In the summer of 2016, Seina Otsuki and Satoshi Miura traveled from their homes in Miyagi Prefecture to rural Mai Chau in northwestern Vietnam to help the local community develop handy and fashionable products for the Vietnamese market.
Otsuki, now 17, and other teenagers designed earrings using local traditional crafts. Miura, now 18, helped create pen cases made of local cloth that are tied to suction cups so students can attach them to desks or walls.
The products were created in cooperation with Mai Chau-based Hoa Ban Plus, a firm run by women from the Tay minority ethnic group inhabiting the hilly region, and supporting people with disabilities within the group. The firm also promotes traditional crafts.
The pair, students at St. Ursula Eichi High School in Sendai, took part in an educational program aimed at engaging youth in social issues, through Very 50, a Tokyo-based nongovernmental group established in 2008 by musician and entrepreneur Ryosuke Sugaya.
In a recent interview, Sugaya, 38, recalled his trip to Southeast Asia back in his university years as an eye-opener to the region’s problems and potential and how it led him to engage others in addressing social issues around the world.
Sugaya said he became interested in the activities of nongovernmental groups tackling social problems and wanted to establish his own, one that would attract young people.
As a musician with longtime experience accompanying singers on piano or keyboard, Sugaya initially donated pianos to Asia’s impoverished regions. The group’s name comes from his idea that it takes donations from about 50 people to deliver one piano.
He said, however, that scenes he saw in places like Nepal and Cambodia prompted him to seek other ways to address social problems — by helping local residents gain skills that would help them find such remedies on their own. He also sought ways to educate people in Japan and engage them in helping vulnerable communities, Sugaya said.
“There are many problems in this world that need to be solved. . . . And it’s our mission to encourage people to take challenges,” he said.
Sugaya wanted to especially help youths become the next generation of leaders and gain skills useful in seeking solutions to environmental problems or conflicts.
“If you can think on your own, you can work independently. We need more such people and want people to gain skills enabling them to act independently,” Sugaya stressed.
Sugaya, who before establishing Very 50 worked for auto parts maker Denso Corp. and consulting giant McKinsey & Co.’s Hong Kong office, used his know-how in fact-based analytics and business strategies in designing the group’s program.
The group offers individuals, schools and businesses training on business strategies, marketing and management, based on MBA curricula. Those willing to help communities in Asia or other regions find solutions to their social problems can take part in Mission on the Ground, in which participants, following business training, embark on consulting projects for local businesses. The participants then travel to selected countries to carry out the projects on the ground. For two years, it supports participants by dispatching professionals in related fields and helping them expand their sales channels.
Very 50 also invests in businesses in the developing world. It selects projects it invests in after consulting with organizations such as the nonprofit group Ashoka that support social entrepreneurs mainly in developing countries.
The group currently cooperates with 44 firms and organizations dedicated to addressing social issues in countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Laos and Japan. The group has so far conducted about 120 projects in which nearly 1,000 people, the majority of whom are in their 20s, took part.
“Some people want to contribute to address the world’s social issues by doing something for children, learn the basics of business or try working independently,” Sugaya said of Mission on the Ground participants’ motivations. “Older people hope such skills help them become more active in society.”
In 2016, Very 50 introduced a program for high school students with training focused on problem-solving, and business and marketing strategies.
Sugaya said that five schools have so far adopted Mission on the Ground in their educational programs and many more are considering the same. He is impressed by teenagers’ eagerness to learn about the world’s social problems and engage in solving them.
“Teaching adults is a bit late,” Sugaya said. “We want to focus on young people who are more receptive to new ideas and come up with fresh ways of solving problems.”
High school students use school breaks or travel in larger groups to countries like Cambodia or Vietnam choosing Mission on the Ground as school trip destinations, Sugaya added. In 2010, Sugaya was named the Asia Climate Change Leader by the British Council, and in 2011, was appointed guest lecturer at Binus University in Jakarta.
Sendai’s St. Ursula Eichi High School last year, in cooperation with Very 50, added a problem-solving program to its yearly curriculum and has about 100 students attending the lectures.
“I realized that, despite a growing global interdependence, people have become ignorant of social issues,” said Kenichi Goto, 47, who is in charge of preparing students for the program at the Sendai school. “But I want people to shift their focus to problems in society. . . . And I want children to develop generosity.”
Goto said that children who participated in Mission on the Ground not only became more aware of social issues, but also developed abilities to solve problems independently and have a passion for English.
Miura, who went to Vietnam in 2016, said his interest in product development was the reason he wanted to join Mission on the Ground. Before taking part, choosing a local university in Japan and landing a job in his neighborhood “seemed to me an obvious future career path.”
“The encounters with people like Mrs. Thuan and Cuc (who run Hoa Ban Plus) made me realize how narrow my outlook on things was,” he said via Skype. “I’d like to commit to product development that would help people in poverty.”
He will continue studies at Waseda University in Tokyo, one of Japan’s leading private universities.
Miura’s classmate, Otsuki said her image of Vietnam drastically changed after the trip.
“Before, I had pictured (Vietnam) as an impoverished country. But I realized there were so many possibilities for development,” Otsuki said, adding the experience sparked her interest in traditional crafts.