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Mari Kuraishi: A childhood on the move gave this CEO the power to ‘go native’ in a flash

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

There’s an old Japanese saying that dicates the nail that sticks up should be hammered down. But what if that conspicuous nail is a 6-year-old Japanese girl newly arrived in Milan?

What if she’s the only Asian student in her class at school? What if the local kids do what kids all over the world do and target the outsider, follow her in the street, taunt her by making noises that sound like Chinese?

Hammer. Hammer. Hammer.

But what if inside of a year that little girl, now tough as nails, masters Italian and is able to yell back at them? What if she’s one of the brightest kids in her class, so much so that she’s able to help the other kids at school with their homework?

That’s a nail you don’t want to take a hammer to.

By her own account, Mari Kuraishi is an overachiever. In addition to her native Japanese, she also speaks English, Italian, Russian and French. She skipped two grades in secondary school and worked her way into Harvard University at the age of 16. She also left a doctoral program at Georgetown University to go work at the World Bank and, after 10 years there, she went on to launch GlobalGiving, an internationally recognized nongovernmental organization with her husband, Dennis Whittle.

Kuraishi’s impressive journey began in Shizouka, where she was born, but she soon moved to Los Angeles when her father was transferred there by cosmetics giant Shiseido. It was a short stay, though, the family returned to Japan after Mari’s mother was seriously injured as the result of a car accident.

By the age of 6, though, the Kuraishis were off again, this time to Milan. Young Mari was a busy child, trying to fit into her new surroundings. There was also a lot of school, her weekends taken up with classes at Japanese school and correspondence courses through the education ministry.

Four years later, the Kuraishis returned to Japan once more.

“That was very normal,” Kuraishi, now 51, says of her back-and-forth moves across the globe. She kept up her Japanese, so returning home never provided too much reverse culture shock.

“I was able to make friends easily,” she recalls. “My family, cousins — they were all excited to have me back.”

Her father warned her that there was a strong chance he would be posted overseas again, so Kuraishi opted to attend international school in Yokohama to keep her from falling behind in her internationalism. Three years later, she was told the family would be relocating to Dusseldorf, Germany, and that was the last time Kuraishi lived in Japan — though she visits every year with her own family.

Germany was still a divided country when the Kuraishis took up residence there and that geographic and political divide ended up becoming a major influence on Kuraishi’s academic and professional career.

“I studied Russian history at Harvard because I was very interested in the Soviet Union,” she says, adding that this was down to “having come from West Germany, which was so defined by the existence of the Soviet Union.”

While determination and hard work helped Kuraishi get into Harvard, her decision to apply to the Ivy League school was a result of a pact she made with her father.

“My Dad told me he wasn’t keen on paying the amounts that American colleges charged if I didn’t get into a school he recognized,” she says. “And, notwithstanding his cosmopolitan work life, he was not very academically oriented at all, so I was allowed to apply to Harvard, Princeton and MIT.”

Kuraishi was accepted to Harvard and Princeton, though she didn’t know much about either of them, and after receiving those offers retracted her application to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

During her undergraduate years Kuraishi’s parents went through a “complicated divorce,” which meant they never came to visit her at college or attend her graduation. She says she felt a lot of pressure from her mother to live with her in Japan. Kuraishi knew that if she were to return home, though, her career options would have been limited despite her stellar education.

“Most women entering the workforce (then) were expected to be ‘office ladies,'” she says, referring to the Japanese term for women in the office who mainly answer phones and pour tea. “I could have worked my way back into Japan by working for a non-Japanese multinational; lots of my classmates went to McKinsey, but I had no interest in going to work for a management consulting company — still less investment banking.”

Instead, Kuraishi stuck it out in the United States on her own. She received a scholarship to complete her master’s degree at Harvard’s Russian research arm and, following that, enrolled in a doctoral program at Georgetown, also in Russian studies. However, she quit her studies just as the Soviet Union imploded and, along with it, the field of Russian studies — “having failed to predict the single most important thing to happen to the Soviet Union.”

According to Kuraishi she “lucked out” when she landed a job as a Russia expert with the World Bank, where she met her future husband, Dennis Whittle.

The pair left the World Bank and, in 2001, set up GlobalGiving, an international crowdfunding platform that acts as intermediary between NGOs and their donors. It has since raised more than $340 million and supported over 20,000 projects in 170 countries, including several in Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region following the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

Kuraishi plans to step down as CEO of GlobalGiving this year but her next move is still up in the air. She thinks about returning to Japan, especially since her parents are getting older, but says the “barrier is the difficulty of finding a job there I could love.”

Of her peripatetic background Kuraishi says that it has made her a “very good code-switcher,” being able to jump back and forth between languages in a conversation and, subsequently, cultures. She knows enough to easily fit into Milan, LA, Munich or Yokohama.

“I feel like I can quickly figure out what it would take to ‘go native’ in most environments. Which doesn’t mean I feel American, or Italian or German — quite the contrary I also know how deeply I am not those things,” she says. “But I also feel pretty foreign in Japan at this point, knowing how much my expectations and aspirations diverge from what is permitted there.”


Profile

Name: Mari Kuraishi

Profession: Nonprofit executive

Hometown: Shizuoka, Shizuoka Prefecture

Age: 51

Key moments in career:

1987 — Graduates from Harvard University with a degree in history

1989 — Graduates from Harvard with a Soviet Studies master’s degree, enrolls in a political science Ph.D. program at Georgetown University

1991 — Quits graduate school to join the World Bank

2001 — Establishes the nongovernmental organization GlobalGiving along with her husband, Dennis Whittle

2011 — Named as one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers

2018 — Steps down as president of GlobalGiving

Things I miss about Japan: I miss the food, the attention to detail and the sense of doing things 110 percent.

Things I’m grateful for in life: To have had the opportunity to learn myself from the outside in by learning languages and living in cultures that are not my own. You can learn things about yourself when you learn to code-switch that you would never learn otherwise.

Best advice I ever received: Speak up.