Women’s organization FEW Japan took off long before women’s empowerment became front page news in this country. Forty years on and it’s more dedicated than ever to helping meet the needs of women here.
Since its founding in October 1981, the Tokyo-based network of globally minded, English-speaking women has grown from the seed of an idea contemplated by two friends to a 150-strong membership hosting some 50 events annually. Encompassing a shared goal of motivating, inspiring and connecting, the program of speaker events, lunches, seminars and networking sessions has attracted more and more women to attend year on year, exceeding 1,000 in 2020 despite the pandemic.
“FEW is a safe and brave space for women to imagine and invest in their potential and be inspired by and support each other. That’s never going to not be needed in Japan,” says President Jackie Steele, pointing to Japan’s ranking of 120th among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gap Report 2021.
Now, as the association enters its fifth decade of operations, its past and current leadership have been looking back on some milestones in the association’s history and contemplating how to continue delivering for women effectively amid the challenges of the pandemic and beyond.
Although legally incorporated as For Empowering Women Japan since 2020, the FEW Not-for-Profit Incorporated Association was originally launched as Foreign Executive Women by Tokyo-based Elyse Rogers and Jane Waugh who missed the professional social networks they had enjoyed in the United States. Their idea was to offer networking events primarily for career women, which would be held in nice venues outside the home, much like their male counterparts were attending at the time. In filling a gap in the market, membership began to grow steadily and, in the 1990s, the organization added a biennial careers strategy seminar to its offering to further support members’ professional development.
In the 2000s, though, as the number of Japanese women in corporate positions grew, so too did calls within FEW for membership to be opened up to them alongside a renaming of the organization to reflect the change. The proposal was eventually carried out in 2008 under the tenure of then-president Julia Maeda, co-founder of bespoke travel agency Okuni.
“As a board member, it made me uncomfortable that FEW didn’t allow Japanese members. There were many talented women who therefore didn’t qualify to be members,” Maeda recalled during FEW’s public online anniversary celebration in October. A handful of members were opposed due to concern the meetings “might become like English lessons” but they were overruled in what she describes as “one of the most significant changes for FEW in its history.”
Buoyed by a wave of incoming members keen to embrace FEW’s new mission of empowering all women in Japan, the organization continued to diversify its offerings, expanding its speaker lineup to include women from all sectors of society including politics, the media, sport, startups, the arts, academia and not-for-profit groups.
With the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent meltdown at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, FEW faced another challenge: sustaining its community amid the large-scale departure of members from Japan to their home countries.
“Our strategy was to super-serve the remaining members,” explained then-president Sarah Furuya, founder and coach at Sarah Furuya Coaching, at FEW’s October event. With investment in high-quality events that offered great food and drink as well as special entertainment, Furuya and her team sought to retain and really look after members in the hope it would lead to women being enticed to join or return.
After weathering the storm, Women’s Startup Club, which was launched as an independent group in 2012, was brought under the FEW umbrella in 2016. Since then, WSC has adopted an annual program covering topics that entrepreneurs need to consider for business success including maximizing the digital space, leveraging masterminds and utilizing the startup’s brand story.
“The idea was to create a theme that you could build on, like Lego blocks, not a one-off,” says then-director Tanja Bach, CEO and founder of Contents Bridge.
More recently, FEW has been forced to adapt due to the cancelation of in-person events to curb the spread of COVID-19. Events continue to be held entirely online, which has provided surprising benefits to the association, according to Steele.
“We’ve leaned into FEW Japan since the outbreak of the pandemic,” she says, pointing out that holding remote events has seen membership rise across all parts of the country, whereas membership was once Tokyo-focused. “We’re serving the diversity of women who call Japan home.”
“Going digital in 2020 has offered an easier way for people to access meetings,” says Co-president Terri MacMillan. New attendees include women based in Tokyo and other parts of the country who find it difficult to access child care, have mobility issues or simply feel less comfortable at a large in-person event.
Last year also saw FEW become more financially accessible, with the introduction of its lowest membership fee in decades, at ¥10,000 per annum, says Steele. The move was possible due to FEW’s new status as a general incorporated association, making it capable of inviting companies to support its work via paid memberships to boost its financial sustainability. And corporate Japan’s drive to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including achieving gender equality, is stimulating an uptick in interest to support FEW.
Audi Japan and Jarman International are among the firms to invest in a corporate sustaining membership, which permits them to give memberships to women in their organizations, while seven other firms are organizational members.
“So many people are seeing the value in investing in women’s equality in this country,” Steele says, adding that firms believe in supporting a community for women’s empowerment.
Looking ahead, numerous FEW directors shared their excitement at the October meeting about the upcoming peer-to-peer networking program to be launched this month. Designed to support women in one of three positions — corporate worker, entrepreneur or explorer (pivoting or returning to work) — the interactive sessions will be built for “connection, learning and conversations.”
“We want to be the go-to place for women’s personal and professional development in Japan,” Steele says. “This initiative opens up a more concrete space for women in the in-between zone, such as stay-at-home moms or trailing spouses. We’re not only for professional women with a business card.”
FEW board directors, all of whom are volunteers, are also enjoying a new support structure. Each role is shared by two individuals to reduce pressure on the team and promote the development of a leadership pipeline. The goal is to boost FEW’s resilience and sustainability so it can continue to drive women’s empowerment in Japan for another 40 years or more.
For more information on FEW Japan, visit fewjapan.com.
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