The TOMODACHI Initiative, in coordination with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, launched the TOMODACHI MetLife Women’s Leadership Program (TMWLP) in 2013 to foster women’s empowerment in Japan. Japan continues to have one of the lowest female labor force participation rates among developed economies and where real gender equality at local companies is rare despite equal-opportunity laws. The program is aimed at strengthening diversity in Japan, promoting women’s participation in the workforce, and developing Japanese leaders with strong ties to the United States.
The 10-month mentorship program pairs Japanese female university students with Japanese female mid-career professionals to encourage networking among a select corps of Japanese women who show promise as Japan’s next generation of leaders. In the 2014-2015 program, 82 women participated from Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Naha, representing 24 different universities and a wide variety of professional affiliations.
The participants attended group workshops focused on leadership development, financial literacy, and networking. They also attended seminars with U.S. government officials, business leaders, and experts on leadership and women’s empowerment. One mentee noted, “The mentors told me to follow what I love and that will lead to the best future.” The activities were designed to empower participants with an increased sense of their own capacity to achieve personal success and to serve as leaders of their communities.
The mentees also participated in an annual U.S. trip to Washington, D.C. and New York City in March 2015. The trip was designed to showcase women leaders in the United States while inspiring and empowering the young participants. In Washington, the participants met with female members of Congress and leaders of a number of companies and organizations.
One evening, the mentees attended a panel discussion by U.S.-Japan Council President Irene Hirano Inouye and other prominent women in which they shared personal stories of their career paths and talked about women in leadership, work-life balance, and mentorship. The participants also toured Washington, D.C. with alumni of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program and visited local universities hosted by members of the TOMODACHI network of young people.
After Washington, D.C., the group traveled to New York City, where they met with organizations led by women. The visit culminated at MetLife Headquarters with a tour of the historic boardroom and a presentation by the highest-ranking woman at MetLife. The participants left the United States enthusiastic about taking on the challenges of becoming the next female Japanese leaders. One mentee commented, “Through this trip I learned the most important thing is to be proud of ourselves and be confident in ourselves as women.”
For the final portion of the program, the mentors and mentees from each location traveled to Tokyo for the TMWLP Annual Conference on Saturday May 30. They celebrated their accomplishments and reflected on their experiences as participants of the program. The conference also served as an opportunity to openly discuss the accomplishments and goals of the program. In attendance were distinguished professionals such as MetLife’s CEO Sachin Shah, Lumina Learning’s Elizabeth Handover, Kathy Matsui from Goldman Sachs, and Kumi Fujisawa from Think Tank SophiaBank. The group was also honored to welcome Japan’s First Lady Mrs. Akie Abe.
Kathy Matsui is recognized as a distinguished leader in her field. When she spoke at the conference, she said having a smooth path to success is a common misconception, for in reality there are always obstacles along the way. She said if you ask any successful professional if their career path has been linear, they would absolutely deny it. But she highlighted the significance of these challenges, for they are what help people grow, both personally and professionally.
Mrs. Abe’s presentation was the highlight of the afternoon; her elegance and poise radiated as she voiced her thoughts on feminism and the future for female leadership. She reminded the participants to cherish their feminine qualities such as generosity, flexibility, and elegance, telling them that women should aspire to reach their full potential as leaders without sacrificing themselves in any way. The participants felt fortunate to hear from someone who is so passionate about women’s rights and expressed hope to apply her advice to their everyday lives.
The young mentees now have new tools for pursuing their careers, and the mentors have been rejuvenated by their mentees. This program is certain to have a long-lasting impact on all of the participants. “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed in what you didn’t do than in what you did do,” said one of them. “Stay away from the safe harbors. Catch a trade wind in yourself. Explore, dream, and discover.”
The graduates of the 2014-2015 TOMODACHI MetLife Women’s Leadership Program are now legacies of the “TOMODACHI Generation,” and have set the bar high for the 2015-2016 participants. Applications for mentor and mentee participation in the 2015-2016 program will be accepted May 1 to June 26. Visit www.tomodachi.org for more information about the program and how to apply.