A candid shot of the Gojo team at a recent members' meeting in November 2020

Since starting my career, I have worked for a few organizations that practiced diversity in different manners. As I’m in charge of HR at Gojo now, I’ve been working on increasing diversity, drawing on my lessons learned from past experience. In this blog post, I’d like to share my experience so that this might help those interested in joining Gojo or provide food for thought to those interested in promoting diversity at their organizations.

Diverse global firm, homogenous local office

I started my first job at the Tokyo office of a global firm. Despite being a part of an international company, the corporate culture of the Tokyo office was very Japanese back then (2005), due to the fact that Japanese staff accounted for the large majority of employees. I felt a strong pressure to conform to the social norm of the Japanese male-dominated corporate culture, which made me uncomfortable and created unnecessary stress, not only at work, but also at informal gatherings outside the office. As someone with a minority trait, I felt suffocated that I needed to adjust to the behaviors expected by the majority. 

Fortunately, this situation changed completely when I got a 1-year assignment in Germany. I was  assigned to cross-border projects which had an international team setting. Having team members from multiple countries, there was no need to force myself to adjust to a certain culture. I felt more comfortable, and started to perform better at work.

There was an incident which made me realize the benefit of diversity. When the end of the 1-year assignment was approaching, I started to feel stressed about going back to the Tokyo office. When I was casually lamenting about it, my Turkish and Mexican team members told me, “Why don’t you change your contract to Germany? You enjoy working here, so it makes more sense to stay.” 

Before they brought it up, I had never thought about changing my contract as all of my Japanese colleagues were going back to Japan after the 1-year assignment. However, my team, coming from a different background, raised an otherwise very logical point to prioritize what was better for my performance and mental health. I actually managed to change my contract from the Japan office to the Germany office, and ended up staying there for 3 years. It became a turning point of my career. Without this question from my team, my career could have been very different.

From this, I learned that people can perform better in an environment where they don’t need to worry about unnecessary social pressure, and also that diversity brings new perspectives that question one’s common sense.    

Intentional inclusivity at an international organization

Prior to Gojo, I worked for IFC (International Finance Corporation), which is part of the World Bank Group. I believe IFC must be one of the top organizations when it comes to embracing diversity. Its staff represent more than 150 nationalities, and work across more than 90 countries. In addition, IFC is owned by 185 member countries, who keep an eye on the organization’s pursuit of diversity as its shareholders.

IFC’s policy on diversity manifests in many HR processes as something similar to “affirmative action”. For example, in recruiting, there is a clear target for diversity. I joined IFC through the Young Professional Program, and out of 10 colleagues who joined IFC at the same year, exactly 50% were women, and 50% came from emerging markets, including 3 from Africa. 

Another area in which IFC’s diversity goal can be seen is promotion. There is a certain target to promote gender equality in management, or promote staff from under-represented regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa. To be honest, it can be frustrating at times when you are the one not prioritized by these criteria. However, diversity brought much more benefit than detriment to me, as I felt free to be myself without worrying about social stigma or intolerance. I felt protected as well, supported by many HR policies and welfare programs which were inclusive and available to all who have various family or personal situations. 

From IFC, I learned that diversity leads to HR policy and an atmosphere which make not only specific groups, but everyone, feel comfortable at work.

Gojo’s principles on equality

When I was looking for jobs in Japan where I hadn’t worked for 13 years, my biggest fear was whether I could adjust back to Japanese corporate culture. I came to know Gojo for its work in microfinance, the sector I also covered at IFC; however, the biggest reason I chose Gojo was its corporate culture, which is far from the typical Japanese work environment I was afraid of.

What I personally think makes Gojo special as a workplace is its sympathy to minorities and underprivileged people, which is exemplified in Gojo’s mission and values. The CEO himself, Taejun Shin, is a minority and has had his own struggles in life. When I was debating whether to accept the offer to join Gojo, I asked for lunch with Taejun and shared my personal story being a minority. He immediately showed his understanding and made me feel accepted. Based on our own experiences, we share the same view that the more diversified the environment is, the more people can thrive. 

When I started at Gojo in mid 2019, diversity was relatively limited, with a mostly Japanese team. Since then, by expanding our recruiting efforts, we have managed to build an international team made up of members from India, Taiwan, Myanmar, China (Uighur), Singapore, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, and beyond.  

Celebrating a visit from our Cambodia- and Germany-based colleagues to the Tokyo office

How Gojo is evolving through diversity

There are many positive changes we have witnessed from the increased diversity. First, new perspectives have been brought on the way we work, from our communication style to work-life balance. For example, Japanese tend to prioritize consensus-driven decision making until reaching the best possible solutions, while Europeans tend to make quick decisions and then improvise along the way. In terms of work-life balance, when Europeans take vacations, they tend to take a week or more off at a time, whereas Asian people tend to take a day or two here and there. We don’t make quick judgements on which way is better, but we learn from each other and reflect on the areas for improvement and change.

Second, diverse cultures are giving us an opportunity to train ourselves to be better at handling cultural differences. In 2020, we certainly faced more cultural conflict than before, due to different backgrounds not only in terms of nationality but also profession (e.g. engineers and management consultants). Having overcome such conflicts, the individuals and also the company as a whole have become better at imagining the other side’s perspective, which is critical for our business, where we always imagine how our clients in the field live their life. 

However, Gojo still has a long way to go. Japanese nationality still accounts for about 50% of our holdco members. The management and board of directors are all men, except for our newest board member, Royanne Doi. And needless to say, diversity goes way beyond nationality and gender, to cover various aspects of one’s background. 

I believe that diversity will question the status quo and promote innovation, which is necessary to achieve our aspirational mission to extend financial inclusion to 100 million clients. As the person responsible for Gojo’s HR, I'd like to contribute to creating a workplace where everyone feels comfortable and passionate about pursuing the best version of themselves.

Takao Takahashi leads Corporate Planning, strategy setting, and HR at Gojo. Prior to Gojo, he spent 7 years at IFC as an Investment Officer, and was previously a Prime Minister's Fellow in Bhutan.