Janelle Reiko Sasaki: Born in northern California, third generation Japanese family, attended University of California Berkeley, worked at Cisco Systems, currently director of diversity and inclusion services at a major global auditing firm in Japan.
Making an impact takes more than the work of just one person, and to become an influencer requires a lifetime of learning from and collaborating with others. In this new series of features from kay me, we explore the trailblazers and entrepreneurs who go out of their way to achieve their dreams, those who embody kay me’s core values and who have something to teach us all.
Born in northern California and raised on a peach farm, Janelle Sasaki was one of only five Asian students in her high school, giving her a truly personal insight into issues of diversity and inclusion. As a former competitive gymnast, she experienced first hand what it meant overcome challenges, and has since brought this perspective to all aspects of her working life.
What’s keeping you busy these days?
Lots of speech writing and public speaking! A large part of my role is marketing and branding our advisory diversity and inclusion services. As a result, it’s important to share our expertise externally and within the Japan marketplace, this is a new service so we need to build our credibility. I feel fortunate that I have been invited to many international speaking opportunities on diversity and inclusion around the world.
My advice for public speaking is to prepare even more than you think is necessary. Try to bring in personal stories to connect with your audience, but also remember that data drives decisions – this is especially true of my industry.
“There are so many skills you can’t learn in a classroom”
How do you unwind and relax on a day off?
I was a former competitive gymnast (now retired, of course) and working out has been a regular part of my routine. I enjoy exercising. For me, it’s a way to relieve stress and knowing that I am taking care of my health and wellness, it has huge benefits and is good for anti-aging! Sometimes during my workouts, I get inspiration and innovative ideas come to mind about career and life.
My experience in sports certainly shaped my leadership style. There are so many skills you can’t learn in a classroom: how to work hard, set your goals and get results, as well as working in a team and overcoming adversity. Once you’ve fallen during a routine in a major competition and then got back up and finished – there’s nothing you can’t do.
When did you decide you wanted to get into diversity and inclusion?
It was a process and journey, not necessarily a one-time event. I’ve always integrated diversity and inclusion in all my roles because it made business sense, and I had passion for creating change. For example, I created diversity scholarships to increase our talent pipeline and make an impact for the recipients by presenting resources and job opportunities – we specifically looked at university sports teams as they have great skills already, and are a major untapped pipeline in terms of new working talent. Eventually I was branded as a diversity and inclusion expert.
Who has been the biggest influence on your life and why?
May I share two people? For family, most definitely, it’s my mother: she raised three children as a single mother, and she taught me the importance of working and becoming financially independent. Outside of my family, I had a sponsor named Greg and he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He moved me to my next level in my career and offered me my first Global Diversity and Inclusion Manager position over four and a half years ago in Japan – he told me Japan would change my life. So, he’s the reason why I’m living and working in Japan today.
What has been the most challenging professional experience so far?
One of the first challenges I faced in Japan was the legacy and old school management styles. Of course, you can run into different leadership styles in the U.S. and in under any circumstances in any country. At times, I faced some old school unconscious bias as a woman and foreigner. How did I overcome and deal with this challenge? I had to be more than 100% prepared in meetings… I had to be 150% prepared. And sometimes, I needed to compromise and do things I would otherwise would not chose to do.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into your industry?
I recommend the “three Es” of experience, exposure and education to develop your understanding and skills in diversity and inclusion, it’s a challenge to learn about in a classroom, the person needs to experience it in real life.
Build relationships and your network of people implementing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Start simple, by conducting an informational interview to understand a typical day in the life of a diversity and inclusion manager, and volunteer for an internal and/or external diversity network.
“I want to support Japanese female entrepreneurs and the sewing industry in Japan”
What attracted you to kay me?
I discovered kay me when Junko Kemi presented at a women’s entrepreneurial event three years ago. I love fashion, and immediately loved her wrap dress designs inspired by Japanese kimono and culture. I take weekly lessons in nihon buyo [classical Japanese dance], so I really appreciate kimono designs.
I also like the comfort of the dresses, and it’s easy to wear during my international travel plus I can wash them without dry cleaning. From a social inclusion perspective, I want to support Japanese female entrepreneurs and the sewing industry in Japan and make ethical choices when buying clothes. It’s a challenge for me to buy from other designers now after wearing kay me.
Janelle’s travel essentials:
Buddhist prayer beads: These beautiful purple beads were a gift from my grandmother, and give me such a sense of peace and support as I know she’s always with me.
Umeboshi [pickled plums]: My family is originally from Fukui on the Japanese coast, so it’s natural for me to love umeboshi. Just like an apple, an ume a day keeps the doctor away!
Eco-bag: California started charging to use paper and plastics bags from shops, so it’s become a habit for me to bring my own reusable bag even now in Japan. I bought this one Hawaii when visiting family there, the print is just so happy.
Scarf: I always carry a scarf with me when I travel – I easily get cold on planes, I think it’s my Japanese side!
Stockings: Lanvin stockings are a great neutral shade which I know matches my travel work wardrobe. They’re a little pricy, but the quality is great and it’s good to treat yourself to something special now and again.