Widowed at age 27, Madame Clicquot (1777-1866) took on her husband’s Champagne business in 1805, making her one of modern history’s first businesswomen. Under her leadership and business acumen, the Champagne house based in Reims, France, which began operations in 1772, developed into one of the largest and most wellknown in the world. Specializing in premium products under the motto, “Only one quality, the finest,” the company Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin (VCP) still bears her name today.
To commemorate her deeds and celebrate the success of innovative businesswomen around the world, VCP established the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award (BWA) in 1972 when the company marked its bicentennial. Since then, it has awarded more than 350 businesswomen from 27 countries, including Japan as of 2018.
At the 2019 Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award ceremony in Tokyo on Sept. 12, two businesswomen from Japan, Kanoko Oishi, founding CEO of Mediva Inc., and Miku Hirano, CEO of Cinnamon Inc., were awarded the Business Woman Award and New Generation Award, respectively.
Oishi, who runs a total health care consulting and operation business, received the Business Woman Award, which is given to a woman who is 40 years or older and embodies Madam Clicquot’s entrepreneurial qualities, such as a pioneering approach and unyielding spirit. Based on her experience, Oishi succeeded in creating patient-friendly health care services, which included offering patients free access to their medical records via the internet. Mediva is also engaged in health care projects outside Japan based on such innovative models.
“It’s a common wish for all people across the globe to live healthy in mind and body. Our health care facilities receive visitors from many countries who want to learn about how we are tackling the challenges of a super-aging society, and that in turn provides us with opportunities to learn from their communities,” Oishi said at the ceremony. “A small question may lead us to addressing global challenges. The greatest pleasure for me about doing this business is to be able to experience this. I hope more Japanese women will have such an exciting experience as entrepreneurs.”
Hirano, who has developed business artificial intelligence solutions, won the New Generation Award. This is given to a promising businesswoman aged between 25 and 39 who has a creative and innovative vision, and is trying to fulfill social responsibilities through her business.
Hirano was awarded for her achievement in helping drive societal change by developing AI-enabled products that streamline time-consuming office work, such as reading and extracting information from documents.
“It was my family that motivated me to start a business using AI, just like Madame Clicquot dared to take on business for her family. As a mother of two small children, I believe it’s our generation’s mission to change Japanese people’s way of overworking that has led them to spend less time with their families, to mental problems and even death from overwork,” Hirano said. “To this end, we develop AI business solutions to increase white-collar productivity.”
During the ceremony, Veuve Clicquot President Jean-Marc Gallot congratulated the awardee’s inspiring speeches, pointing out the importance of curiosity and self-confidence.
“If we can give a sense of confidence to ‘wantrepreneurs’ (those who want to become entrepreneurs) through BWA, we are allowed to achieve something promising,” he said.
At the event, Carole Bilde, Veuve Clicquot’s international communication and marketing director, shared the results of the Women Entrepreneurship Barometer, which was based on a survey conducted by the company earlier this year on more than 10,000 people in France, Hong Kong, Japan, South Africa and Britain.
According to the research, female entrepreneurship remains a niche phenomenon in Japan with only 9 percent of women being entrepreneurs. This is due to fear of professional failure and low self-confidence.
While 25 percent of Japanese women are wantrepreneurs, less than the other countries surveyed, the rate is higher at 33 percent among Japanese women in their 20s. To encourage this generation of women to break the glass ceiling to become entrepreneurs, “It’s necessary to be supported
by a network of women entrepreneurs,” Bilde said.
Though many Japanese women are inspired by female entrepreneurs, only 17 percent of Japanese people know the name of any successful female entrepreneurs. “It’s even worse in France, only 12 percent,” Bilde said. “To highlight female entrepreneurs and give them a voice is definitely one step (to support women).”
Last year’s BWA winner, Yuko Hasegawa, 2019 chief judge of BWA and professor of Tokyo University of the Arts, also praised the winners.
“These elegant women, who both became aware of and began tackling emergent issues, turning them into seeds for business and a vision for the future, have inspired us,” Hasegawa said. “While there are many business awards, Veuve Clicquot BWA has special meaning as it has questioned what the needs of the time are and how women are able to address them from a female point of view and through their entrepreneurship.”
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Business Woman Award
When Kanoko Oishi, founding CEO of Mediva Inc., gave birth to her child in 1998, she felt uncomfortable with short doctor visits after long waits and a lack of sharing medical charts between hospitals.
Situations like these were taken for granted at hospitals in Japan, but Oishi could not ignore the feeling that something was wrong.
“Something can be done and that will be good for my child’s generation,” thought the Osaka native and business consultant, who earned an MBA at Harvard Business School and was a partner at McKinsey & Co.’s Japan office at the time.
During her maternity leave, she interviewed some 40 doctors and established a medical consulting service after returning to work. However, she realized consultations were not enough to change the industry. Before long, she left McKinsey and founded her own company, Mediva, in 2000.
“Rather than just giving recommendation documents, Mediva supports them in implementing and operating the new practices we propose,” she said.
Mediva’s first project was to provide support to some of the doctors she had interviewed by founding the Yoga Urban Clinic in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. The clinic was designed with the concept of patient-centered family medicine, and the introduction of working shifts within a set system enabled the clinic to be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. without closing for lunch. It also became the first clinic in Japan to offer patients free access to their medical chart via the internet in 2003.
Innovative ideas initiated by a consultant without a medical license naturally drew cool reactions from the neighboring medical profession.
