Kumi Sato sounds more like an evangelist than an entrepreneur when she talks about her new e-venture, womenjapan.com. The president of Japan's first Internet site for women calls it her "mission" to help others burst through the bamboo ceiling that has kept Japanese women off the top rungs of the corporate ladder. "Women lack a message to make them believe that they should be in power," she says.
Sato, 40, is the ideal messenger. Thirteen years ago, the Tokyo native returned from working as a McKinsey & Co. consultant in New York to take over Cosmo Public Relations Corp., a family business that was floundering after the death of her father. Undaunted by Japan's male-dominated business environment, the bilingual, bicultural Sato took a firm that mainly did publishing for Japanese blue chips and turned it into a full-fledged public-relations shop that specialized in helping foreign companies, such as United Parcel Service, enter the Japanese market. Sato altered Cosmo's corporate culture by hiring foreign employees and emphasizing merit over age or gender.
Along the way, Sato noticed that women she interviewed to be employees had the smarts but not the knowledge of business to succeed. The problems were obvious and long-standing: Japan's female workforce was hamstrung by a lack of role models, networking opportunities, and practical education. Women who quit careers to raise families usually lost them permanently and were isolated from information that could help them improve their personal lives or recharge their careers.
Womenjapan.com was Sato's solution. With $500,000 of her own money and $3 million from family and contacts in the U.S., she launched the site last September. Some 15,000 members have signed up. The site offers career counseling and advice on everything from finding a divorce lawyer to smart investing to securing capital to launch one's own company. Womenjapan.com earns revenue through advertising and consulting fees from companies trying to reach women, who are the fastest-growing segment of Japan's online population. Sato expects to turn a profit in three years.
Sato wants the site to be more than just a virtual playground. She wants to bring users face-to-face and has sponsored an awards ceremony for women with their own e-business plans, with $9,500 in seed money as the grand prize. An Osaka housewife who had a plan to help care for the elderly via the Internet won. Sato says womenjapan.com offers practical solutions rather than simple fashion tips, unlike the many Japanese women's magazines that "treat women as an audience that's simply interested in consumption."
Sato attributes her success to an achievement-minded family. In 1902, her grandfather stowed away on a ship to the U.S. and later returned to Japan to become education minister and speaker of the Lower House of the Diet. Her mother and role model, Taeko Matsuda, helped rebuild Japan after World War II and recently earned an engineering PhD at Tokyo University at age 72.
Sato attended an American school in Tokyo--her parents believed an international education and English fluency are crucial for the new generation of Japanese--and graduated from Wellesley College in the U.S. Today she still runs Cosmo. But womenjapan.com is where her heart is. "Mission and business can coincide," Sato says. She's determined to make that happen for Japanese women.