How studying anthropology led to a career making international connections: Ai Higashide’s journey

This article is part of a series of interviews with Rakuten Mobile employees. In this edition, we speak with Ai Higashide of Rakuten Mobile’s International Roaming department. Ai works with mobile carriers around the world to provide a seamless international experience for users of the Rakuten Mobile network.

The Rakuten Mobile team recently launched the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network, which you can read about here.

How did you begin your career?

After finishing high school in Japan, I went to study psychology, religion and anthropology at a university in the United States. I wanted to know the inner workings of the human mind!

While I was there, I went to visit a friend in Mexico and was blown away by the culture. Following graduation, I decided to go to Mexico to learn Spanish for a year. I soon found a job working for one of the Japanese automotive companies that have factories in Mexico. I ended up spending six years in the country, doing finance, administration, HR, procurement, then somehow production planning, before eventually returning to Japan. It was a lot of fun!

“The people at Rakuten are constantly setting themselves new challenges, taking on new, crazy ideas and somehow making them work.”

How did you come across Rakuten?

Back in Japan, I first found a job in Kobe for a company that imported shipping parts. Kobe is a port city, and I loved living there, but I was working in in-house sales, which really didn’t suit me. I love to talk to people and communicate, but with in-house sales, you’re just emailing all day every day, no talking.

After a year, I was looking for another opportunity when someone from Rakuten reached out and asked if I was interested in Mobile. I thought to myself, no, I’m not! I wasn’t that interested, to be honest — not at first! Still, they asked me to come and have an interview with the CTO, Tareq [Amin]. I decided to be open-minded and go and have a chat. The interview only lasted a short time, but after the first 30 seconds I thought, I really want to work here. He started telling me about his vision, and I was so intrigued. I could tell he was trying to do something completely new with Rakuten Mobile.

What kind of work were you doing initially?

At first, I was interpreting for Tareq, since he was working with a lot of Japanese stakeholders who needed the communication support. Because I had that opportunity to work at such a high level, I was able to learn so much about the industry and interact with so many different departments. It was a really good experience.

What is your role now?

Today I’m in the International Roaming department. Our work enables Rakuten Mobile customers to stay connected when outside of Japan. My role is with the commercial team, and we negotiate with operators in other countries to utilize their networks. There are about 300 operators around the world — companies like AT&T in the U.S., or Telcel in Mexico.

Right now, I’m looking at all the different networks — their scale, pricing and coverage — to work out who we should work with and in what capacity.

What kind of people do you work with?

Our department is particularly diverse. We have people from England, Jordan, Spain, Japan, India. Working out international roaming partnerships is something that requires a very global mindset!

Even between Japanese colleagues we speak English so that everyone can understand. I think it’s very inclusive in that regard.

Ai Higashide (bottom center) with teammates at Rakuten Crimson House in Tokyo.
Ai Higashide (bottom center) with teammates at Rakuten Crimson House in Tokyo.

What’s the best thing about your job?

We get to interact with so many other departments within Rakuten Mobile. Sometimes it’s difficult to coordinate between the sales teams and the network teams, but in international roaming, we get to see both sides of the equation. I like being that window between the departments, communicating and solving problems together.

There are so many different people with different skills and talents, and coordinating all these inter-departmental projects and seeing them to completion is really exciting for me!

“Our ultimate goal is to make everyone’s lives better.”

How is Rakuten Mobile for someone without a technical background?

It’s definitely been a learning process for me. There are people here with 10, 20 years of telco industry experience, and to begin with it felt like we were speaking different languages. I used to get lost in all those abbreviations — IPX, SS7, API, etc . But now that I understand them, I feel like I’m living in the future!

What is your mission at Rakuten Mobile?

Our ultimate goal is to make everyone’s lives better.

Just years ago, we didn’t even have smartphones, and it cost absurd amounts just to talk to your family from abroad. But now with all these messaging apps — you can video call anyone for free! That’s getting into sci-fi territory.

On the network side, we’re implementing virtualization and automation and all sorts of cutting-edge technologies to make that experience even easier.

“Every day is a learning experience at Rakuten Mobile. No one joins with complete knowledge.”

What kind of person works well in Rakuten Mobile?

Someone who likes to learn. Every day is a learning experience at Rakuten Mobile. No one joins with complete knowledge.

Really, you just need to be open-minded and ready to try anything. The people at Rakuten are constantly setting themselves new challenges, taking on crazy ideas and somehow making them work. If that’s the kind of person you are, then you’ll fit right in!

Ai Higashide works in Rakuten Mobile’s International Roaming department, where she works with mobile carriers from around the globe to enable Rakuten Mobile customers to stay connected no matter where they are in the world.

Visit Rakuten Mobile’s LinkedIn page for job postings, announcements and more info.

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