“Many things happen in the real world, totally different from what I used to write at McKinsey,” Oishi said, recounting the difficult starting days when patient numbers were far below the break-even point of 60 at Yoga’s clinic. “But if you keep working, you will be all right.”
The new practices proved beneficial for both patients and medical staff members, and the successful clinic developed into Platanus Medical Corp. that now has several branch clinics.
Strategically, Oishi tries to be a courteous listener to understand her clients and colleagues, who are mostly doctors and business consultants.
“When talking to such professionals, you shouldn’t try to win an argument,” Oishi said. “Instead, I’d find out about their needs and propose what we can do together.”
Today, Mediva has become a total health care consulting and operation company, employing over 200 people, serving all fields within the health care domain — from early detection, prevention and lifestyle management, acute and chronic medical care, nursing care to palliative care — in addition to consulting services for hospitals to drive financial and operational improvements.
In recent years, the company has expanded its business outside Japan in countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, undertaking health care projects in collaboration with public and private sectors.
One of Mediva’s key clinical interests is home health care, which is getting more and more imperative in Japan’s super-aging society where a fifth of the population will be over the age of 75 in 2025. Today, 80 percent of people who die in Japan do so in hospitals. If this rate remains the same, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s data suggests that the estimated 350,000 to 400,000 deaths per year will exceed the national hospital capacity by 2040.
“Breaking down the goal to establish a society, in which elderly people can live happily to the end of their lives, into its component elements, we find many challenges such as how to increase the human health span and how to solve the staffing shortage for nursing care. Home health care is one of the elements,” she said. “We are working on each of these challenges.”
Oishi admits that she is a person who loves to find solutions to challenges, perhaps by nature. “When I’m stuck, I like to figure out the next step,” she said.
New Generation Award
Miku Hirano, CEO of Cinnamon Inc., was already foreseeing the rise of China when she was in junior high school in the 1990s. When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she answered, “a condominium building in Shanghai.” Her parents did not buy her such a birthday present, but their open-minded curiosity for new gadgets allowed Hirano to play freely with the latest PC and mobile phones of the time at home. Even in high school, she already felt the era of mobile phones approaching.
Majoring in computer science at university, Hirano studied programming, similar to what Google’s co-founders had studied.
“I found that with this knowledge, I could create a service on the internet by myself,” Hirano said. While in graduate school at the University of Tokyo, she was awarded the Innovative Software Creation Program (Super Creator Award) by the Information-technology Promotion Agency and Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and co-founded Naked Technology Inc. with her peer Hajime Hotta in 2006.
“I wanted to create a new technology that may leave an impact on society, rather than doing my time as a company underling,” Hirano said.
However, it was not so easy to do business. One of the biggest issues Hirano faced was to find product-market fit (PMF), a widely used term among startups to mean the degree to which a product satisfies a strong market demand.
In this sense, Naked Technology’s initial service based on artificial intelligence (AI) was too early for the market. “Timing is very important,” Hirano said.
“It was hard to figure out how our product could meet market needs through trial and error in the dark,” Hirano recounted. Making some revenue after turning to middleware technology then to smartphones, Hirano and Hotta sold their company in 2011 and newly co-founded a predecessor company to Cinnamon in Singapore in 2012.
However, her struggle continued.
Cinnamon released visual communication applications for smartphones mainly for the Southeast Asian market, but again struggled in finding PMF. In 2016, Hirano reduced her workforce by half, returned to Japan and devoted herself to visiting potential clients and offering software in vain.
“Our company was about to run out of cash. In addition, I was expecting my first child,” Hirano said, recalling the tough days.
But when she mentioned the possibility of providing AI-based solutions to her clients, returning to her starting point, they suddenly altered their negative attitude toward her company. After that, Cinnamon successfully offered an AI-enabled document reader to a staffing agency that suffered from the burden of entering an enormous amount of personal resumes into its computer system.
“All companies face similar challenges,” thought Hirano, who further advanced the development of optical character recognition (OCR) using AI-enabled machine learning and deep learning.
In April 2017 in Tokyo at an event to introduce AI startups, Hirano gave a presentation on Cinnamon’s AI-OCR “Flax Scanner,” a system that can accurately read and extract necessary information from unstructured documents such as invoices, receipts, insurance claims and financial statements. After the presentation, participants from approximately 150 major companies lined up to talk to Hirano, who finally felt that she “found PMF.”
Today, Cinnamon provides business AI solutions, using OCR and voice recognition backed by deep learning, which enables enterprises to automate data extraction and processing tasks, reducing costs and speeding up operations.
Raising a total of ¥1.5 billion from investors so far, Cinnamon, headquartered in Tokyo, employs around 200 people globally and has offices in Vietnam, Taiwan and Silicon Valley. As for AI researchers, the company focuses on cultivating students from Vietnamese universities who are majoring in computer science and skilled at math.
“In Japan, there are very few students majoring in computer science,” Hirano pointed out, and introduced one of the company’s slogans based on the idea of becoming a company that has 500 AI researchers. “I believe it’s the CEO’s role to use impactful words in leading the company in one direction to make our vision a reality,” Hirano said.
A mother of two, Hirano strongly hopes to help make changes to society by the time her children grow up, especially in Japan, where many people still suffer from overwork. “Our company’s current achievement is just an early step to realize my final goal to eliminate all the repetitive tasks in the world with the help of AI,” the visionary entrepreneur said.