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Rakuten exec takes action to help moms

by Shigeru Sato, Monami Yui, and Yuki Yamaguchi

Bloomberg

Mie Kurosaka, Rakuten Inc.’s first female executive, returned to work at Japan’s biggest online mall operator only three weeks after giving birth in 2002.

Now, as one of Rakuten’s four top female executives, the 47-year-old who oversees corporate social responsibility is pushing to have a nursery built inside its new Tokyo headquarters to provide better conditions for working mothers, she said in an interview.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will need more executives like Kurosaka to reach his goal of having women account for 30 percent of managers at the nation’s companies by 2020. Employers should make it easier for mothers to continue working after childbirth, Kurosaka said, recalling her days of juggling early motherhood and work.

“I was riding my bike between work and home to feed my child, who was being taken care of by five different baby sitters at different times,” Kurosaka said on June 20. “I was using the office bathroom to pump breast milk into a bottle.”

Company executives and policymakers have pointed to the lack of women in the workplace as a factor that is holding back economic growth in a country where the population is shrinking. The World Economic Forum’s 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness report ranked Japan 90th out of 148 in female workplace participation.

Before Rakuten, Kurosaka was CEO of Ynot Inc.’s Japanese unit, an electronic greeting-card service she helped sell to Rakuten founder Hiroshi Mikitani in 2002. Mikitani, now a billionaire and Japan’s third-wealthiest person, appointed Kurosaka as an executive officer in 2003, a year after she joined.

Mikitani was in the midst of a frenzy of acquisitions. Rakuten sealed at least 11 deals in 2002 to buy or invest in Internet firms including Lycos Japan, Bizseek Co. and Medioport Inc. Its market value surged to ¥528 billion ($5.2 billion) in 2003 from ¥91 billion a year earlier before rising to ¥1.72 trillion as of June 27, data show.

The company says women comprise 36 percent of its 4,900 employees and about 17 percent of managers. Those ratios will rise in the coming years, although Rakuten has not set a target, said Kurosaka, whose daughter is now aged 11.

A Cabinet Office report says Japan’s women should take more leadership positions in companies and in the legislature and in fields including law and medicine.

“Whoever fits a management position should get the post,” said Kurosaka. “I’ve never been made to feel aware that I am a woman at Rakuten.”

Kurosaka’s responsibilities include overseeing Rakuten’s e-commerce business class for high school students. The company started the courses in 2008 as a social responsibility project, she said. The company dispatches employees to more than 20 high schools nationwide to teach teenagers how to start businesses at Rakuten’s Internet cybermall.

Groups of high school students compete in an annual contest hosted by Rakuten every year for the best e-commerce business plan and presentation, she said.

“Knowledge of e-commerce will help teenagers succeed in business because the market will be growing rapidly in the years ahead,” she said. “I hope more Japanese entrepreneurs will emerge from the Rakuten classes.”

The executive role at Rakuten is demanding, with dinner meetings and appointments occupying almost five nights a week, she said.

One part of parenting that she said she still has room for is waking up at 4 a.m. on work days to ensure she has time to speak with her daughter at breakfast.