Strategist puts stock in future of women

by Natsuko Fukue

Ranked tops in equity strategy by Institutional Investor magazine in 2000, 2001 and 2006, Kathy Matsui has a new challenge: empowering Asia’s women.

Matsui, managing director of Goldman Sachs Japan Co., has been helping educate Asian women by serving on the board of directors of Asian University for Women, which opened its doors last year in Chittagon, southeastern Bangladesh.

AUW is an internationally supported institution that offers liberal arts and science curricula to young women from across South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Matsui was motivated to contribute by her desire to empower women and narrow the gender gap in education and the workplace.

“Investing in women’s education is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty,” Matsui said. Her emphasis on education can be traced to her background as a daughter of Japanese farmers who emigrated to the U.S.

Matsui was born in California in 1965 to parents who had come from Nara Prefecture in the early 1960s to go into business growing chrysanthemums. Growing up in a nursery, she used to help her father and Mexican migrant workers.

“Other Japanese immigrant farmers were also using their children as laborers, so it felt quite normal (to work in a nursery),” she said.

Though her father once thought of turning over the nursery one day to one of his children, her parents also wanted them to have an intellectual occupation since they were unable to go to college.

Matsui’s oldest sister entered Harvard University, after which Matsui and her brothers followed in her footsteps.

“(My father) said jokingly that if we didn’t get into Harvard, we would have to take over the nursery,” she said.

It was only after graduating from Harvard in 1986 that she visited Japan for the first time as a Rotary scholarship student at International Christian University in Tokyo.

“I discovered my roots during my two-year stay in Japan and that’s where my Japanese also began to improve,” she said.

Matsui said she grew up in an unusual language environment. Her father used English at work but spoke Japanese with her mother, while all conversations with her sister and brothers were in English.

After spending a year at ICU, she studied at Kobe University graduate school for another year before going back to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in international finance and Japanese studies at Johns Hopkins University.

In 1990, she returned to Japan to join Barclays de Zoete Wedd Securities, and since 1994 has been working at Goldman Sachs Japan.

One of the firm’s most prominent strategists, she is also the mother of a 12-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl who were both born in Japan.

Although she wants to provide a good environment for her children, at the same time she does not want them to take it for granted.

“By taking them to distribute ‘onigiri’ (rice balls) to the homeless, I want them to understand there are many less fortunate people in the world and they need to appreciate they are blessed with a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs.”

Being a working mother, she said she can’t always keep a good work-family balance. “It’s hard work, but if you want to have both a career and family, it’s totally possible,” she said. “It’s not necessary to be perfect both at work and home.”

What is more important for her than becoming a perfect mother or perfect businesswoman is that she stays happy and finds “equilibrium,” if not exactly a perfect balance.

“I am not cut out to be a full-time housewife,” she laughed, noting her situation is better than her mother’s, who worked on a farm raising four kids.

“My mother-in-law used to say, ‘If you’re an unhappy mother, your kids will be unhappy, so find something that makes you happy.”‘

From her perspective, women play an indispensable role in the workforce.

In 1999, Matsui wrote a research piece, “Womenomics,” which argues women can be a great resource for Japan’s stagnating economy both in the workforce and as consumers.

“One myth that needs to be destroyed in Japan is that more working women will drive the birthrate even lower. Empirical evidence around the world shows the opposite is true,” she said.

“Even in Japan, the prefecture with the highest female participation, Okinawa, also has the highest birthrate.”

Her journey of empowering women still continues with Asian University for Women.

“I had thought I could do something philanthropic later on in life, say in my 50s or 60s,” she said. However, she changed her mind when she found out she had breast cancer eight years ago. “Through my illness, I discovered that life is very short and that I should pursue those interests now while I’m still able to.”