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riarumi has a chat with Mana Ogawa, a 29 year-old recruitment consultant and Founder of Girls Bee, a social community that aims to help young Japanese women discover and experience their goals and dreams in life. Mana tells us about her work with Girls Bee, why she decided to start this project, the difficulties she faced in doing so, and her ambitions for her own future.

Who is the riarumi?

My name is Mana Ogawa and I’m 29 years old. I’m a very optimistic and positive person and I enjoy what I do. I would say I’m quite outgoing and I find it relatively easy to become friends with new people. That’s me!

What are your personal dreams for the future?

One of my dreams is to work more globally, including traveling and doing business internationally. I realised this dream when I was five or six years old. I was born in Japan and grew up entirely here, but I had many chances to travel abroad with my family. During those times, I realised that I love talking with people from the other countries that I visited and I was so curious about their lives and backgrounds. And I simply just enjoy traveling for what it is. So I realised that that’s my dream.

What was your favourite place you traveled to?

I have many favourite places in the world that I’ve visited so far, so it’s really difficult to choose just one. But I generally prefer warm places with year-long good weather, so I like the West Coast of the US, Hawaii, the south of France and Vancouver (its weather’s not so great, but it’s a beautiful city). Also, I was so fascinated with the atmosphere of the Middle East when I visited Dubai.  They have a really unique and mystical culture. I also liked Singapore, because it’s very multi-cultural and it’s a major centre of business in Asia, but it’s also exciting to be in.

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Tell us about Girls Bee.

Girls Bee is a social community for women, much like Riarumi. The motto, if you like, is that “every girl can be whatever she wants to be”. So age, marital status, or background are not important. It’s for anybody who has a sympathetic viewpoint towards the concept of Girls Bee.

Does that include men?

Actually, so far, there are only women. But maybe men can join in a supportive role. Supportive men are always welcome!

So what’s your role at Girls Bee?

Well, there are mainly two sides to what I’m doing for Girls Bee. One is the projects. So, by  “project”, I mean that Girls Bee is running some activities that help make women’s dreams come true. The main project I’m running right now is, “Becoming a Bollywood Actress”. I collaborate with an actress for this: she’s ¾ Japanese, ¼ Indian, and she’s starring in a Bollywood movie, so I collaborate with her in arranging for other prospective Bollywood actresses to go on stage with her. I gather together girls who love to dance or who want to be on stage, and I work with them to become a Bollywood actress within one month. So that’s the project that’s going on this month. At the beginning of April, there’ll be a big festival at the embassy of India (Sakura Festival), and the actress and the project members of Girls Bee will be on stage at the festival.

The second project is “Becoming a Columnist”. Some members of Girls Bee are very knowledgeable and qualified about particular things, such as girls’ health, or food, or beauty. But right now, they are doing something else as their regular day job, so they have no chances to show others their expertise. So I collaborate with a relevant company running a website about, for example, girls health or food or beauty, and it allows Girls Bee members to express their knowledge and expertise by being a column writer for that website. It gives them a chance to share their expertise with other girls.

I think most young girls are looking for something that they really want to do, but sometimes they become buried in their daily routines and can’t find the time to consider what they really want to do and what they really like, so through projects like those two I mentioned, I can help them find their direction and help them to see if it’s something they really want to do.

Why did you decide to start Girls Bee?

There are two reasons. One is, I thought a social community for this is needed. As you know, I work in recruiting for businesses. Many friends around me ask me for advice about their careers, so sometimes I introduce someone to help them, or sometimes I introduce a place that may be able to help them. And maybe that friend’s life will change as a result. So, I do that kind of thing as my day job. But if I do that as a more organised project, maybe it can make a bigger impact in society.

The second reason is that it is especially needed for Japanese people. When I was a child, I went abroad many times and I always wondered “why do foreign women look so confident and powerful?” And then I would return to Japan and see many women around me – even though they were very clever and able, they seemed more repressed, like they couldn’t express their potential. So I was really curious and I wondered, “why can’t they express themselves?” So that was the second reason I started Girls Bee.

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What gave you the push to do it yourself? Why didn’t you just wait for someone else do it?

Because it’s my personality. I’m Japanese but my personality is not typically Japanese. I want to say what I want to say, and I want to do what I want to do. It comes naturally. Maybe that kind of personality sometimes isn’t considered “acceptable” in Japan, but that kind of personality can be really helpful for Japanese women to have.

What has been your most positive experience so far with Girls Bee?

There have been many. But perhaps the most positive is when some members say “Girls Bee has changed my life” or something like that.

Also, Girls Bee is a platform for empowering women, but I’ve actually been empowered by it myself. I’ve met many nice people who really understand the concept of it. I didn’t have much confidence at the beginning, but gradually, I became confident in what I was doing, so that was an amazing journey for me.

