riarumi sits down with Megumi Hagiuda, Owner of Africa no Hanaya ( アフリカの花屋 ), a unique flower store based in Tokyo that specialises in African roses. We ask Megumi about her journey to get to where she is today, the thinking behind her decision to open her own flower store, and the lessons learned from her many international travels.
Who is the riarumi?
The Kanji character for my name, Megumi, means “love”. So I was born to give love and to be loved. I think that’s what I’m like. My family name, Hagiuda, means “clover born field”, so it’s all about nature. I was born in a suburb of Tokyo. In the Ghibli movie, Tonari no Totoro, their house is in a forest. My house is actually very much like that, very beautiful. In my childhood, I used to do things like climb trees, walk around in the mountains, and build tree-houses. Very nature-oriented activities. So I love nature. And I have family: my mother, my father and two younger sisters. I was given lots of love from all of them. Also, I am very enthusiastic about learning about different cultures, including their dance, movies, songs, sports, arts, and so on. So I love learning about different cultures. That’s me!
What cultures in particular are you interested in?
I love Latin culture! I used to live in Spain and I learned flamenco dancing there. It’s very passionate. I also love samba and bossa nova music. I especially love Brazilian culture. They have a great sense of humour and like to see the funnier side of life. Even if it seems like there’s nothing there, they can be very creative in order to make life more enjoyable. And I also like that they treat family as the most important thing in their life.
Tell us about Africa no Hanaya.
Africa no Hanaya imports roses from Kenya, which are then sold online in Japan. The images of ‘Africa’ and ‘flowers’ may not click together, but Kenya is the number one exporter of roses. The reason is because since Kenya is right below the equator, the duration of sunlight is longer. Also, due to the high altitudes, there are intense differences of temperatures in the morning and evening, which creates excellent quality roses. Compared to the roses in Japan, they have many specialties; they last longer – about two weeks – and with flower-size ranging from 4cm to 6cm. Another characteristic is that there are many colors and designs like orange and red to pink and green, with gradation to marble patterns, all of which are unusual to see in Japan. By importing these beautiful roses to Japan, many customers will be thrilled and ultimately, it will contribute to the employment in Kenya. Being able to contribute internationally is why I sell these roses and it’s also something that brings people happiness.
What gave you the idea to start a shop that’s focused around African flowers ?
In Kenya, since the roads have no pavements, the flowerpots at the flower shops were very dirty and the roses were not pretty. But when I saw a beautifully-bloomed rose in one of the flower shops, I was so surprised and it made a huge impact on me. I have a license for teaching flower arrangement and have seen countless flowers but I had never seen a rose so big and with such an unusual design. I didn’t even think it was a rose at first!
I asked the person in the store, “what flower is this?” and she replied, “it’s a rose. There aren’t any roses in Japan?” Then I told her, “there are roses in Japan but not with this kind of color gradation of red and yellow.” I wanted to buy these kinds of roses in Japan when I got back, so I looked up stores online but couldn’t find anything. There were online shops that sold roses from Kenya but they were exactly like the ones that were sold in Japan, with the same small sizes and not colorful. I wanted to buy the beautiful flowers I saw and show my family and friends how pretty the roses from Kenya are. At first, I was importing the roses as a hobby but people around me started telling me that, “they are so pretty, you should make it into a business.” Because of that, I started to import them regularly.
Am I right in understanding that Africa no Hanaya also has a role in directly benefiting the people of Africa?
I have a contract with one rose farm out of the many rose farms in Kenya. The farm that I do business with not only works with Japan but also other countries like Russia and some countries in Europe. To be honest, I don’t think Africa no Hanaya alone contributes to employment but of course it is certain that, as more flowers are exported, there will be an increase in employment. It is certainly true that in the last year, their number of employees has doubled from 150 to 380, which is a benefit arising not just from me but other clients in the world also.
Why did you decide to start your own business? What gave you the push to do it yourself?
After graduating from university, I worked for two years as a Medical Representative in Sales and Marketing at a pharmaceutical company. Then, for just over the next four years, in the global human resources section, supporting international executives and doing leadership training. I was working with many well-educated and experienced people. Some of them were successful business people who were intelligent, with a great sense of humour and warmth, but never arrogant. As I spent more time with these people, I started to dream of becoming one of them. However, I did not have any concrete visions of what to do, so my dream just remained a dream. After several years, I visited Kenya and still remember how I was moved by the roses over there. It seemed to be a great chance to start my own business and, from then on, I could picture myself becoming one of them.
