Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

For 'student of life' Angela Ortiz, lessons from family and 'Grit MBA' from Tohoku led to dream job

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

“Almost every step of my adult life has been hands-on learning,” explains Angela Ortiz, a self-confessed “student of life” who currently works as Japan director of corporate social responsibility (CSR) for H&M, the popular global fashion firm.

“Being a single parent and main role model for my daughter, I have often wondered: What am I showing my daughter by what I do with my life?” says Ortiz, 34. “And I have wanted to show her that life is flexible and you needn’t live with a fixed mind-set. Where you are now, what you study — it doesn’t have to be where you end up.”

Home-schooled for much of her educational life and with a high school diploma, college degree in early childhood education and certificate for teaching English as a second language, all from online coursework, Ortiz believes true learning comes from experiences, and the lessons she values most are those spent interacting with people.

This lesson had been part of Ortiz’s life experience from early on. In the early 1980s, Ortiz’s father, Erwin, a teacher, brought his wife, Judy, and five young children to Japan from California to explore opportunities. Ortiz grew up in Saitama and attended an international elementary school before being home-schooled. Eventually, Ortiz’s siblings grew to 10, with six more children born in Japan. The family learned together from frequent outings.

“My dad is very adventurous,” Ortiz explains, “so we would take a lot of trips, pile into our big Mitsubishi Delica and open up the sunroof, taking in the changing scenery, hiking and camping, mountains, river trips.”

Her family’s adventurous lifestyle and love of nature led them to Tohoku.

“When I was 13, a business opportunity for my parents arose as one of their friends had some property up north and asked my parents to help set up an English school,” Ortiz says. Although told it would only be a six-month adventure, “my parents, especially my father, fell in love with Tohoku; the nature is phenomenal. They decided to accept a contract to manage the school full time.”

The family settled in the city of Aomori and started what eventually became Ortiz Global Academy (OGA), an international school for preschool and kindergarten still thriving today.

Ortiz finished her home schooling with online studies, also attending Japanese cultural school three times a week in Tohoku. After completing her degree, she took a gap year to travel.

“I found a program that took high school students from Japan to India, so we were engaged in community service in the local neighborhoods. I ended up teaching English to underprivileged children. I saw the mile-long slums, the poverty, and I couldn’t help but be aware of the social contrast in India and Bangladesh and how I grew up in Japan.”

After returning from India, Ortiz was only 20 when her daughter was born. She chose the sensible route of teaching to support herself and her newborn daughter, eventually moving to Tokyo for more career choices.

“At first, my decision to teach was very practical and natural, as I’d grown up around schools,” she says. “After three years in, when I became a head teacher and I started studying a lot more about behavior and psychology, learning techniques and the spectrum of learning styles, I did get really interested in teaching as a vocation.

“At the time of the earthquake, I had just switched schools and started my own after-school program,” Ortiz recalls. “My life was really coming together; financially, I was seeing improvement. My daughter was settled in Tokyo, and I had no ideas of stepping out of my life plan. But after the disaster, after going to Tohoku, the physical reality of the tragedy changed everything.”

When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, 2011, one of Ortiz’s brothers was also in Tokyo, while her older sister happened to be visiting their parents in Aomori. The immediate concern was for one of their younger brothers, who was living in Sendai at the time.

“We couldn’t get in touch with him,” Ortiz remembers, “and we were at my brother’s house in Tokyo watching the horrendous footage of the black waves crushing the coastline.” After finally learning he was safe, “we got a call from my sister in Aomori to say Dad would go down to the devastated areas, hired by some journalists to act as a guide and translator. My sister suggested sending some supplies up.”

Ortiz’s decision to act would change her life path. When the Great Hanshin Earthquake hit Kobe in 1995, she says, “I was 12, and my father traveled over to volunteer with the Red Cross. I wanted to go with him but he refused, believing it might be too dangerous. So when Tohoku occurred, I remember running to get home near Moto-Azabu because of course all the public transport had stopped, and I felt so strongly, ‘This time I am going to get involved, I am going to help somehow.’ So when my sister mentioned the supplies, I was instantly in.”

Ortiz’s daughter was now 8 years old, and together they flew to Aomori to join the rest of the family. They arrived on March 16.

“It was really intense,” Ortiz recalls. “We just jumped right into it as a family. My older sister had started a Facebook page, my brother-in-law started a PayPal account, and bits of money and supplies were trickling in. Friends of my parents had put a message up on local cable TV: ‘If you want to send supplies, bring them to the Ortiz Global Academy.’ So we had supplies coming in nonstop, and as a family, it’s probably the first time we’ve ever gotten on so well.” Ortiz laughs.

“It was just seamless, like clockwork. My younger sisters watched the kids, my mom cooked the food and managed the home that week, I worked on public relations, my brothers took care of the trucks and packing, my father went to the police station, other sisters stayed home and printed flyers and recruited volunteers. Everyone worked together for a common goal.”

Ortiz and her family’s efforts eventually morphed into an NPO, OGA for Aid, and their work continues today with various ongoing initiatives in the Tohoku area, not to mention recent work in Kumamoto following the earthquakes earlier this year. After months juggling life between Tohoku and Tokyo, Ortiz quit her teaching job and devoted herself full-time to administrative work in Tokyo.

Acting as the liaison between OGA for Aid and various companies, Ortiz says she learned about CSR on the job.

“I was doing work to help develop corporations’ CSR policies regarding Tohoku, with companies like Johnson & Johnson, Mitsubishi, international foundations and smaller Japanese companies,” she explains. “The concept of CSR was something I already knew about, but to actually develop the path for a company, to discuss with CEOs and boards ‘How do you integrate this initiative into company values?,’ ‘What impact does it have for employees?’ — these lessons are what I learned hands-on in program development for OGA for Aid, acting as the bridge between companies and the NPO.”

Freely admitting to be “a study geek”, Ortiz threw herself into Japanese language study to improve her communication skills and tirelessly researched business policies, disaster relief and a wide range of CSR initiatives.

Ortiz continued working full time with OGA for Aid until the start of this year, when the various branches of the NPO became independent and no longer required a full-time administrator. They rebranded the NPO as Place to Grow and Ortiz assumed the voluntary role of representative director (at large).

Ortiz was researching the possibility of starting her own CSR consultancy when luck led her to the H&M job posting.

“Luck is when preparedness meets opportunity,” says Ortiz. “If I had not been prepared by my experiences and then the months of research to start my own business, if I hadn’t started lecturing on CSR around Japan, I would not have been prepared to seize the opportunity when I learned of the opening at H&M.”

With the many challenges of her new job, Ortiz is still a student of life, participating in think tanks with top Japanese textile scientists in Matsumoto or lecturing at local schools on the importance of circular economies to promote H&M’s global “Closing the Loop” campaign.

“Through my volunteer work and the experiences of developing a successful NPO, I discovered I had the capacity to learn anything new — including how to run my own company — and this led me to what is really a dream job,” Ortiz says. “Every day I get to do the most amazing work about community, sustainability and rethinking the way we do things. It plays to all my innate interests.

“I call these last five years of my life my ‘Grit MBA,’ and in all honesty, it’s a dream to be able to provide this model of living for my daughter, to show her that anything is possible when you are ready to work for your goals.”

Place to Grow: www.placetogrow-ngo.org. Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp