Young social entrepreneurs use Ashoka contest to find peers across Japan

by Chisato Tanaka

Staff Writer

To get access to a network of young social entrepreneurs scattered across Japan, four high school and university students fearlessly presented their projects during a youth social entrepreneurship contest held by the Japan office of Ashoka, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that financially supports social entrepreneurs worldwide.

Among the four presenters who passed the contest’s interview screening portion was Yoko Aoki, an 18-year-old high school student who earlier this year launched a cosmetic therapy and photography service for elderly women living in nursing homes.

She was eventually chosen as one of the three winners of the Ashoka Japan Youth Venture contest held in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, in early June.

Aoki, who started her company Vivid Makeup in April, said her motivation behind joining the contest was to meet other young entrepreneurs — people she rarely encounters during the course of her daily life.

“At school, I seldom find anyone around my age who can share a vision with me, so this program provides a great opportunity for me to become inspired and strengthen my motivation,” she explained. “It’s been tough sometimes because I have to do everything alone.”

Under the slogan “Everyone a Changemaker,” those selected via Ashoka contests can receive annual stipends of up to ¥100,000 in financial support for their projects, and if they want to study at the College of the Atlantic in the United States they can also receive scholarship support up to $10,000. They also have access to a worldwide network of around 3,500 social entrepreneurs called Ashoka Fellows in 93 countries.

Many contest applicants seeking the chance to become what Ashoka calls “youth venturers” echoed the same objective for their membership — the chance to become connected with peers in their age group whom they can share strong passions for sustainable social change.

Another 18-year-old selected presenter, Tatsuwaki Nakagawa, cited the same reason, as well as gaining another connection to famous U.S.-based social entrepreneurs as he will enter a university in the U.S.

Nakagawa, who speaks both Japanese and English, developed with three classmates an app that awards points for not using a smartphone. The points can be exchanged for outside activity tickets.

Takumi Banjoya, a third-year Kobe University student, seemed quite relieved that he was chosen as an official youth venturer this time around. It was his second attempt following an unsuccessful presentation in a previous contest.

Banjoya, in his Kansai accent, presented an app he had invented in which users give “likes” to listed nonprofit organizations that contribute to society, which then receive cryptocurrency based on the number of likes they get.

“In the previous contest, I was more self-centered so the examiners must have thought I was working on the app for my sake, rather than to be a genuine social entrepreneur,” he said. “However, this time I could present my objectives about this project more clearly, and express that I was truly motivated to do what I could to help others, not just for myself.”

Aiming to build a social system in which “heroes who make society a better place do not face money deficits,” Banjoya said that gaining a network of young social entrepreneurs was crucial to making his business successful.

“My app was created to support those social entrepreneurs as well as myself and others, but I need to be part of such a community first,” he said.

The project came to Japan in 2012 in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake. The idea was to support people between the ages of 12 and 20 who were taking action to bring about change in the disaster-affected areas through launching businesses that focus on solving social problems.

Since then, 34 such contests have been held, targeting youths and their businesses all over Japan with 92 selected teams scattered from Okinawa to Hokkaido.

Aoki, who became fascinated with cosmetics by watching her older sister put on makeup, came up with the idea of launching cosmetics and photo services for elderly women during a visit to a nursing home where her mother volunteers from time to time. Her first startup attempt, involving three school friends, faltered as one by one they abandoned the project to prepare for their university entrance exams.

Despite that setback, Aoki kept firmly in mind the radiant smiles of the elderly women who had seen themselves transformed by her makeup skills and was determined to launch the business on her own.

“When there is an idea, and the conditions exist where I can make the idea happen, it would be rather weird not to do so. So I didn’t really have a choice,” Aoki said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Asked by one of the four contest examiners whether she wants to make her makeup business a full-time career, Aoki waffled a bit and said she was “not sure at this point.” Nana Watanabe, founder and chairperson of Ashoka Japan, did not see that uncertainty as a deal-killer. “It’s OK to have bold ideas and rapidly changing fields of interests in the early stages, but the underlying mind of goodwill should be sound,” said Watanabe. “I could tell that she (Aoki) has an immovable core of strong will, which is necessary to be a change-maker.”

Watanabe stressed that Ashoka is not looking solely for well-organized business plans in their selection of youth entrepreneurs. What matters most is whether people have earnest minds of goodwill and the strength to keep working for positive effects on society — even when stumbling blocks get in the way.

The Ashoka Japan examiners, who are selected from a wide range of different fields, such as education, finance and journalism, judge the presenters based on whether they felt the applicants have an intrinsic foundation of motivation for tackling social issues, and only consider those applicants who are actually taking action.

To clarify its main objective, Watanabe added that the program is “not an educational training program for youth social entrepreneurs, but more of the forum where participants can conduct their experiments freely.”

Adults, therefore, refrain from giving feedback or advice to the youthful members, and ensure that they can develop themselves via intense discussions with each other, Watanabe said.

Aoki is now mulling how to expand her services to elderly men as well.

“I want cosmetics to be something enjoyable to everyone regardless of gender and age,” she said.