So you previously worked at GREE as a Global Talent Recruiter and at Eisai Co. as a Project Leader. Tell us a little bit about the story of how you got to these positions.
So as I mentioned, I was working for Eisai as a new graduate. I went to over 50 interviews until I was offered a position with them. There were three main reasons why I chose to work there: they contribute to society by providing pharmaceutical medicines, they act on a global scale, and they have a good training and personal development system. I thought that I could achieve my goals and gain a sense of personal fulfillment by being involved in this company. My former boss told me that if I delivered good results, he would promote me to the global section. So I tried my best, and with the help of my co-workers, I finally got promoted in the end.
After I left Eisai, I went to Kenya on a volunteer project for six months. When I came back to Japan, I decided to enter into employment again, as it seemed risky to start my own business due to my financial situation. Also, getting a new business off the ground requires significant energy and effort, whilst GREE seemed a perfect place to work as it was such a progressive and strong company. I needed to push myself back into the Japanese working style, because the time passed slowly in Kenya by comparison. Working for GREE gave me so many chances to visit foreign countries such as the USA, India, Singapore, and so on, where I was responsible for head-hunting local students and also supporting them when they come to Japan. It was such a rewarding task for me.
I want to challenge myself always. Personal growth is very important to me.
What prompted you to leave your position with GREE and pursue your work full-time with Africa no Hanaya?
There were two main reasons for this. First of all, it became almost impossible to manage time sufficiently for “Africa no Hanaya “. I was increasingly needed to attend meetings at GREE over the weekdays, and I began to feel stressed that I could not fully commit to my dream job. When my job at GREE settled down, I felt that it was an appropriate time to leave and focus on my own commitment.
Secondly, I was just generally overloaded by work. My days were fully occupied by massive amounts of work, which always forced me to stay at work until the last train. I was operating my own flower business on the weekends, so I had no days off to relax. My sleeping hours were definitely not enough; I developed dark circles under my eyes and lost a lot of weight. One day when I was driving on the highway, I fell asleep and almost crashed. I decided to leave GREE because I cannot deliver flowers – or deliver good service – to my clients if I am not mentally and physically healthy.
During your career, particularly when you founded Africa no Hanaya, was there ever a feeling that you might be taking a gamble or making a big sacrifice?
I’ve never felt that way. I was fully convinced and satisfied that this was what I chose to do and what made me feel satisfied, and it fulfilled my sense of personal growth. So I never felt that it was a big sacrifice. If you consider what makes life meaningful, the definition of self-achievement or success varies depending on what factors you take into account. In my case, it was a feeling that I could make someone happy or empower them by providing beautiful things in their life, like those roses. I want to give hope and positivity to people. I am so blessed that I could do it with my own business, which I am so passionate about. Of course, it’s great if this is financially profitable for me, but really I do it to make people happy, rather than for making money. So that is why I would say this is not a sacrifice but a pleasure, and it’s led me to meet some very valued acquaintances and clients.
You studied a double major in International Relations and Spanish at California State University. What prompted you to study your Bachelors at an American University and how did you find this experience? Did you face any difficulties or obstacles studying in a foreign environment?
I faced lots of difficulties but it was worth it. I went to Australia as an exchange student when I was in high school. Being involved in a different culture by venturing outside this small island (Japan) gave me lots of different perspectives. I was involved in a home-stay, where I could take part in living as a local and so I discovered a new lifestyle, new foods and so on. It was so inspiring and I felt so enthused by the knowledge that I myself was changing for the better. When the time came to decide on which university to study at, I initially planned to go to one in Japan where they have an exchange program, but the period of exchange programs is limited to only one year. So I thought, why not study in overseas and have fun for the full four years? I chose USA because it was a multicultural society, mixed with many international people, so I felt that I would be able to experience many different things at once.
Regarding difficulties … they did exist. Dealing with the language barrier was especially challenging. I could not communicate well initially because of this, but I gradually realized that, in the end, we are all the same human beings, just with different languages. And as long as I am honest with myself and take the first step, I could make friends with anyone. So I became pretty optimistic and found myself more comfortable in my new environment. Concerning my study, I almost failed my maths course, but I managed to avoid it with both the support of my friends and my professor giving me supplementary lessons every day.