When you decided to start Girls Bee, was there ever a feeling that you might be taking a risk or gamble? If so, how did you manage this feeling?

Actually, yes, I did have that feeling. One of my big fears, to be honest, was that I was scared of women! (laughs) Scared to interact on a deep level with other girls. Some people are very surprised when I say that. But, you see, I went to an all-girl’s school in junior high and high school. I had a best friend in junior high school, but I later found out that she had been saying bad things about me behind my back to other friends. I truly believed in her and trusted her, but after I found that out, I couldn’t trust anybody, especially women. I became so scared of women!

Now I’m OK, but at the time, Junior High School seems like a really small, self-contained world! So that really affected me emotionally. I started to feel afraid to become friends with other girls. I mean, I can be friends with women, but I’m scared to become very close friends. So that trauma, if you like, was still inside me when I started Girls Bee. I was so scared to actually start a community like that! It brought back those memories of Junior High School.

To manage this feeling, although I was scared of being involved with the concept of Girls Bee, many people close to me, especially my female friends, were really supportive and really were true friends through the whole process, not just “good time” friends.

You also have a day job working as an Associate Consultant at an executive search agency and you also previously worked in recruitment. Tell us a little bit about the story of how you got to these positions. How do you like your work?

After I graduated from university, I was really interested in the HR-related industry because I’m really interested in people and their possibilities. I wanted to be in a position where I could draw that potential out of them. So I started to work for a recruiting agency. The first company I worked at was the second-biggest recruiting agency in Japan, and I worked there for almost four years as an Account Manager, specialising in the financial markets. Every day, I would meet HR people or hiring managers to find some positions to introduce candidates for, so that was the kind of thing I did.

Now I’m working for Tiglon Partners, an executive search company for the financial industry, handling both the client side and candidate side of things every day. So clients ask me to find a particular type of candidate and I search the market for those candidates.

Is it ever a challenge managing Girls Bee, whilst working another job at the same time? How do you manage to keep on top of everything?

The good thing is, my boss understands my involvement with Girls Bee, and allows me to do that. Of course, from 9 to 6, I need to be focused on my recruiting work but after that, or on weekends, I can use my time as I choose. So I focus on Girls Bee. Every day, I’m juggling both! In the future, I might focus on Girls Bee, but right now, I feel I still have a lot to learn from my day job. Everybody says, “oh, you must be busy”, but I’m actually really happy because both are things that I really want to do. And with Girls Bee, if it seems like I’m doing a lot, that’s a good sign because it means Girls Bee is growing and becoming more powerful. I guess because I naturally think about Girls Bee every day, managing it feels easy to me. It doesn’t feel like it’s a job.

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You studied a UCLA Advanced level Certification in Business English Communication in Tokyo. What did you gain from this experience?

I studied while I was working at my former recruiting company. Because I’d graduated from ICU (International Christian University), my boss said, “You must be good at English! You can handle the global clients then!” So I had many chances to talk and do business in English. Prior to that, I had chances to speak English with friends, or when traveling, but I didn’t have any chances to use English for business, so I wanted to learn Business English from UCLA. I found a UCLA extension course on the internet and applied for that.

I took the Business English course for three months and after that, I took a kind of shortened MBA course – kind of like a “digest” version of an MBA. That was a weekend course, but we still had a lot of homework to do! At the end of those three months, we had to do a mock-presentation of a business plan to a “venture capitalist” (not a real one). And actually, my idea for Girls Bee originally came from that simulated business project!

So you also studied a B.A. in Management, Liberal Arts at ICU. Do you feel your university education been useful in your career so far?

I think it has been helpful for me to an extent. I learned about Management, but it was at a Liberal Arts college, so the degree didn’t go into massive depth or the specifics of management. It was more “general”. The main benefit I got was from ICU itself. The students at ICU are generally really independent and a lot of them come from other countries, including Japanese students who were raised in other countries like the US. In terms of mindset, they seemed more independent compared to students who grew up entirely in Japan. So I felt really comfortable in that environment: I could pursue what I wanted to do while I was a student at ICU. People can focus on what they want to do, while still respecting each other, so being in a place like that really motivated me a lot.

Are there any future goals you currently feel uncertain of, or that seem ‘cloudy’ in your mind? How do you tend to deal with this (common) feeling of uncertainty?

That’s a good question! With Girls Bee, I organise it, so strictly speaking, nobody cares. If I quit, there’s nobody requesting me to come back. So that can feel hard in a way, sometimes. But through Girls Bee, I can contribute something positive to the world. I’ve also had many good experiences through Girls Bee, so even though sometimes I’ve been scared or worried to continue my work with it, those kinds of past experiences have motivated me a lot to continue.

How’s life outside of work? What do you do to relax?

My private life is full with Girls Bee stuff! (laughs) But I love meeting inspirational people or people who are pursuing something positive, like you, so I enjoy the time I spend with those people. I also love watching TV dramas, especially American TV dramas like Gossip Girl, and movies, particularly Disney movies.

