Born in Mexico to Japanese parents and raised in the US, Edward Senju now works in Southeast Asia—and is the definition of a global citizen.
In 2009, Senju joined the cloud-based contact management firm Sansan and became its 21st employee. Since then, Sansan has gone from being a small startup, to attaining unicorn status, and then becoming a publicly traded company.
We spoke to Senju at the latest Oasis Talks event about his observations of Japanese work culture. He also touched upon the way he and Sansan constantly embrace change.
Break from tradition
With a multicultural background, Senju has an open mindset about changes, but he recognizes the importance of staying true to one’s self.
When he moved to Japan and was searching for employment, he noticed how young graduates all wore the same “recruitment suit.” Think of the classic salaryman or salarywoman look—a navy or black jacket with matching pants or skirt, with white shirts, and a tie for men.
This uniformity at job fairs made Senju realize he didn’t want to blend in and accept the grind at a major Japanese corporation like everyone else. To seek diversity and alternate possibilities, he joined Oracle, a multinational company, for his first job.
In Japan, the workplace is often treated as a second home for salarymen and women. “In big conglomerates like Panasonic or Toyota, they hire new grads and keep them until they retire,” said Senju, who is now ASEAN CEO of Sansan.
Colleagues spend extra time bonding with each other, even during off-work hours. But things are changing now. At Sansan, Senju and the leadership are trying to do things differently. “We try to look at the results more, instead of the hours put into the work,” he said.
Even so, Senju admits he doesn’t really separate personal life from work. “If you think about work as a way to earn money, it won’t be ikigai. But if you think of work as a tool to accomplish the things that you want to do in life, then it will be ikigai,” he said.
Sansan is a project, not a company
In 2009, Sansan faced difficulties in closing deals and there were hiccups in product development. During the next three years, the company’s team of 40 worked hard, but they couldn’t envisage a goal. Many doubts about the company’s success began to surface.
It was during that time that Sansan’s founder, Chika Terada, presented a new direction for the company.
“Chika told us that at Sansan, we’re not trying to build a company, we’re here to accomplish the mission we have set for ourselves. However, if that doesn’t work out, then it’s fine. Let’s define Sansan as a project instead of a company,” said Senju.
Shortly after, Sansan’s service was mentioned in a television program in Japan. A CEO who appeared in the program spoke about his company’s interest in Sansan. This gave Sansan a lot of public recognition, which translated into sales.
“That TV program really helped us a lot, but ultimately, I think it was the presentation by Chika that was crucial to the company’s success. By changing the team’s mindset, it allowed everyone to continue to trudge on despite difficulties, and strive to go beyond their limits.”
When in Rome, do as the Romans do
During his time at Sansan, Senju went from a supporting role—overseeing everything from HR and finance, to legal and accounting—to becoming the firm’s regional CEO for the ASEAN region in a little over a decade.
Apart from his multicultural childhood, Senju has also utilized his global mindset to help Sansan expand to overseas markets like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
When he lands in a new place, Senju likes to attend traditional festivals and celebrations to experience local customs and meet new people. This also unshackles him from his routine and hones his decision-making process when it’s time to do business.
“Festivals really give you an idea of what the local population is like,” said Senju. “You start to realize your business is not for those around you, but for them [the local people].”
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