How a tough childhood inspired a Japanese student’s MBA journey

Growing up after Japan’s 1990s bubble burst gave Masahiro Okumura the drive to become a leader

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Masahiro Okumura, who grew up in Japan, has a bachelors degree in business from Boston University. He has worked in investment banking and a private equity fund focusing on the Asian energy sector. He completes his MBA at National University of Singapore this month

The future, said Eleanor Roosevelt, the campaigner and long-serving former US First Lady, “belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”.

Masahiro Okumura © Liang Zi/ImagineChina

Growing up, my childhood was far from hopeful. My family faced $12m of debt after Japan’s economic bubble burst in the 1990s, leaving us to live in fear of sometimes threatening creditors, while my mother fell severely ill. I felt hopeless and powerless about the future and struggled with low self-esteem.

Determined to turn my life around, I studied hard to get into the high school I dreamt about and later obtained my bachelors degree in the US. Pursuing my dream has been a driver to push myself further and a compass in my life.

Because of my parents’ struggles, I wanted to make them happy by becoming a capable businessman. My past led me to see the importance of developing business skills and insights, and I chose finance as a way to do so. After two years in the investment banking industry, I switched to a private equity fund focusing on the energy sector, where liberalisation was expected.

I worked day and night, but most of the deals we had hoped to complete in the changing energy market did not happen and within a year more than half of my colleagues became disillusioned and left. My closest friends were now gone and I felt isolated. However, it was through this job that I felt the strong growth potential in Asia and found myself wanting to become someone who creates business with his own hands. Yet because of my focus on finance, I lacked the knowledge and experience needed to become a business leader in Asia.

I wanted to learn practical marketing skills, develop networks and gain insights about business in fast-growing Asian countries, so I decided to do an MBA. Singapore is the hub of Southeast Asia, where money, people and opportunities flow in. The National University of Singapore Business School, ranked by the Financial Times among the top schools in Asia and with its diverse student body, seemed the best option. I woke before 5am every morning to study for the GMAT, the graduate management admission test, hoping to again change my life.

Once on the MBA, I began a new journey, and its impact on me was far greater than I expected. The diversity of my classmates forced me to develop a proactive attitude and leadership skills in order to reach agreement amid the varied opinions in team meetings.

My favourite class was marketing, where we suggested solutions to business challenges faced by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and had the general manager and his team evaluate our proposal. This enabled me to apply theories we learnt in class to real-life situations and made me ponder what a realistic marketing plan should be. These skills and the leadership experience helped me to succeed in my internship at Johnson & Johnson and to get a full-time offer from the company.

Most students lived on campus and we often exchanged business insights and stories about rapidly changing Asian countries. It was incredible to learn from my classmates, who were entrepreneurs or came from large family firms, about how they conduct business and what made them successful, as well as visiting them in their home countries across Asia. These insights inspired me to commit to my career and to become an inspirational leader in Asia.

NUS also has great partner universities such as Tsinghua University in Beijing, where I spent the final term of my MBA. There, I met world leaders including François Hollande, the French president, Tim Cook of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. These encounters deepened my conviction that Asia is the right place for my career and inspired me to think big and aspire to be a game-changer.

I believe that the next innovation will emerge around the intersection of information technology and healthcare and I decided to pursue my career in this field to help people who have health problems, as my mother used to. The MBA not only gave me practical business skills and strong networks, but also offered me a vision for my future.

Just as Eleanor Roosevelt advised, I will keep believing in my own potential and continue to pursue my newfound dreams — to contribute to the world as a business leader in Asia.

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