Be creative to make social impact | TFC Summer Fellow Reflection, Akihiro Ota

My summer internship in Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) and Soles4Souls (S4S)

-Be creative to make social impact-

Could you briefly share you academic and professional background?

I graduated from Doshisha University in 2010 with a B.B.A in International relations.Prior to graduation, I interned at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington D.C. to deepen my understanding about international relations, and confirmed that finance is important to make impact globally. After graduation, I started to work in a large Japanese securities company that is the market leader of impact investing in Japan. During my first year, I worked in sales to sell stocks, bonds, mutual funds and some impact investing products to retail investors. Then, I was assigned as an Asian equity sale and business planner to work in Hong Kong and covered Asian equity markets for five years. Global business experience helped me to realize that studying about how to lead a global team is important, and I decided to earn my MBA at Vanderbilt because the school is excellent to learn about Human Organizational Performance.

What was the path that led you to get involved with the TFC at Vanderbilt?

When I was 14 years old, I was selected as a student ambassador from my hometown in Japan to visit Lansing, Michigan. Since then, I desired to make impact globally. In college, I traveled to a lot of emerging countries to learn what I could do in the future. In the process, I learned about impact investing. During my professional experience, I

Aki in Austria through an Owen Exchange Maymester program earlier this summer.

recognized that the Japanese impact investing market is growing quickly, but is still far behind the US market. I knew I needed to learn more about the difference between the two markets. Therefore, before I decided to come to Owen, I met and talked with previous TFC Summer Fellows and learned what I could learn and gain through the TFC’s activity. Since I would like to expand impact investing, I was interested in learning about the character of the social impact market, where social enterprises make impact, and how I can attract more investors to the social impact market by having a professional experience in US, which as the largest social impact market in the world. The TFC mentored and helped me to reach the social impact market in the US.


How was your experience as a TFC fellow this summer? Please share some details regarding your partner organization and the project you were working on.

This summer I was a fellow at the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA), which supports US social enterprises to increase their revenue, as well as Soles4Souls (S4S), which supports microenterprises in emerging countries by selling shoes and apparel at low, affordable prices. SEA provides consulting services and partners with several large profitable corporations to connect social enterprises with markets to expand their business. I was in charge of a strategic business planning project for SEA in which I conducted a survey, running research, and meeting with social enterprises nationally. I also launched several projects to add more capacity and partnership for SEA. At the same time, I was a fellow with Soles4Souls (S4S) to reach to non-American companies to increase shoe donations for S4S to sell to microenterprises in emerging countries. Although working for two organizations made me busy, I thought having an experience in a social enterprise helped me to gain more insight. Since S4S had business experience almost only with American companies, I also helped S4S to understand different cultures and values. These experiences definitely helped me to capture the trend and demand in the US social impact market.

What advice would you give to students who hope to pursue a TFC fellowship?

A TFC fellowship experience will be a very different experience from normal summer internship compared to the MBA internship experience, but we can make a fellowship a very unique and creative experience by our own effort. I actually worked for even one more companies to deepen my understanding about impact investing by gaining support from the TFC and the center’s network, and believe I really had a good professional experience this summer.

How did your fellowship challenge you and facilitate your learning?

Prior to this fellowship experience, I had never worked as a business strategist in a small organization passionate about expanding its impact. Therefore, I needed to understand the role and expectation for a strategist, but also understand the business trends in the US social impact market. To achieve SEA’s mission, which is to make an impact by increasing the revenue of its members, I really needed to understand the demand and needs from social enterprises to make a clear and correct business plan for SEA.

To be a very productive strategist for SEA and to develop my professional experience in the highest level, I constantly met with social enterprise leaders and I had an open mind to get critical feedback from colleagues, supervisors and any stakeholders. I also occasionally discussed my learnings and projects with professors from several subject areas. The experience in a different business culture helped me to expand my perspectives, because I used to work at a large financial company who has more than 15,000 employees in Japan.

Through my fellowship, I learned three important things. First, I can have much more confidence about working in a strategy role. I had previously worked as a business planner in Asia, but had never taken the primary role as a strategist. The hard work and support I receive this summer definitely helped me to gain confidence in my business skills. Second, I recognized the importance of brainstorming and creative thinking. Typically, the large companies or organizations I’ve worked with prefer to use an existing framework or procedure to save time or to have a coherent business practice. However, by providing consulting services to social enterprises where people generate new business ideas every day, I saw the value of having flexibility and an open mindset. Brainstorming about any business idea with a supervisor or social enterprise definitely helped me to develop that mindset. Finally, I understand that thinking about the creative solution is crucial to work as a business leader, because it encouraged me to study and search harder to bring feasible ideas as often as possible.

Now that I have professional experiences in both large financial companies and smaller social impact non-profit organizations, spanning work experience in Japan, Hong Kong, Austria, and US, I am developing much more confidence in becoming a global business leader who can make a significant impact globally.