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Saturday, Jan. 24, 2009
Poor beginnings help nurture get-up-and-go
Russian-born entrepreneur in Hokkaido looks to set Japan back on its feet with advice on affecting positive change
Special to The Japan Times
Natalia Roschina feels frustrated. Frustrated at complaints about a bad economy and frustrated at people not taking the initiative to better their situation. Instead of dwelling on the dismal state of economic affairs, the entrepreneur wants to lead by example, improving herself, growing her business, and in the process helping others to do the same.
Since arriving in Japan in 1997, the Russian native has worked in a number of industries before finding her passion and starting her own company.
A one-year scholarship at Osaka Gaidai University helped her to hone her Japanese skills. She's now fluent in the language, along with English, Russian and German.
Shying away from the English-teaching route, the 37-year-old acquired a resume of odd jobs, from coordinating international relations for Nagasaki's prefectural government to selling timber for a Shizuoka-based company.
Things started to change after Roschina moved to Hokkaido in 1999. "There is more to life than work, even though I love my work," she says. "I wanted to ski every day so I moved to Hokkaido." In her new town, Roschina first picked up work as an interpreter for a crab company that did business with Russian fishermen, then secured a job promoting New Zealand pasture systems among Japanese farmers.
In 2003, Roschina decided to start her own business — called Health for All — and dedicated herself to its success. She described it in a recent interview as "the driving force behind all that I do."
The multifaceted company sells New Zealand honey and other natural products throughout Japan, and also manufactures healthy sweets. Roschina notes that she is sometimes pigeonholed. "Some people call me a honey company, and I can not stand that description. Yes, the company sells honey and other natural products, but it is still a very narrow-minded description of what Health for All does on a bigger scale.
"Affecting positive change is my passion in life, and that is what I want to pursue, by changing and improving myself all the time, and by passing the knowledge on."
Roschina has a solid education — having graduated from Victoria University in New Zealand with a postgraduate degree in Japanese — and is able to run a flourishing business in challenging times, but she comes from humble beginnings. "My family was very poor and I didn't have any new clothes or shoes until I was 17 years old." She lost her father when he was only 53 years old; her elder brother, her only sibling, committed suicide when he was 32. "Recession is creating more depression and suicides," says Roschina. "Trying to help prevent suicide is something that is turning into my lifework and is a big inspiration behind my recession fix projects."
Her company started hiring people suffering from depression for projects such as updating the company's Web site. "We are also hiring temporary workers who lost jobs at Toyota and other businesses. I was inspired to do this by my desire to prevent depression and suicide." She hopes to prevent further layoffs with the "health for economy" side of her company, which includes "books, seminars, current finance education and the Recession Fix Department."
Through each part of her company, and throughout her life, the Hokkaido-based businesswoman shares her views on how to make positive changes, even when it goes against mainstream thinking.
"When I was a marketing student at Victoria University, New Zealand, getting C grades only, I did one project on exporting New Zealand butter to Russia. I suggested that New Zealand should forget its 'clean, green image,' write weight-loss recipes on labels, and sell with the Russian market in mind, rather than Kiwi values. I got an A+ and praise from the New Zealand Dairy Board.
"The experience helped me learn that I should be brave in expressing my ideas of radical change even if they go against what the rest of the population thinks."
In early 2007, the town of Yubari in Hokkaido was officially declared bankrupt. Roschina wanted to contribute her views on how to solve things. "I wrote letters to different people and on my blog on how to fix their problems but got no response to them. It was getting frustrating so I decided to write a book about it.
"A Letter to Yubari" was self-published three times before Nikkei BP published it in December 2007.
Roschina hopes the messages in her book are not lost in the simple title. "I hoped the book would show ideas for changes to all of Japan. For me it was never a book about just Yubari." Her Nikkei BP version of the book has now become a textbook for people recovering from depression at the Sapporo mental clinic and at Iwate Kenritsu University, where it is used in a social welfare entrepreneurship program.
Roschina's publishing efforts are only a small part of a larger picture. "I'm an entrepreneur, not a writer as such." Roschina, once again "frustrated at the economy" started her second book. "I started the day Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda resigned and had it finished and published within six days of him actually leaving."
The book "Nanikuso Fukeiki" talks about how Health for All overcomes recession, turns it into opportunities, and suggests how other companies can do the same.
She will self-publish her third book with the temporary title "How to Fix the Japanese Recession," this February. Her speed at getting things done is apparent in many aspects of her life. "Some people say you are what you eat. I believe you are what you read. So, each month I read 10 to 30 books in Japanese and English."
She credits her ability to read quickly in Japanese to not getting caught up when she doesn't understand a word or minor detail.
Yubari remains her inspiration to instill change in Japan. "They call it a coal mining town but it's not coal mining, it's a real gold mining town — at least for me anyway."
On the seventh of each month, Roschina visits the bankrupt town hosting one of her business lunch seminars, with the alarming title "Change or Die," to help the local economy. "The last business lunch there inspired me to go to graduate school and study. So, the following day I enrolled in a course in change management and finance at Massey University [in New Zealand]. Recession can be a great time for self-growth."
Along with Russia and Japan, a portion of Roschina's life was spent Down Under, hence the reason she continues to study there. "A week before the Soviet Union crumbled, I left Russia and moved to New Zealand with my Kiwi husband." (He is now her ex-husband).
"My first attempt at studying Japanese was when I was 21 and living in Wellington. I got a private tutor and then a year later went to Victoria University." Roschina currently conducts all her business in Japanese. Her determination to lift herself out of poverty, and to keep her newfound home out of it, also stems from her past.
"I hate poverty, and would never like to experience it again. This is why I focus on study and constant self-improvement."
As Japan's business climate changes Roschina has made some personal changes to help her move forward. "I've realized that I am No. 1 and it is OK to be selfish," she states. "I've also come to realize that the only thing that can fix the economy is money. That's why I stopped volunteering and want to make money and study and teach finance."
As Roschina wraps up her third book, written in Japanese, thoughts on how she can further help the economy keep filling her head. Staying true to her latest motto, "With recession you either take a punch or give a punch," Japan can expect to hear a lot more from this entrepreneurial Hokkaido woman, in seminars, online, through books, and in any medium where she can make her voice heard.
Web site: it-for-all.com/health-for-all/