Mai Sakaue is the CEO of Maico Enterprise Inc, an overseas expansion and PR branding support service for Japanese companies. Her journey in establishing Maico started with the support from Tsuno Group, a rice bran oil export company that gave her the opportunity to explore her potential in public relations.
Note to Ally: First, I want to thank you for believing in me. Even though I was a mother or had difficult times in my previous jobs, you took a chance when you hired me at your company. You respected me and my ideas, and my desire to start up my own company. It changed my life.
Choosing between career and family is a dilemma that many women have to face. There comes a time in our lives when we have to think about the implications of having a child, especially as a working woman who is slowly ascending her career ladder. That’s what Mai Sakaue used to think too, but her life experience thus far has proven her wrong. As I chatted with her over Zoom, her drive in advancing in both areas of her life was undeniably inspiring to see.
When I ask her how much support pregnant women get in Japan, Mai clarifies that workplace regulations have improved a ton. “Compared to when I had my first daughter 10 years ago, things are much better now. Now it’s illegal to demote or fire someone after they get pregnant. It used to happen much more frequently.”
Still, it’s not as easy as it sounds; balancing both the roles of a mother-to-be and an employee is tough. Mai’s pregnancies had almost cost her career multiple times. “My promotion had been in the works before I had gotten pregnant with my twin daughters, and the opportunity had been revoked,” she explains. “Before the twins, I had had to quit my previous job because I was carrying my eldest daughter.” It was only when a collaborative opportunity from Tsuno Group fell into her hands did she think she had a chance at having both.
Mai thanks both Fumi and Yasuko Tsuno for this. Fumi is the founder of Tsuno Group, which specialises in rice bran oil export. Mai fondly recalls the time when both ladies took extra steps to help Mai’s career. Fumi’s daughter, Yasuko, was the one who helped Mai get the project to work with Tsuno, and Fumi was the one who encouraged Mai to discover her capabilities beyond that. “When I found out there was a food exhibition in Dubai, I pitched for Tsuno to fly over to promote their products. It’s an expensive business move, and yet Fumi came all the way down to Haneda airport to listen to my pitch.” Although Mai had attended exhibitions to make purchases for previous companies, she had never hosted a spot in any. Despite that, Fumi trusted in her from start to finish.
This was a pivotal moment for Mai, because it changed her perception of what it meant to be a working woman. She finally had opportunities to prove and challenge herself, and she had people relying on her. It was such a contrast from her previous experiences that it changed how she viewed her own potential.
On the same note, she mentions that it’s integral for women to help other women. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government runs a program to help women’s startups in scaling, and Mai has met a lot of self-driven entrepreneurs there when she started up Maico Enterprise Inc. “They’ve helped me dismantle this unconscious bias that I had about women finding it difficult to upskill themselves. Seeing other women progress makes you understand how and what you can do better.”
It’s no surprise then that Mai later points out Fumi’s capacity to support others as what she admires most. Calling Fumi her biggest ally, she says: “Fumi takes the time to understand people and what they hope to achieve. If an employee wants to try something new, and she senses sincerity and seriousness behind their actions, then she encourages them to try whatever they can.”
Since both Fumi and Mai are mothers, Mai also respects the way Fumi raised her children when they were young. Encouraging them to take up hobbies beyond their studies, Fumi has shown Mai how impactful exploration can be for a child’s development and creativity. I thought that this is particularly important with the tendency for Asian societies to be academically-driven.
Mai extolled the importance of being given that first opportunity. Having someone taking a chance on you is incredibly powerful. Wanting to thank Fumi, she states: “Fumi took a chance when she hired me. She respected me and my ideas, and it changed my life.” Just having a voice and respect can go a long way in establishing a woman’s confidence, be it within her family or as a working woman.
Looking to the future, Mai hopes that gendered societal boundaries will cease to exist one day. A society is made of individuals, and it’s paramount to progress that we recognize individual talents beyond gender. “I want the next generation to know that each of them is unique. Diversity and inclusion should be normalized concepts.” The mother of three goes on to share her childhood experience in the US, and how she was only made aware of her subconscious racial bias there. “Even if you’re biased, you won’t even know it because it’s normalized to you.”
Growth — both personal and societal — comes with chances that you usually wouldn’t take. In Mai’s opinion, women should take that step forward. Embolden yourself to try something you wouldn’t have thought of doing, and support other women in their journey to do so as well. Then, whether you’re a mother, career woman, or both, the challenge would not feel as daunting.