Leading businesswoman attempts to bridge gender gap

WEF global leader for tomorrow takes on a wide variety of issues

by Karryn Miller

In 2003, when Mitsuru Claire Chino became one of The World Economic Forum “100 global leaders for tomorrow,” she had to consider what impact she could make. “I wanted to help women advance in the world — especially within corporate Japan,” she recalls thinking at the time. And so it was, Chino — living in a society that would still only rank 91st out of 128 four years later in the 2007 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report — began a quest to bridge Japan’s sex divide.

The seed for Chino’s vision was planted long before she walked on stage at the World Economic Forum (WEF). The ambitious 42-year-old’s commitment to diversity is the culmination of an international upbringing teamed with powerful women as role models.

Chino, now corporate counsel at Itochu trading company in Tokyo, was born in the Netherlands, spent her formative years in London, Los Angeles and Tokyo, and was exposed to a number of different cultures from an early age. “I don’t think I would have realized the situation Japan faces, or the situation Japanese corporations face had I stayed in Japan and not spent time outside of it,” she explains. “I think I’m more self-aware and quite sensitive about my surroundings.”

Chino’s mother can also be partly credited for her daughter’s determination to empower women. Her mother, Chino explains, “always had this ambition to follow what she was interested in regardless of factors that may stop others, like age or position.” The elder Chino completed graduate school at the University of California, Irvine at the age of 55 in 1991, the same year her daughter graduated from New York’s Cornell University.

Chino spent the early years of her career at the San Francisco-based law firm Graham & James, and became a partner in 1998 before returning to Japan in 2000. Her international move was prompted by a job offer at the Tokyo headquarters of Itochu.

“Itochu’s business model really appealed to me. Sitting in the legal department you never really know what sort of legal questions you’ll be facing on any given day as it could come from any of the seven business departments,” says Chino.

The firm’s then-president and current chairman, Uichiro Niwa, also had an impact on her decision. “Chairman Niwa is a very charismatic leader and back in 1999/2000 he made some courageous decisions that acted as a turning point for Itochu. Even though I was living in San Francisco at the time, I had heard of his charisma and leadership. I wanted to be with a company with a good leader.”

It was Niwa who helped Chino initiate a program to increase the number of women in the workforce at the Japanese company, following her WEF experience. The two set up a taskforce to research the corporation’s gender gap and the following year a “Diversity Initiative” was put in place.

“In 2003, women made up 2.2 percent of the business units (non-administrative positions). Our goal was 5 percent and we achieved that in 2008,” explains Chino. “Although I didn’t do it own my own, I’m proud of the fact I’ve made a dent in Itochu’s diversity effort.

“Our focus was women initially, but we are also planning ways to increase the number of non-Japanese working for the company,” she adds. Worldwide Itochu has about 40,000 employees, 4,000 of which are based at the predominately Japanese Tokyo head office.

Chino’s relentless drive has also led her to pursue other endeavors — ranging from semi-professional singing to fighting obesity and hunger simultaneously.

In June 2006, Chino took part in the WEF Young Global Leaders Summit in Vancouver. After brainstorming with Nagoya politician Motohisa Furukawa, Japan health policy expert James Kondo and chief strategy officer of Uniqlo Nobuo Domae at the four-day event, the group came up with an idea that would help reduce the calorie consumption many Japanese were concerned about, while helping to feed the world’s poor. The same year, the group launched Table for Two, an NPO that provides Japanese company employees healthy, well-balanced lunch sets, with ¥20 of the price used to support school-meal programs in developing countries.

“I was attracted to the concept as I feel it’s unique. It addresses two issues at once: providing options for people worried about their weight and balancing nutrition; and getting Japanese companies to get involved in corporate social responsibility.”

Once again, Itochu provided the prime location for another of Chino’s endeavors and, in spring 2007, Table for Two was piloted there. The project has since grown and is now part of the cafeteria offerings of 60 Japanese and multinational companies.

How does such a calm, composed woman fit so much into her schedule? “My law firm experience helps. We had to fill out time sheets recording what we were doing for every six minutes of our time. It made me very time sensitive.” As an afterthought Chino adds, “It also helps to have an interest outside of your job.”

What comes next is not completely surprising. “I sing classical music semi-professionally in my spare time,” says Chino. The multitalented woman’s latest performance was at the Sumida Triphony Hall in November 2008.

That month, Chino also took part in the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit. Just as the WEF Young Global Leaders Summit led Chino to help start Table for Two, Asia 21 sparked a new project idea: The Hyper Textbook. Combining the resources of delegates from China, U.S., South Korea, the Philippines, and other Japanese members besides Chino, the group will complete a comparative study on how historical events, such as World War II, experienced in multiple countries, are depicted in each country.

“I hope through the project we can create a better level of understanding among countries,” Chino said. “It is dangerous for people to make generalizations about events without knowing all the facts,” she says, alluding to ongoing tensions between East Asian countries about Japan’s military past.

The project is only in its first phase, with each member currently researching what has been written and approved in his or her own country. By November 2009 they plan to have completed gathering data and then host a conference to discuss and disseminate their findings.

Chino likes to stay involved at a global level through being a regular participant in summits addressing worldwide issues. In 2007, after her recognition as a WEF global leader, she was awarded a fellowship by Yale University, as a Yale World Fellow. That year she joined 18 mid-career professionals from around the world (selected from a pool of 970 applicants) at the prestigious U.S. college giving talks and engaging in discussion with faculty members and students about topics such as women in Japan and corporate social responsibility.

More recently, in 2008, she took part in two international academic conferences — The U.S.-Japan Foundation 9th Annual Summit in Seattle, and The WEF Harvard Kennedy School Executive Leadership Program in Cambridge, Mass. — with the intent of sharing ideas and knowledge on global issues.

Listening to Chino explain both what she has already achieved and what she plans to achieve in the future, it’s still hard to imagine how she finds the time to do all that she does. One thing is clear, however. Genuine passion fills her every pursuit.