and many of them are probably run by female founders.
To go back to your question, we did not set up saying, “Let’s set up a first female-led VC. Let’s invest in women.” It did not start like this. We started our fund thinking, “Let’s do the most economically sensible thing when it comes to selecting companies.” We realized that, for example, having a very open policy in terms of selecting companies, whether gender, race or any other association makes the most sense. In the end, we may have more exposure to female or minority founders compared to our peer VCs. That’s because we’re doing something that makes the most economic sense. At the end of the day, we thought ESG makes most business in an economic sense.
We did not start thinking, “Let’s do something that’s good for society.” We did not start our VC that was going to be a social impact fund. We said, “Let’s make money. Let’s make sure we are going to achieve commercially competitive financial returns.” How do we do that? We do things that will make most businesses. By the way, if you are looking at only 10 companies that are run by men, and if you’re looking at 100 companies that are run by both men and women, chances are you’re going to make better choices in terms of finding better companies in that 100 company pool versus 10.Because we avoid bias, we have a much wider range of investment opportunities, so we can pick the best ones. They happen to be 40% women-led. We have more exposure to female and minority founders because it makes better economic sense. This gives us… Click To Tweet
Before we go on, for our audience who aren’t conversant with the jargon, what does ESG mean and what does it mean to you specifically?
ESG is a very commonly used word. Environment is E, Society is S, and G for Governance. This ESG, you hear in many situations, especially in the investment world, and what this means is that these environmental elements, society elements, and governance elements are the elements that are good for business. Therefore, as an investor, we look for companies that are strong, are likely to grow, and give us investors and good financial returns. These ESG, Environment, Society, and Governance, are so-called non-financial elements or non-financial information. They’re not about profits, margins, or sales. When you say environment, we’re talking about air quality. We’re not talking about profit margin. We’re talking about gender that falls into the society bucket.
We’re not talking about ROE or Return On Equity. None of these things are considered financial information. These ESG elements are in fact as important as financial elements. When we talk about gender, some people may say, “Just because you have diversity, it doesn’t give the company better margins or better sales projection.” That’s what you might think. In our mind, gender diversity may not directly mean that you are going to expand your margins from 10% to 20% tomorrow. It’s because diversity can give the company much more flexibility in terms of identifying different business opportunities. My mother did. My mother was able to say, “Adult diaper is going to grow. That’s going to sell well.”
That’s because she had a very different perspective on the business as she was running where guys couldn’t see. This is something that can make the company stronger. We take these ESG elements as very strong elements to make the company stronger. Even though they’re not financial information or terms, it’s important to realize that these are the things that make economic and business sense.
Therefore, you can make more money in the long run. It’s very difficult to say, “Just because you have more women on the board, you’re going to make more money tomorrow.” It’s not going to be tomorrow. If you are thinking about a company that can thrive on a long-term basis say could be ten years, then companies with diversity on the board are going to do better than the ones without diversity.
It’s the long game to allow the company to survive as opposed to making a lot of money fast and then cashing out, which is what a lot of venture capitalists do. I worked in Silicon Valley for many years. A lot of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley are all about making money as fast as they can and then getting out. Let me ask you a couple of things about what it was like. One of the things that I work with a lot, mostly with American-based or European-based women is the challenge of getting men to listen and appreciate what the women are good at. I’m curious, when you and your two partners were starting MPower Partners, how did you get the men in the financial society to listen to you? You must have male investors, but how did you get the men to listen to those girls over there?
We were extremely lucky. We were able to raise money very quickly. We were very lucky in terms of having men listen to us. One of the things that you have to remember is you have to know what your strength is, what your competitive advantage is, and how to play your competitive advantage, your special experience, knowledge, or strength. Myself and the other two female partners had almost 25 years of experience in the investment banking industry, mostly at Goldman Sachs. We also had a very international experience as bankers. We went to our investors. Our investors are all men.You always have to know what your strength is, what your competitive advantage is, and how to play them. Click To Tweet
We went to them and then said, “This is what we have done. Based on what we have done in terms of track record, this is what we want to do. By the way, what we want to do is this ESG-focused venture fund. Would you invest in us?” I guess we were very lucky that we were able to convince them based on our experience that we will be able to do well with this new fund. They listened. We were extremely lucky to be able to raise money.
