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Inaugurated by Kaori Sasaki in 1996, Japan’s annual International Conference for Women in Business (ICWB) has become a renowned forum for discussing diversity in the workplace. Under the theme of Go Beyond, this year’s conference on Sept. 27 will take place online, making it accessible to more people than ever. Sasaki, the founder and CEO of consultancy Ewoman Inc. and Unicul International Inc., talked about this year’s event while also reflecting on highlights from the last quarter century.

“We generally have around 1,000 attendees gathering, and we had big plans for the 25th year. Then with the arrival of the coronavirus, we considered our options and we decided to go ahead with the event online,” Sasaki explained. She pointed out that the theme Go Beyond means not only embracing changes, but also using them as a catalyst to take the next step — both for one’s organization and in one’s personal endeavors.

The ICWB typically attracts people from around 20 countries, but Sasaki hopes conducting it online will draw an ever-wider range of participants this year. It will also make it easier for regular Japanese employees to join in, irrespective of job status or age. She happily recalled meeting two junior high school students who saved their allowances to attend last year’s conference.

“When I first created this event, if you didn’t have ‘women’ in the title somewhere, only men would participate,” Sasaki recalled. At the time, she envisioned having the conferences for about 10 years, but one thing led to another and she is still at the helm 25 years later.

When asked to pick one particularly memorable thing from the 25 years, Sasaki grinned. “I’m impressed year after year at every conference. But one thing that has changed is the mindset of the participants, in terms of having the desire to take positions of leadership in their organizations.” Women who first participated over 20 years ago are now mentoring and encouraging younger women in their firms to attend.

According to Sasaki, another pleasing development is that each year around 15 percent of participants have been male. This affords men who are serious about workplace diversity a chance to meet and network with like-minded peers. She also made a point of inviting top male leaders in Japan’s economic and political arena to participate at the ICWB. “It’s not coming from a place of wanting to show off our event, but rather to have these men see, hear and experience our conference, so they can learn and then take this knowledge away with them,” she explained.

While the coronavirus has dealt a blow to the business world, Sasaki believes it can eventually lead to positive changes, with working from home and flexible hours becoming more widely acceptable as alternatives to Japan’s typical long office hours.

“Until now, not rocking the boat was the Japanese norm at work. But when it comes to work at home, companies will realize that they don’t need such large workforces,” Sasaki pointed out, adding that successful workers of the future will be people who both understand their own value and what they contribute to their organization.

Looking ahead to this year’s ICWB, Sasaki sees the challenges that come with hosting the conference on Zoom with simultaneous English/Japanese interpretation, but also the opportunities: she can leverage the time zone differences to invite speakers from around the world and her team can “Go Beyond” the traditional annual conference, which fits this year’s theme.

The conference enjoys a satisfaction rate of 98 percent year after year. Many participants draw on the positive energy of the conference to inspire and propel them until the next conference. This year, with “Going Beyond,’’ Sasaki is excited to share this positive energy with participants from all over the world. Speakers include Katharine Braddick, director general, Financial Services HM Treasury, England; Marina Mahathir from Malaysia; Kathy Matsui of Goldman Sachs, Japan; Akira Ikegami, journalist, Japan; and other leading figures in government, business and the Olympics.

For more information about the ICWB 2020: