By Alexis Ringwald (Co-Founder, Valence Energy; acquired by Serious Energy)
I stood in front of the auditorium at Tohoku University, Japan’s MIT, in Sendai —- a few miles from the epicenter of recent devastation. I was the first American embassy speaker to visit the region since the tragedy. It was hot, and I was sweating.

Nearly six months earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Japan had invited me, as a young female entrepreneur, to give a series of lectures to university and young professional audiences, particularly women, on “cleantech innovations and entrepreneurship.” This was before the country’s sudden impact by a natural disaster and concomitant nuclear leak at the Fukushima plant in March 2011.

After the disaster, I hesitated to go. Assuaged by the safety analysis of the U.S. government, however, and by an internal conviction that my message would now be more pertinent than ever, I boarded a plane to Tokyo in June 2011.

Cleantech: The New Imperative For Japan’s Future

Upon arrival, I was impressed with the level of eco-patriotism that permeated the population. In this land of futuristic cities, bullet trains, and robots, the power crisis that gripped the nation as nuclear reactors across the country were shut down threatened to paralyze the high-tech infrastructure.

“Save energy in remembrance of the victims of Fukushima,” everyone said. Across the country, I was impressed to see air-conditioning systems turned off in offices and fancy hotels, light bulbs upgraded to LEDs, and stores closed early.

While the six-year-old government-initiated “Cool Biz” campaign encouraging Japanese men to abandon jackets and ties in summer was already ubiquitous, today, the “no ties” imperative comes with serious moral implications to “do your part.”

Back at the lecture hall at Tohoku University, in sweltering heat, I shared with the audience my experience in founding Valence Energy, an energy management software startup, with our young team. I told them the story of early growth in the beginning through to our successful acquisition by Serious Energy, a cutting-edge green buildings company.

I encouraged the Japanese students to turn this crisis into an opportunity, and to take the lead in developing new technologies that would help Japan create a new sustainable energy path.

Startups: Building a Culture of Entrepreneurship and Acceptance of Failure

After my lecture, I dined with the Japanese students in a rooftop BBQ beer garden. They were intrigued not only that my company had focused on clean energy, but even more so that our founding team was so young. I was 24, and our founding engineers were 22 years old when we started. Two years later we were acquired. We, of course, had fantastic adult mentorship and colleagues to build the company, but predominantly, Valence Energy was a product of youth innovation.

My young Japanese audiences were fascinated by my discussion of Silicon Valley culture, which admires, if not idolizes, youth as a critical piece for start-ups. I was informed that, in Japan, support for youth empowerment is limited. Respect for elders and the lack of “horizontal communication” between young entrepreneurs and experienced business people is in part a natural outcome from the Confucian culture.1

The students confided to me that for years they had been instructed to acknowledge hierarchy, follow their elders, and commit their entire lives to one large company. After several decades of plateaued economic growth, a global financial crisis, and the recent tsunami devastation, however, the status quo is in question. Industries built by their elders have stagnated; Japan’s energy infrastructure requires new thinking; and the young people I met seemed to recognize that it is up to them to revive the nation.

Even as they recognized their new responsibility, the students I chatted with across Japan perceived the same four startup barriers:

  1. Lack of startup capital.
  2. Fear of failure, shame and an inability to get another job.
  3. Conventional wisdom advising working for a large company first to get experience.
  4. Lack of entrepreneurship culture.

I replied to each barrier with a rule from the Silicon Valley mantra on startups:

  1. Start lean. You don’t need to raise capital on day one, and you can work on ideas during free time initially.
  2. Failure is OK. You learn from it.
  3. The best way to learn how to start a company is to just do it or work at a startup, not a large company.
  4. Build a community of entrepreneurs around you.

As the students listened to these words from someone their own age who had gone through the startup experience, I observed exciting signs of empowerment emerge in their minds.

Women: The Missing Piece and The New Startup Leaders?

What struck me most during my trip was the dialogue around the emerging role of women in Japan. Despite being such a progressive society in many ways, to date, there has been a low penetration rate of women in the workforce. Given the declining population size and the sluggish economy, however, the Japanese have put a new emphasis on mobilizing women to help contribute to growth.

According to Professor Shiho Futagami of Yokohama International University, “One economic solution for reversing Japan’s financial challenges is female entrepreneurship. These independent businesswomen…remain Japan’s greatest untapped human resource.”2

During my lunch with President Ms. Shiotani-san, Japan’s second female prefecture governor and now President of Nagasaki International University (NIU), we discussed the role of female entrepreneurs. According to one study, Japan is the only country in the world in which the number of female entrepreneurs (13.79%) exceeds male entrepreneurs (12.20%).3

Later, during the Q&A section after my lecture at NIU, President Ms. Shiotani-san, was so inspired by my talk and our discussion, that she stood up at the end to pitch an idea for a new startup incubator that would help encourage students to launch start-ups!

Why Silicon Valley cares about Japan

  1. Japan is a significant market.
    With 98% penetration rate of mobile phones (of which 95% are 3G), Japan is a major market opportunity for many startups in Silicon Valley, particularly those in the mobile space.4
  2. Entrepreneurship is a geopolitical strategy for the US.
    Because of concerns about China dominating Asia, the U.S. prioritizes economic growth and job creation in Japan in order preserve the balance. Nurturing entrepreneurship is an essential part of Secretary Clinton’s diplomacy. Note: U.S. Ambassador Roos to Japan was the former head of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in Silicon Valley. Follow him on Twitter at @AmbassadorRoos.
  3. Japan has skilled talent and a culture of technical precision.
    There are many young engineers who remain unemployed due to the bad economy. As I learned, if you graduate in a “bad year” batch, you will forever have difficulty securing work in a large company. These wandering young ronin (masterless samurai) are hungry and skilled. Know Ruby, a popular recent programming language? It was invented in Japan.

Japan is in a unique moment.

The time is now, and I hope that the young generation does indeed turn this crisis into an opportunity during which Japan can emerge from challenging times towards prosperity again.

* Special thanks to the U.S. Embassy of Japan for graciously hosting the trip, and to Lydia Ringwald, Weston McBride and Professor Dasher for their inputs on this article.

1 Conversation with Professor Richard Dasher, Director, USA-Asia Technology Management Center, Stanford University.

Photo credits: U.S. Embassy of Japan

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Alexis Ringwald is an education and cleantech entrepreneur. Alexis was a Founder of Valence Energy, an energy management software start-up, acquired by Serious Energy. Fast Company selected Alexis as one of the “Most Influential Women in Tech” and Forbes Magazine listed her as Yale’s Most Notable Alumni. Alexis lived in India for nearly three years as a Fulbright Scholar after graduating with her BA/MEM from Yale University. She is now pursuing entrepreneurial ideas in the education sector. Follow her on Twitter at @alexisringwald.