Maybe it was good timing or there are other things that helped our situation, but we were very clear. We knew what we were able to offer to them. We knew exactly how we could differentiate ourselves from everyone else. One thing that I would say to my female friends is that do not underestimate your merits. It’s very important to, first of all, objectively analyze what your competitive advantage is.
Don’t underestimate your competitive advantage.
You need to understand what it is first. You need to know exactly how your experience or your knowledge base expertise is different. If you are like any other 99 men, then I’m not sure you can play that game. You need to understand that other people listen to you know what they can offer. The first thing you need to do is to reflect on yourself. What is it that is different about you versus everyone else? Project a lot of confidence when you talk about your strength. I’m sure in your case, Elizabeth, when you are working as an opera director, you are one of very few females.
I was one of the early women.
When you start thinking, “What is it that I’m different? What is it that I have done differently from others?” chances are you are going to be able to come up with a few things that are very unique by the virtue of being the only woman in the industry or being the first woman in whatever you’re doing. In our case, I was one of the very few female managing directors at Goldman Sachs at that time. It is things like that. If you think about those things that are different about you and you need to understand that you are unique, if you can’t present these differentiation points terms, you have to know what they are. If you know what they are and if you can project confidence, you can make them listen to you.If you can't present what makes you different, you have to know what they are. If you know what they are and if you can project confidence, you can make the audience listen to you. Click To Tweet
What I see sometimes in women is they might underestimate their own strengths. Maybe they don’t think it’s a big deal that they have done XYZ. 1) They might underestimate their own merits. 2) They may not project the confidence that would make men listen to them. Understanding your own strengths, merits, and how being different gives you a huge advantage. My mother is the only woman in the business for adult diapers.
Also, understand how powerful that differentiation point is. Therefore, you should feel and predict that confidence when you are speaking to whoever. In our case, it was our investors. We had to tell them, “We are going to make money for you because we have done XYZ. Over the last 25 years, we have worked in Europe, the US, Japan, Goldman Sachs, and other companies. Therefore, we are very confident that we can be successful running money with this fund.” I think of these two things.
Yumiko Murakami, it’s been such an honor to have you on this episode. I’m very excited to have you and I’m delighted. I wish you the best. I hope we want to say that MPower Partners becomes one of the major venture capital funds if you’re not already. Watching you take your place in the changing of the way companies are funded would be a wonderful thing. Thank you so much. If someone was reading this and it’s a woman who has an idea for a company or a woman who wants to ask for a loan or investment, what would be the first thing you recommend? What’s one place to start basically?
First of all, you need to talk to as many people as possible who are in the same market, whether they are your potential competitors or your clients, people who might buy your business. What’s important is to do as much homework as possible before you start asking for investments. As an investor, whoever comes to me, I like to see that person has done as much research as possible and has thought about the business plan. You don’t want to go to somebody with a hand-picked idea and be like, “Can you invest in me?” It’s important that you do your homework, talk to a lot of people, and then with confidence you go to an investor or investors.
Also, know what makes you different. Yumiko Murakami, arigatou gozaimasu. Thank you very much for being a guest. I will see you at the next one.
- MPower Partners
About Yumiko Murakami
Yumiko is the former head of the OECD Tokyo Centre. Prior to the OECD, she worked for 20 years in the global financial industry, mostly as a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs in New York, London and Tokyo. She is a leading authority on a wide range of economic policy issues such as corporate governance, tax guidelines, diversity, education, trade and innovation. She sits on several Government advisory panels, including Prime Minister Kishida’s panel on “The New Form of Capitalism”. Yumiko has an MBA from Harvard Business School, MA from Stanford University and BA from Sophia University.