Below is a Q&A with Eriko Yamaguchi of Motherhouse.
Haegwan Kim: You’re helping developing countries through producing bags — was that what you wanted to do, or did you realize that’s what you wanted to do during the process?
Eriko Yamaguchi: It’s the former.
HK: I’m just wondering whether you’re happiness links to other’s happiness. In your case, does contributing to developing countries mean to increase your own happiness?
EY: Well… I hope both connect one another, but we sometimes work for projects which are not necessarily for others. So our primary is not others, it’s ourselves.
HK: So working needs personal incentive first?
EY: Yes, I think so.
HK: Today, many social entrepreneurs appear in various areas saying that their motivations come from “other’s happiness”. You disagree with them? By the way, I agree with you in many ways. Through my projects, I realized that I would fail if I seek incentive from others. So, I always look for the reason from my inside.
EY: … Otherwise people can’t keep on, I think. If you work on just projects for others, I doubt that can be sustainable.
HK: What is the biggest lesson you learn from Motherhouse’s activities?
EY: When I founded the company, I had some sort of certainty to make my ideas happen — even that’s invisible — and I made it real. Our company is still a venture, but having six stores, making tens of thousands of bags per year, I feel there’s nothing we can’t do. That’s my biggest lesson.
HK: When you founded the company, you overcame uncertainty, concern and stigma which Japanese female entrepreneurs often encounter. Why?
EY: The imagination of success surpassed my all concerns.
HK: Don’t you link your activities and developing countries?
EY: Of course yes, but that’s a long-term view. We’re now just focusing on creating better products. It’s not time to talk about the big picture yet.
HK: Bringing developing countries’ products to developed countries – this model is now proliferated in many countries but when you started the company it wasn’t. What was the reason you chose this model?
EY: I didn’t think about the model at all. I even didn’t consider selling. I just started to create great bags.
HK: Wow, you’re brave! Then the beginning was a tiny challenge…
EY: Yes, through selling and making bags, we’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking, then we found our model. We created a website, we failed, then we went to whole trade, we failed and finally we had our own store.
HK: Let’s get back to our first topic of success. I always ask this question: what would be your advice be to achieve success? You told me “do what you want to do” at first, but there’s plenty of people who even don’t know what they’d like to do. Do you have advice for them?
EY: I think you have to keep on working. Continuing your work — I wrote about this in my book, which is “keep walking” — it’s the key. Whether you fail or succeed totally depends on whether you keep on working or not. If I stop working in the first year, I would fail. But since I tried to continue our projects, now we can see success. Many people have the thought, “if I’d keep on a little bit more.” But it’s difficult. The last thing that drives you is an attitude of challenge.
HK: I see, then you never failed? I mean, you can stay on top of everything until success?
EY: What I’m most afraid of is the time when I can’t keep working. For example, breaking my body, having an accident, something like that. But as long as I can keep on working on my own challenges, I’d like to do it.
HK: What is your motivation to work on so many things?
EY: It’s a habit.
HK: Habit? [Laughter]
EY: In sports you can’t do anything if you don’t practice well before the match. The same thing goes for a company. So I make bags constantly to keep my attitude. It’s really like a habit. [Laughter]
HK: I’ve heard you did Judo. Did it help you with this idea of habit? Or did any child education help you maintain this attitude?
EY: Of course Judo did, but education is also important into adulthood. For instance, improving customer service always and linking service with the number of sales — these experiences would be your nourishment and they are practicable, mentally. Hard work, then you make it. Then you can see, “Oh, this works well.” What’ the important is continuing those experiences, earnestly.
Eriko Yamaguchi is the founder of Motherhouse. Translated by Hagewan Kim.