I never experienced any racism, and people always treated me nicely, so I only have positive memories from my stay. I was able to make friends from many countries, such as Mexico, Croatia, Malaysia, Russia, Holland, Brazil and so on. And later on, I was able to visit some of them in their home countries. Due to this multicultural environment, I never felt that I am ‘a minority’, and I actually felt rather comfortable that I could behave more naturally than I could in Japan. In the Japanese culture, people expect you to be “sassuru” – to just read, feel, or sense someone else’s thoughts. So occasionally, it can be difficult to outwardly state your opinion. Therefore I was not assertive before going abroad. In contrast, in many other countries including the USA, it is your own responsibility to be assertive and state your opinions and it will be your fault if any misunderstandings happen. This was a big lesson I learned, and it also trained me to express my thoughts more and become more communicative.
How has your background in International Relations and Spanish served you in your career since then?
As a career, International Relations is not an area of study which you can practically apply in many different fields, but I did learn many things from it. For instance, I learned that relationships between countries work the same as how human interactions work. To put it simply, I think that you, Sam from England, are a nice person, so I would also by extension have a positive image of England. After all, it’s just a matter of individuals.
Whenever I go overseas, I try to act like a Japanese role model because I want to give a positive image of my own country. In that respect, I believe that my studies in International Relations were helpful practically.
As someone who now owns and runs a successful and quite unique flower shop, what advice do you have for any readers who are thinking they might like to pursue a career unrelated to their previous studies or experience, but are perhaps afraid of the risks in doing so?
What do you want to pursue in your life? It’s impossible to separate career from life, and the important things are that you achieve something in your life, how you want to be remembered after you die and what you contributed to society. Bearing this in mind, if you are not satisfied with yourself at any given moment, then you should think about what would make you happy and what your ideal life would look like. If you constantly imagine your ideal future and self-analyze, you will naturally be guided to that ideal state. The biggest enemies are worry and fear. For sure there are always risks in life, but fear of unknown risks and worries about potential failure are dangerous, since they may guide you away from the best opportunities you might have otherwise encountered. If you take small steps, little by little, towards your unknown bright future, your path will widen on its own and you will gain support. The important thing is to have the courage to make that first step.
You’re fully bilingual in Japanese and English (and speak Spanish quite well too!) How does being trilingual serve you personally in your career? And, particularly speaking from your experience as a Global Talent Recruiter with a major organisation like GREE, how important do you think speaking another language is? Is it also important for anyone with no intentions to work outside of Japan?
Absolutely yes, it is very important to speak other languages. It gives you value obviously.
Speaking a language does not merely mean speaking its words but also learning its culture. There are three main benefits of learning languages.
The first is that your communication will be smoother when meeting a person for the first time. You can develop a trusting relationship by having a deeper understanding of that person without any language barriers.
Secondly, being involved in a different culture through language will enrich you as a person with knowledge and insights.
And lastly, the sheer amount of information you can potentially gain will significantly increase. For example, there are 1.8 billion English speakers and 500 million Spanish speakers in the world. So, see how much more becomes open to you!?
What have been the highlights of your life?
The highlight is definitely starting my own company, Africa no Hanaya. When I finished my project in Kenya, I took a vacation in Brazil for a month and there was a married couple there – the husband was very good at cooking and the wife was very good at talking to people.
On the beaches in Brazil, there are no casual restaurants. You have to put on your nice clothes and go to a nice restaurant. But if you’re lying on the beach, you may want to just grab a sandwich or something to eat on the beach. So, this couple started a sandwich shop on the beach. Soon, it became very popular and there were long lines for their delicious sandwiches. And so the locals told them to open up a restaurant. And they did. The husband was the chef and his wife was the waitress. Then, one year after they opened that restaurant, I went there. It had become the most famous and popular restaurant in town. So, what I saw and learned from that was that they were doing what their heart was seeking. What they were asked to do, what people wanted them to do, and what they could do – it all overlapped. And they seemed very happy, surrounded by the people they knew and served in their town, feeling very loved and enjoying life. So I was very inspired by their way of life and I wanted to do something like that.
After I came back home, I introduced my flower shop business plan to my friends in business and to my former boss, who is a very talented and successful businessman. They all agreed with my plan and gave me their backing. So, I gradually gained more confidence and I started my company. That was the most exciting part of my life.
How important would you say self-belief and self-confidence are, as compared to other factors like technical ability, a good university education or a good career background?
I’ve always been told that I’m honest. Being honest, open to new things, flexible, and having learning ability are important factors. When people used to give me their opinions, I didn’t simply just say “no”. I always listened first and thought about why they said what they said. You have to try first and if it doesn’t turn out well by taking someone’s advice, you can always turn to your own. I think it is very important to first just try and listen to other’s opinions and advice, even if you don’t ultimately decide to go with it.
