Aki Higuchi, a Laidlaw Scholar at Säid Business School, on building your own organisation, overcoming obstacles and finding your leadership style.
In 2015, I launched “Omsister,” the very first service of its kind to tackle one of the most pressing issues in Japan - the lack of childcare and the international learning environment. To redefine children's learning and women's careers, we provide bilingual nannies, who offer kids “role models” and global awareness education.
Japan has long been characterized by a paternalistic and hierarchical culture that has made it difficult for women and girls to pursue their ideal careers. Lacking sufficient childcare support is putting immense pressure on women to balance work and family, leading to a detrimental low birth rate and population decline for 18 straight years.
Over the past seven years, we’ve created tangible differences in over 5,000 children's and women's lives through our service Omsister. I have had a fulfilling entrepreneurial journey but it's just the beginning. The problem I tackle is huge, complex, and cannot be solved by one approach. So, I decided to learn more about leadership, social business, and public-private partnerships in education, so that I can solve the bigger problem that I see.
In 2021, I decided to pursue a Master's in Public Administration in the U.S., studying public leadership and policy that ensure an inclusive, equitable society. At Oxford, I want to learn how to make social impact sustainable and scalable. I want to make quality education accessible to every child, regardless of their economic status.
What is the biggest life challenge you overcame, and what did you learn from it?
I’ve gained the biggest lesson from my team-building failure. In promoting education and women empowerment, Omsister gained significant media attention and grew rapidly right after its launch. However, the pressure rose rapidly, revealing my limitations as a startup leader. Desperate for clients, I spent all my time on sales, leaving my 3-person staff to figure out our workflows. Obviously, my team was exhausted day after day, but I could not honestly say that I had no idea how I could solve the problem or ask for help. After a contentious period, all staff members became disappointed and resigned. It was a tough, heartbreaking memory. I was alone facing bankruptcy in six months.
After a couple of months, I found new partners and shared the value of my mission “to empower women and children through education.” This time, I honestly divulged that we were fighting for survival and that I needed their help. They voluntarily started discussing the strategy, setting individual goals, and working towards them, recouping sales and strengthening team bonding. This experience has become my critical turning point, realizing my leadership style and what it takes to be a leader. I learned that leadership is less about authority and more about inspiring others by being authentic, revealing weaknesses, and always considering how others could perform better.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
Remember how far you've come, not just far you have to go.
My seven-year journey as an entrepreneur has been a rocky road, just like those of many other entrepreneurs. Surviving constant cash flow shortages; recovering from the brink of bankruptcy; team collapse due to heavy workload; endless apologies to clients for failing to meet their expectations; and having to make the difficult decision to lay off good friends... and more.
Sometimes, countless hurdles overwhelm you, dragging you down to the dark side. But when I feel powerless, I always look back at the bumpy road we went through, along with our mission to "empower women and children through education." The path behind you is undoubted evidence that you can overcome any obstacle if you wish to.
What is the worst piece of advice you have been given?
That's a risky decision to start your own company.
Nothing is risk-free. The important thing is whether your passion outweighs the risk and if you are willing to embrace it. Today, I am rather thankful for this advice because it made me reaffirm my passion to empower women and children.
Top 3 tips that will help someone become a better leader
⚡ Know yourself better each day: I have struggled to figure out my leadership style that works the best. I read books, went to seminars, and observed what other entrepreneurs did, but nothing taught me which style is the best for me. After much thought, I realized that the correct answer did not appear out of nowhere. Instead, it is something you figure out little by little while you face your own weaknesses by going through difficulties. I learned that being a leader means continuing to try to understand yourself better every day.
⚡ Be authentic: People often have a stereotype of an "entrepreneur" as being strong and masculine, giving crystal-clear orders and always competing to win the game. But people are unique, and so is the nature of the organization each leader leads. When I was hiding my weakness, things didn’t go well at all. Rather, I lost my team’s trust. I learned that people can maximize their value the most when they are true to themselves.
⚡ Be grateful for the people around you: One of my favorite quotes is an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone." If you want to go far, go together. " Without people’s generous support, I couldn’t have achieved what I have achieved today. Cherish people who always believe in you, and remember that they made you into who you are today.
Which leaders in the world inspire you the most and why?
Sadako Ogata inspired me to do my internship at UNICEF South Asia before starting my MBA, giving me a precious opportunity to deepen my understanding of gender equality and human rights in healthcare and education.
Sadako Ogata was the first woman to be appointed as a head of the UNHCR in 1990, dedicating her life to improving the world for the most vulnerable people. I admire her especially because she prioritizes her principle "to save as many lives as possible" over traditional operation rules which might have left behind millions of lives, boldly changing them under an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
The Laidlaw Women in Business Scholarship made my dream come true. Without its financial assistance, I could not have pursued my study at Oxford. Being part of the Laidlaw community means having a tremendous learning opportunity to dream big, and grow together with many future leaders. Having been selected as a Laidlaw scholar, I reconfirmed that I wanted to encourage more women, especially those facing financially or culturally seemingly-impenetrable obstacles.
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
I want to see a future where all women and children can pursue their ideal careers, and reach their full potential. I truly believe that role model education is a solution.
My vision was based on my own childhood experience. I still remember the first day Feliz, an energetic Turkish student, came to pick me up at school when I was six. My mother, a busy film producer, arranged the tutor, hoping to help her manage a packed schedule. Japan’s culture of welcoming nannies for childcare had just recently started to develop, asking a random university student at that time was unheard of.
Working with many female managers professionally, I realized my mother’s problem, balancing work and family, was a nationwide, even a worldwide problem. I thought, "What if I could diversify women's and children’s choices by reproducing my childhood experience?"
That's how I started my startup, and it has been a very rewarding journey. I want to create a world where every female and child feels supported by society, and empowered to envision their future without any constraints.
📺 Currently binging: The Crown
📚 My top book recommendation: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
🎧 Podcast obsession: HBR IdeaCast
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: I completed my graduate study in the US, came back to Japan and spent the whole summer with my family, eating tons of delicious Japanese food and Matcha sweets!🍵
Aki is a Laidlaw Scholar at Säid Business School. You can find Aki on LinkedIn and Instagram. The Laidlaw Women's Business Education Scholarship aims to help build a pipeline of future women leaders through access to best-in-class education, resources and global networks by providing full and half scholarships to women who would not otherwise be in a position to reap the benefits of attending an outstanding school.
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