Yoshiko Shinohara knows something about adversity. She lost her father at the age of 8, her marriage broke up in her mid-20s, and a decade later she launched a temporary work agency in a tiny one-room apartment in central Tokyo with a grubstake of $9,000. Today her company, Tempstaff, is a $1.5 billion concern, and Shinohara, who never went to university, is praised in the press as a gutsy female entrepreneur who made it big.
What sparked the entrepreneurial itch in Shinohara when most of her peers in the 1960s preferred to master the intricacies of the Japanese tea ceremony? Part of it was travel. After her divorce, a curious Shinohara studied English and secretarial skills in Britain, then worked in Australia for a marketing company. She saw women managers thriving and was struck by how temporary-work agencies opened doors for them. "It was very impressive for me to see women breezing through their work in Europe and Australia," she says.
In 1973, Shinohara returned to Japan and at the age of 38 decided to launch her temp agency. It wasn't easy. She didn't know the first thing about running a startup. Still, what she lacked in managerial knowhow she more than made up for in drive. She started making calls to foreign and Japanese companies, sometimes as many as 20 per day. Business was so glacial at first that she taught English at night to pay the rent on her apartment, which doubled as corporate headquarters.
By the late-1980s, Tempstaff had established itself. Paradoxically, Japan's stretch of stagnation in the 1990s was a godsend, as companies hired more part-time workers to avoid the high cost of permanent employees. That trend has continued. In 2003 alone, the number of temps soared 21.8%, to 2.13 million workers -- 2.5 times as many as five years before. Today, Tempstaff serves 59,000 clients, employs 1,200, and expects profits to rise 4.5%, to $80 million, in the fiscal year that ended in March.
Now nearing 70, Shinohara has lost none of her enthusiasm. Every morning by 8 a.m. she's at company headquarters, now in a smart high-rise in central Tokyo. Her next mission: promote expansion to new areas. "Specialization in labor is constantly advancing," she says, "especially in the fields of medicine, education, and IT." Japan is changing, and Shinohara will change with it.