Women Hold Up Half the Sky

SAN FRANCISCO (09/01/2000) - Chieko Kimura thought she was on to something three years ago when she founded a school to teach Japanese women how to become entrepreneurs.

"Japanese women have limited career opportunities in big corporations," says Kimura, creator of the jyuku, or cram school, for female entrepreneurs at the Kyoto Research Park - a business incubator that houses about 130 companies, nearly half of them involved with the Internet. "When they wanted to launch their own companies, the support was not there. I wanted to offer seminars that could support their ambitions to bring their companies to the public."

In 1997, Kimura set up a course for aspiring female executives that meets once a week for 10 months. About 30 women applied the first year. "I was surprised by their enthusiasm," she says. However, she gradually realized that few women aspire to be high-octane entrepreneurs. "Most of them wanted to open their small businesses, but not necessarily to run some high-growth venture businesses." Kimura believes that's because women in Japan are typically raised to be followers, not leaders with great aspirations.

Each year, more men requested admission to the course while fewer and fewer women did. Initially, Kimura resisted admitting men because she thought they had easier access to training at Japanese corporations, which often educate male managers to cultivate future executives.

But when 23 men and only seven women applied this year, Kimura relented. Twelve men and five women were accepted into the program.

"We did not want to lower our admission standards," she says. "When we looked at applications this year, men turned out to be more business-savvy and knew more about what corporate marketing is all about."

Nonetheless, the school is having a positive impact on a few women.

Noriko Teramoto, a 36-year-old computer programmer who completed the course last spring, says the program was valuable in helping her make her own way in Japan's male-dominated economy.

"Once you pass 35, you just cannot find new jobs, especially when you are a woman," adds Teramoto, now president of Digimom Workers, a Web-services firm she founded after finishing the course. "You cannot get big contracts when you are just an individual business owner. I wanted to take responsibility for what I do, and for that, I had to establish a company."

Teramoto worked as a computer programmer at a large company for nine years, but when she returned from her 12-month maternity leave she was asked to leave. She came to KRP last year looking for the management skills required to start her own company.

Teramoto says the class' emphasis on discussion differs from traditional Japanese education in which teachers dispense knowledge and students simply absorb it. "It was stimulating to meet with people who had similar career ambitions," she relates.

Kimura says she was worried those discussions might be stifled by introducing men into the class, but so far that hasn't happened, even though most of the male students work for major corporations and the women are either housewives or part-time professionals.

"Women in the class don't seem to be overwhelmed by men," she notes. "And men seem to regard their female classmates' opinions as fresh."

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