Every year at the Rakuten Technology Conference held in Tokyo, the Rakuten Technology & Innovation Awards are presented to recognize individuals, organizations and products that have helped transform society through advanced innovation. The most recent Rakuten Empowerment Award went to Takeshi Izuka, a Japanese entrepreneur empowering aspiring engineers in Southeast Asia.
From salaryman to serial entrepreneur to education evangelist in Cambodia
Izuka established the Kirirom Institute of Technology (KIT) in 2014 atop Kirirom Mountain, a four-hour drive from the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. The school connects Cambodian students with Japanese IT companies, who sponsor the students’ education and provide a springboard to help launch global careers in the IT world.
But Izuka’s journey didn’t begin in education — rather, it began as a salaryman in Tokyo, working for consulting giant Accenture. In 1998, Izuka left the firm to take on his own project, founding a web analytics company called Digital Forest. His startup rode the initial internet wave to become one of Japan’s most important players in the field, but global competition led him to sell the company to communications giant NTT.
“Selling the company was not an enjoyable experience,” Izuka laughs. “With the Lehman shock and competition from Google, the shareholders got a bit scared.”
Not ready to retire, Izuka took the opportunity to travel and see the world. “I approached it with a scientific, entrepreneurial mindset. Previously, I hadn’t been thinking about the global market, which is why Digital Forest’s product ended up falling short to a free service from Google.”
For his next project, Izuka wanted to do things differently. After attempts to start businesses in China and India, Izuka considered moving to Saudi Arabia or getting into agriculture in Sudan, before eventually settling on Cambodia.
Cambodia: One of the fastest growing economies in Asia
“People often ask me ‘why Cambodia?’” Izuka says. “For me, it’s an obvious choice. Entrepreneurs get that straight away. In terms of GDP, Cambodia has nowhere to go but up. Whereas a country like Japan, on the other hand, might not have the same elbow room for growth.”
For Cambodia, much of the 20th century was marred by war, occupation and civil unrest. In some respects, the Southeast Asian country is still recovering today: Despite strong regional growth, the gap in the standard of living between the city and the country remains prominent, and universal education is still a challenge. At the same time, it was that potential for growth that sealed the deal for Izuka.
“It’s hard to do business in countries that already have a mature market. They don’t need help from other countries. Developing countries with growing economies — they’re looking for partners to help them compete on the world stage.”
Training global talent for the digital age
Upon arriving in Cambodia, Izuka acquired a large tract of land around Kirirom National Park, opening the vKirirom Pine Resort in 2011. The pivot to education came later.
“It wasn’t my original intention to found a university. But during my time in Cambodia, I began to notice a disparity in access to top-tier education,” Izuka recalls. “Finding good employees was tough.” There were also issues with human capital flight. “We would hire someone, give them six months of training, and they’d be headhunted by a big company in America.”
Izuka witnessed firsthand the sea of homegrown talent being lured to other countries. “The IT industry is always fighting to hire the best and the brightest talent from all over the world. It just felt wrong for Cambodian talent to be missing out on all the demand.”
The business model that Izuka landed on connects the potential of Cambodian talent with demand from the IT industry, without restricting the education aspect to only those who can afford it.
That’s why KIT, which opened its doors in 2014, provides full scholarships to talented Cambodian students, who live on campus and take courses in English. The school bases its curriculum on the Gartner Hype Cycle, which helps predict which technologies will be commercially viable in the future. Courses are taught based on the expected demand for technological skills in areas such as AI, IoT, mixed reality, drones and robotics.
Cambodia is closing the gap
For Izuka, Cambodia has a lot to offer. “Unlike Japan, English language skills are pretty much a necessity to ensure a reasonable wage here,” he explains. “Cambodia has a number of low-cost international schools where they teach the school curriculum in English. These language skills form the bedrock of communication in a global working environment — we may even be a step ahead of Japan in this regard.”
Izuka also appreciates the direct nature of Cambodian communication, as well as the country’s strong work ethic. “There’s a real do-it-yourself culture here,” Izuka notes. “I see Cambodian people try and try again until they succeed. This is a crucial mindset for entrepreneurs, which is why Cambodia has produced so many successful businesspeople.”
In the end, KIT revolves around a philosophy very familiar to Rakuten — empowering people through the power of the internet. “The internet is helping to close the gap between countries around the globe. It’s made it possible for any talented person in the world to succeed.”