How an international education changed my life: Diversity drives innovation

Above image: My father, Ryoichi Mikitani (far left) during his time as a Fulbright Scholar.

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.

It was a Fulbright scholarship that led to my father, Ryoichi Mikitani, becoming one of the first generation of Japanese scholars to travel to the United States after World War II to study. Thanks to the program and to the warm hospitality of his hosts, he successfully pursued economics studies at Harvard and then at Stanford that set him on the road to academic success. This also inspired him to revisit the U.S. with his family in later years and led to my good fortune to be there with him.

It was my exposure to the diverse talent of the United States since my formative years that convinced me that diversity is the driver of innovation. Japan has many unique qualities that are very dear to me, including a spirit of teamwork and a sense of the value of humility, but sometimes we can be inward-looking. We need to open our eyes and minds to the world.

By supporting the Fulbright program now with a personal ⁠donation, I feel very fortunate to be able to honor my father’s memory, as someone who benefited so much from the openness and generosity of the American spirit and its great educational institutions.

My father, Ryoichi Mikitani (far left) with me (far right) and friends at Harvard Business School.
My father, Ryoichi Mikitani (far left) with me (far right) and friends at Harvard Business School.

A view of a bigger world opened up my boundaries

After his experience with Fulbright, when I was seven years old, my father was offered an opportunity to be a visiting scholar at Yale University and we moved as a family to the United States.

This was my first chance to go to the U.S. At the time, one U.S. dollar was equal to 360 Japanese Yen, so we couldn’t afford much. I remember my family couldn’t buy Halloween costumes that year because it was too expensive. After all, my father was on a public servant’s salary.

But one thing we did have was time ⁠— and we used some of that time to take to the road. We drove all around the United States in an unairconditioned Volkswagen Beetle, staying in motels or in the tent we kept in the trunk. I’ll never forget the time I woke up in the car and right there in front of me, there was a huge dip in the ground. My legs were shaking as I looked upon the Grand Canyon for the first time.

This was the moment I realized how big America is – and how big the world is too. This image of vastness has never left me, and it has influenced me to always think not within the boundaries of Japan, but globally.

Discovering “entrepreneurship”

At my graduation from Harvard Business School.
At graduation from Harvard Business School.

In 1991, I was selected by my employer, the Industrial Bank of Japan, to go to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree in business. I followed in my father’s footsteps by going to Harvard. My vision at the time was to complete my studies and then return to pursue my career in investment banking. But while I was there, I heard the word entrepreneurship for the first time. Before that, I hadn’t even heard of the concept.

It was during my experience at Harvard Business School, where I encountered so many talented young people, that I realized the driving force of the United States of America was entrepreneurship. That realization really changed my dream and vision. So when I returned to Japan, I decided to take the giant leap from the safety of a big Japanese bank to start my own company from scratch. Using only the savings I had in my own bank account and without raising any venture capital funding, we started Rakuten.

And now, here I am today.

About the Fulbright-Mikitani Memorial Grant

The Fulbright Program was established in 1946 by legislation by the late U. S. Senator J. William Fulbright and is the U.S. government’s flagship international exchange program. With the mission to deepen mutual understanding, since 1952, the Fulbright Program in Japan has supported over 6,600 Japanese and 2,900 Americans to research and study in each other’s countries.

On February 3, 2021, the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission (Fulbright Japan) announced that Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO of Rakuten, Inc., personally committed to establishing the Fulbright-Mikitani Memorial Grant through a private donation of ¥90,000,000 (nearly one million USD) to support future Japanese participants in the U.S. Fulbright Program.

For three years, from 2021 to 2023, this grant will support five to six Japanese students annually to pursue Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in a variety of fields in the social sciences and humanities at U.S. higher education institutions. Japanese applicants of all backgrounds are encouraged to apply, and, like all Fulbright grants, the Fulbright-Mikitani Memorial Grant will be awarded through an open and merit-based selection process.

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