As Tomoya Yamashiki points to the three chocolate muffins before him, his eyes light up as he describes in turn their rich, umami and fruity flavors.
Though the muffins all contain the same two ingredients — cocoa beans and cane sugar — each one has a completely different taste. The secret, he explains, is the origin of the beans used to make them. And Yamashiki, quite the expert, can pinpoint whether the beans were sourced from Ecuador, Madagascar or the Dominican Republic after a mere mouthful.
Chocolate is a new industry for Yamashiki, the chief strategist of bean-to-bar maker Dandelion Chocolate Japan, Inc., but, like every other business in which the serial entrepreneur is involved, he is approaching it with gusto. Since joining the venture with business partner Seiji Horibuchi and Dandelion Chocolate co-founder and CEO Todd Masonis in 2015, he has traveled the Americas and Africa to meet cocoa farmers and has supported the opening of four stores across Japan where the Instagram-worthy selection of chocolate treats has earned the company a small yet loyal following.
It no doubt helps that Yamashiki is Japanese himself. The San Francisco resident visits each outlet in Japan a few times a year while working to pursue new ideas and promote the brand nationwide. He also trains the staff in the stores because he believes that his experience living in the United States can help them grow.
“Most young people in Japan are still very naive; they don’t push their career development. But in the U.S. young people are very hungry for economical and personal success,” he says, adding that Japanese instead rely on the country’s lifetime-employment and seniority system.
Though lauded for offering financial stability, it was this system that ended up encouraging Yamashiki to look for career options outside Japan 15 years ago.
As a child, he says he was “curious about everything” and, after completing two doctorates — one in physics and materials science, and one in applied physics — from The University of Tokyo, he joined Toray Industries, a chemical and textiles multinational corporation, as a research scientist.
He brought inventions into fruition and created opportunities for new businesses related to optical and electronic properties in nano-materials and systems.
But, as he moved up the ranks, the pressure at work mounted.
“There was so much competition among my colleagues, but I didn’t want to compete with them. It was also definitive lifetime employment and I didn’t want to wait until I was in my 50s or 60s for a top job,” he says. “To survive in the challenging environment, I needed to be tough, but I lost my heart and wanted to escape.”
Ultimately, though, Yamashiki looks back on his early career fondly. It was his former boss who introduced him to the idea of working with startups affiliated to Toray Industries in America. Despite not having lived overseas before, he grasped the opportunity and spent six months in New York before settling in San Francisco.
What he describes as “the pioneering mind-set” of his adopted home served him well during his initial time of entrepreneurship and adjustment. He thought of himself as “a drop-out from Japanese conventional society,” he says, but found comfort when every door he knocked on had a welcoming person behind it.
No-one rejected his ideas in IT, nanotechnology and strategy and his skills were welcomed, with companies keen to work with him. A few years later, he left Toray Industries and began work as an independent contractor, helping a string of venture companies to set up their businesses.
There were also moments of self-discovery. Yamashiki was already proficient in English due to decades of using the language for research as a scientist, but after he brushed up his communication skills in a social context, he discovered that in the U.S. he could more easily convey his emotions and be himself.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was under a lot of pressure (at work) and within a very strict hierarchy system,” he says about his work and social life in Japan. “I always wanted to get approval from the top guys, so even when I talked with potential friends, I wanted their approval.”
Everyone in his community also knew details of everyone else’s personal lives, and they would compare themselves to each other. But in the U.S., he found that people were not so concerned about their neighbors.
For the first time, Yamashiki says that he realized that he could be satisfied with himself. He felt free to express his thoughts at all times and business was only one part of his life. His motto became: “To love yourself, love others and, to love others, love yourself,” and people have even told him that he has a Zen mind-set.
There were, naturally, a few hiccups along the way. At first, he was surprised by the lack of punctuality in the U.S. compared to in Japan. There were also no set phrases in English to fall back on like there are in Japanese. In Japan everyone understood many words to mean something unequivocally, for example “sumimasen” (“sorry” or “excuse me”), which needs no explanation with it, no matter the situation. In the U.S., he discovered most words carried more meanings, depending on context, tone and a host of other intricacies.
At first, when he began traveling between San Francisco and Tokyo as part of his role for Toray Industries, he readjusted his behavior each time.
“I was always changing the mask to work with local people,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Are you Japanese?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, but no.’ They’d say, ‘Are you American?’ I’d say, ‘Yes, but no.'”
Now he says he simply acts as himself in each place, adding, “I want to be a citizen of the world. Nationality is artificial.”
Unlike major chocolate makers, which use cocoa beans from many countries to mass produce bars, Dandelion Chocolate Japan, Inc. sources its beans from single-estate farms to build up a range of bars with individual flavors.
While not a social impact company, Yamashiki says his priority is to help farmers not just because sustainability is important, but because aiding them into growing great beans means his team’s chocolate can only get better and better.
Discerning consumer appreciation of taste and sustainability, he also says, are two things that the U.S. and Japan have in common.
Name: Tomoya Yamashiki
Profession: Chief strategy officer of Dandelion Chocolate Japan, Inc.
Hometown: Suzuka, Mie Prefecture
Key moments in career:
1996 — Graduates from The University of Tokyo and brings high-tech products to market for the first time
2004 — Moves to the U.S. and begins business incubation with start-up companies for Toray Industries
2006 — Leaves Toray Industries and becomes an independent contractor and entrepreneur
2015 — Joins Dandelion Chocolate Japan, Inc.
2016 — Opens first Dandelion Chocolate Japan Inc shop in Kuramae, Tokyo
Words to live by: “Man is not the sum of what he has already, but rather the sum of what he does not yet have, of what he could have.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)
Weakness: Shy at first