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YGL program inspires, educates

by Atsushi Kodera

Staff Writer

Oisix Inc. President Kohey Takashima’s ambition has transformed his online food retail startup into the leading player in the industry in just over a decade, but his nomination as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum has awoken in him another mission: to contribute to society.

Takashima’s involvement with the forum of YGLs where, according to the WEF, “a unique, multistakeholder community of more than 900 exceptional young leaders. . . commit their time and talent to make the world a better place,” made him realize he must think “not only of my company or myself, but what I can do to contribute to society and that I must translate this commitment into action.”

The realization led him to start his involvement in nonprofit efforts, including the establishment of the Table for Two International (TFT) and BEYOND Tomorrow projects.

TFT, conceived by YGLs nominated in 2005 and established as a nonprofit organization in 2007, recognizes that 1 billion of the world’s 7 billion population suffer from malnutrition, while another 1 billion suffer from obesity. It attempts to rectify the imbalance by what it calls a “calorie transfer” scheme, which works this way: A customer pays an extra ¥20 per consumed low-calorie, healthy meal as a donation at participating restaurants or cafeterias, which hand the money to TFT. TFT makes sure each ¥20, which is roughly the equivalent of the price of a single school lunch in poor developing countries, is used to provide nutrition to children in those countries.

This way the scheme, the group believes, benefits both sides of the “table” — the donors with overnutrition issues and the children suffering malnutrition.

Takashima actually began his involvement in the start-up process of the nonprofit group even before he participated in the WEF’s leadership training program where YGLs are urged to start their own initiatives to create a better world. As a board member of TFT, he made calls to major companies that have a canteen, asking them to participate in the program. Over 600 companies, universities, government offices and other organizations participate in the program in Japan alone.

“I think TFT is the most successful case among the initiatives by YGLs,” Takashima said. “That’s why we get steady support from the WEF and it has expanded its areas to include 11 countries, which also owes a lot to their support.”

Takashima, who has completed his six-year tenure as a YGL and now belongs to the YGL Alumni Community, attributes the initiative’s success to the solid ties among the Japanese YGLs and alumni.

“We have formed a great community,” he said. “It began to take shape with us (the 2007 YGLs) after we started regular breakfast meetings, which helped form the community.”

When the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami devastated the Tohoku region, and impacted large areas of Japan on March 11, 2011, Oisix’s operations faced major difficulties as trucking companies focused on delivering relief supplies to the devastated areas.

But even as his mind raced for solutions for the distribution crisis and measures to counter the radiation scare that seemed sure to affect food retailers, Takashima’s thoughts went to the areas devastated by the disaster. Just three days after the quake, he started to discuss with three of his fellow YGLs what they could do for the victims in an online meeting at midnight.

Responding to a call by the four, some 20 YGLs convened a week later despite their equally busy schedules, to discuss the issue. The meeting eventually led to the formation of BEYOND Tomorrow, an incorporated foundation that provides scholarships and leadership education to young victims in the region, in June 2011.

Takashima, along with James Kondo, the country manager of Twitter Japan KK, Chikara Funabashi, the founder and chairman of Will Seed Co., and Kumi Fujisawa, the co-founder of Think Tank SophiaBank — the four who participated in the midnight discussion — now serve as the representative board members of the foundation, and 20 members of the YGL community provided the initial funding.

Takashima recounts in his memoir, “Life Is Vegetable,” BEYOND Tomorrow’s first program in which it took seven high school and university students from the devastated areas to WEF’s “Summer Davos” meeting in Dalian, China, for three days in September 2011. There they shared their traumatic experience and talked about their determination for the future from the podium usually reserved for prominent leaders from around the world. Their speeches brought tears to the eyes of the audience who responded with thunderous applause.

“It was only a three-day program, but the students had pure hearts and learned so much like a sponge. They grew amazingly quickly,” he writes. Encouraged by the enthusiasm of the world leaders, three of the youths “in fact woke up to a sense of mission and went overseas to study. . . they had a life-changing experience in just three days.”

Seeing them undergoing a dramatic change has made Takashima realize what leadership education should be like, he wrote.

From the precarious beginnings when there were only a couple of orders per day, Takashima’s company, which through its Oisix website delivers safe, organic fresh foods to homes and responds to orders of even a single item, has become a major e-commerce operator with 4,000 sold items and a total of 1 million unique users, generating annual sales of some ¥14.6 billion.

Takashima was 33 in 2007 when he was nominated as a Young Global Leader to become part of the YGL Forum.

Although at the time he had only a general idea of what the WEF or its famous annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, was about, he decided to accept an invitation to join a WEF meeting in Dalian.

In addition to waking him up to his social responsibilities, the experience also expanded the way he looked at his business. In particular, chatting with other YGLs opened his eyes to the need to have a more global perspective in operating a business.

“When I explained to participants from other countries what we do, they would say ‘Oh, organic foods, that sounds cool!’ ” Takashima recalled.

“They would then typically ask ‘How many countries are you in?’ and I would say ‘Only in Japan,’ but they would respond ‘Why (not in other countries)?’ ”

That “Why?” came as a culture shock to Takashima, as it clearly indicated his counterparts were looking at the global market, instead of “for example, a Yokohama-born man like myself looking at the Japanese market for my business. . . it seemed like national borders are not in their consciousness,” he said.

This experience led him to open Oisix Hong Kong, the Chinese version of the Oisix website, in 2009, he said. The company went public in the Mothers section of Tokyo Stock Exchange in March last year.

As someone with a business background involved in nonprofit activities, Takashima believes people like himself have unique assets and experience to offer to nonprofit activities, and hopes closer cooperation between them and people with exclusively nonprofit backgrounds will help further common causes.

“I would think these two types should mix more,” Takashima said. “Just as there are lots of things those nonprofit types of people can offer to businesses, business people can put their managerial, marketing or accounting skills to good use in nonprofit activities.”

“And that’s where I can come in. I can approach nonprofit activities with my managerial skills. Call it a publicity stunt or what you may, but I know it’s what I’m worth and it’s what I’m offering nonprofit activities.”

Download the PDF of this Davos Special 2014