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Do you feel that young women in Japan are becoming increasingly pressured to make a choice between having a personal life/family life and a career?

I think it depends on the individual. People around me, especially women aged around 30, are at that age where it’s expected they get married and have a child. And, of course, there are also people that age who are in the midst of pursuing their careers. And being our age, there are also many that women tend to want both – a career and a private life. Which is fair. I think maybe 20 or 30 years ago, women wanted both but it was really difficult to have both, because the social environment of the time was not conducive to having both.

The situation has become better in recent years. But right now, it’s still not good enough. If I have a child now but I want to continue to work too, I will probably need someone to help me take care of my baby, but it’s very difficult to find a place, especially in Tokyo. There are a lot of “hoikuen” (nursery schools) of course, but most of them are fully occupied already. So friends around me with children often say it’s really difficult to find a hoikuen in Tokyo for their children. So in that respect, there definitely needs to be more support for women in the working world.

Is there a gender equality imbalance in Japan? What can women like yourself do to address this inequality?

There is definitely inequality. Having said that, in my own experience, I didn’t feel that much inequality in my job. My former company was still a relatively new company, 20-25 years old, so they gave me and my male colleagues equal treatment and equal opportunities. I didn’t feel any discrimination about being a woman. The same goes for my current employer.

But in older, more traditional Japanese companies, there absolutely is inequality. The male staff are more easily promoted and given the higher-power positions, and also given bigger opportunities like doing business abroad, whereas women often have a much harder time getting the same opportunities.

For women, I think the important thing is to contribute our biggest efforts towards our job and then maybe our colleagues around us will notice our performance and understand our potential. Then the door will open. So in other words, we have to work extra hard to prove ourselves.

Also, I’m not a feminist: I think men have particular strengths in some areas, women in others. So we compliment each other, we work well together. If women show their performance – not aggressively but in a professional, respectful way – their abilities will be able to speak for themselves. Respecting each other is a very important attitude to have.

… And what can men do?

I think Japanese men need to change their perspectives a little, especially those in their 40s and over. Of course, it’s not all of them and it depends on the individual, but there is a common attitude among them that “women should stay at home and do housework” and so on. But men around my age and younger are, I think, becoming more understanding and being a bit more considerate of women, so they’re more comfortable with women having professions. So things are changing.

But still, most men, young and old, continue to believe that housework should be done by women. That’s a typical way of thinking among Japanese men. So if women and men can share the housework, it will allow both of them to have more balanced lives. Of course, you know, some men may not be good at cooking but, first of all, they can learn to cook, and then if that’s too much, at least they can wash the dishes or something, so then we can share the load!

Please respect a woman’s abilities and possibilities.

What has been your proudest or most encouraging moment so far in your life?

When people tell me that their life has been changed because they met me. Some people have sent me messages like that, when I’ve supported them through both my recruiting work and my work at Girls Bee. So those are really touching moments for me.

What has been the toughest, most difficult or most challenging time?

There have been so many. I started Girls Bee by myself in September 2011, with the support of a small number of friends, who became members of the site. But they were not staff or anything. So, they were positive and really encouraging to me – as you would expect your friends to be – but I still had a lot of uncertainty about starting the project, so that made it hard to commit to it.

Because I was managing everything by myself, sometimes I felt scared to continue and worried or had doubts about what I was doing. That made it tough to continue. But occasionally, I would meet someone really encouraging or supportive through my work. Those kinds of occasions really helped me a lot to keep going.

What inspires or motivates you towards your future?

I want to work globally and make Girls Bee a global platform for women. The image of achieving that is what motivates me.

How do you ideally imagine yourself and your life to be in, say, 5 years?

Well, I’d like to get married and of course I’d like to continue my career. I don’t know if I’ll still be working in recruitment, but I think I’ll be continuing my work with Girls Bee. I also want to have opportunities to work in other countries, flying back and forth between them and Japan. Lots of international travel! So that’s my dream for the next five years.

At riarumi, we usually end with an inspiring quote. Are there any quotes or philosophies on life that you particularly like and would like to share with readers?

I just want to echo the concept of Girls Bee: “Every girl can be whatever she wants to be.”

This is a strong personal belief of mine, and these words give me a lot of support in my life.

Do you have any other comments to share?

For all the young women reading this, just imagine what you want to become, and don’t be afraid to fail. I’ve experienced many failures in my own life, but if I continue, failure will not be the final outcome. Sometimes, especially in Japan, people are afraid to fail or to do something very difficult or challenging. If you do something, the result can be to fail, but usually you can find something positive from that failure, something that will be of help to you in the future. Failure is an opportunity to learn.

So just continue to keep working at it. And eventually, you will find the people, or places or opportunities that enable your dream to come true. Keep going. And if you need any help, please let me know!

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