Online Extra: Q&A With Yoshiko Shinohara

The temp-help agency founder on being a female entrepreneur in Japan and where men and women differ in business

Back in the early 1970s, Yoshiko Shinohara launched a temp agency out of a small apartment in central Tokyo with a grubstake of $9,000. Today, her company, Tempstaff, is a $1.5 billion concern and is expanding abroad. She did all of this in a land where women rarely rise within the managerial ranks and it takes a lot of nerve to launch their own companies.

Shinohara is an inspiration in many ways and has been praised in the Japanese business press for her accomplishments. She recently shared her interesting story with BusinessWeek's Hiroko Tashiro. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: When did you get the idea of starting your own temporary-help business?

A:

When I was working at a company in Sydney, I noticed that every time a secretary or a typist took days off, someone came to work to fill in. They were very efficient and breezed through assigned tasks professionally. They were from a temp agency. I thought it was a very convenient system and probably there wasn't anything like that in Japan.

Later, just before I left for Japan, I was introduced to a female president of a small temporary agency in Sydney. One day I spent a couple of hours in her office looking at how people worked there. She gave me a slim pamphlet of her agency, and we had lunch together. That was it at that time. I was not really thinking of starting the business, but that was when I got to know about the temporary-help business.

Q: When you came back in 1973, Japan had very few female presidents. Did female presidents or managers in Europe and Australia give you a strong impetus to start your own business?

A:

Not really. But it was new and very impressive for me to see women breezing through their work professionally in Europe and Australia. Back in Japan, it was still a male-dominated society, and most working women were treated as nobodies who served tea.

When I came back to Japan, a couple of Japanese companies offered me a job but without any special qualification, I thought I would end up by serving tea or just being a clerical assistant. My prospects looked extremely gloomy.

By nature I tend to concentrate and devote myself to one thing. So it was natural to expect that I would stay at one company even if I didn't want to. Then I thought of starting the temporary-help business that I learned in Australia. I had nothing to lose anyway. Most of my female friends were housewives, and they wouldn't have cared a bit even if I failed in business. I never thought of becoming a company president or wanting to become rich.

Q: Is it true that you had very little knowledge when you launched your temp agency?

A:

Today there's lots of information -- you have to study at seminars for entrepreneurs, and you'd better to have an MBA to start a business and so on. I don't think I would've thought about running my own business if I had had such information.

Q: When you started, were most of your customers foreign companies?

A:

Thirty years ago, after the first oil shock, lots of foreign companies launched their business in Japan. Many of them located their offices in Roppongi where I had my office. Those foreign companies needed lots of personnel and were familiar with the temporary-help system. My business started to move thanks to those foreign companies.

Q: Is it true that most Japanese companies' personnel divisions were unfamiliar with the service, and one guy said your company was like an agent for geisha?

A:

Yes. Now I find it funny. Back then it was dead serious, though. I explained how my business worked over and over again, and the guy eventually said, "I got it! You're running something like okiya [an agent to dispatch geishas]." Well, more or less, Japanese companies' reaction was like that at first.

Q: Has the temporary-help service broadened doors for Japanese women to work?

A:

Indeed. It is still not easy in many Japanese companies for a female employee to display her special talents. As a temporary worker, she can take full advantage of her strengths and get fitting reward for it. Some chose temporary work to manage work and raising children at the same time. Some do so in order to avoid letting their working skills get rusty during maternity leaves from companies.

Q: There are still very few female entrepreneurs in Japan. Why?

A:

There are differences between men and women. For women, there are times when they have to cut down their work to have a family and look after their children. If I had found a really nice guy, I sometimes think it might not have been a bad idea to become a housewife. It seems easier [than running a company].

Here is my theory. I think women are good at starting a business. Men are ambitious and think about becoming rich and have all sorts of big dreams. Women usually don't think such things and start small businesses. They work hard, and the business will expand gradually. But women are not good at running a big organization, so when the company grows to a certain size, a male business mind is needed.

Q: What's your next mission? Raising your successor?

A:

There are many excellent employees who can replace me. I'm not worried about that at all. Today, specialization in labor is constantly advancing, especially in the fields of medicine, education, and IT. I'd like to expand the temporary-work business more in these fields and contribute to society.

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