Have there been times when you felt forced to make a choice between your personal life and your career?
I’ve not faced it yet, but then again, I’m not married yet and don’t have any children. In the future I might.
When I was working at Eisai in the sales and marketing team, I used to work until midnight, or even until 2 or 3am, because that was my first job and I needed to show results. I didn’t go home often and on weekends I tried to sleep as much as I could. It was like that for two years. So that was very hard because I hardly saw my family, except for one week during the New Year. It was hard. But at the same time, I felt that this was the time in my life to put my efforts into my career so that I could advance. So really, I don’t consider that a difficulty, because I knew I wanted to do it, and my family knew it too and they were supporting me.
I was actually dating a guy at the time and I didn’t have time to hang out with him, so he used to get angry. (laughs) There were situations like that. But I knew what was right for me and what I had to do. So, before I went to Kenya, I chose Africa over my boyfriend at that time. These were the kinds of choices I had to make. But I knew I had to do it, so it wasn’t an obstacle. Perhaps it was hard at the time but I was peaceful with my choice, because I had a goal in mind and I knew what that goal was. If I had taken the other choice, I would have regretted my decision. I would be doing what someone told me to do, rather than what I chose to do for myself and for my life. I kind of planned to make all the decisions I felt determined about before my 30s, so now I am ready to settle down to develop and mature what I have gathered so far.
Do you feel there is a gender equality imbalance in Japan?
Yes, I do think so. Even though the situation is improving, there is still imbalance.
After the Gender Discrimination Act was put into effect, it made a difference for working women. However, as a deeply-rooted aspect of our culture, that kind of discrimination still exists. For men, it is easier to get promoted or to change their job. Whereas for women, companies are not well-prepared to support them when it comes to giving birth and raising children. Those women still need the support of their partners, coworkers and bosses. At the same time, when women are in their thirties, they face a lot of significant, life-changing events, and only some women are able to combine those events with their work. Others are forced to compromise and give up their careers. However, some in their early twenties are increasingly preferring to follow the trend of having a “loose/relaxed career”, which does not require much commitment or hard work, and then marrying early and becoming a housewife. Especially after the 3/11 disaster, social bonds became considered more important. Society in general though is getting more introverted, and people are becoming afraid of challenges and taking risks.
If women truly want to become a housewife or to follow the “loose/relaxed career” trend, then that is their choice and it should not be a cause for any concern. However if they are unwillingly and unconsciously losing great opportunities to contribute to society and be involved in it, then that is truly a shame.
Isn’t the feeling of success, the feeling of human interaction that you get from your work, as well as the feeling of achieving something and having personal growth … isn’t that feeling wonderful, and something that should not be missed?
If women work the same way as men do, they will inevitably face difficulties when it comes to getting married and giving birth. This discrimination needs to be fixed. I wish for a change in people’s awareness, as well as actions, and that society will change so that all people can have more choice to design their life as they wish.
How do you think women in Japan can address this? And how can men address it?
The important thing is how women picture their visions of life: how they want to work, how they intend to achieve something and progress, as well as sharing with others their thoughts about that.
It is important to gain a bigger understanding in order to improve your situation and make it more comfortable for yourself, rather than just giving up because of lack of understanding and because of the discomfort of situation. For instance the way people live in the UK could be a good example, where husbands support their wives by helping them equally with the household chores and both people work hard make their beloved partners happy.
What advice would you like to share with young women who are at the very start of their careers, or are yet to begin?
Do what you like! (laughs) Do what your heart desires, before it gets too late.
When is it too late?
Well, it’s never too late. But if you know what you want at an early stage, it helps you to plan for the future. In my case, I didn’t know what I exactly wanted, but I knew I wanted to build a career before it’s too late. So I did what I had to do. But I never stopped listening to my voice inside to figure out what I really want. So, work hard and just do your best with what’s ahead of you. Do what your heart desires!
At riarumi, we end with a quote to consider. Do you have any favourite quotes you’d like to share?
My favourite one is: “Follow your heart. But take your brain with you!” (laughs)
Especially in Japanese society, lots of people tend to do what they don’t necessarily want to do, but what they are forced to do. I have a feeling that’s the case. And that’s not what life is supposed to be. (What I’m talking about is something different from selfishness or egotism.) To follow your heart is very important. But if you only follow your heart, that could lead to drugs, alcoholism … it could lead to disaster. So take your brain with you. In other words, do what you love but also think before you act.
Do you have any other comments you’d like to add?
You only live once, so live without regrets.