Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Minami Tsubouchi

Featured Image: Minami Tsubouchi, Jackson School of Global Affairs World Fellow, Photo by Tony Fiorini


By Irene Kim


Minami Tsubouchi is an entrepreneur for leadership development, especially for youth under adversity. Tsubouchi founded BEYOND Tomorrow, dedicated to providing financial aid and leadership development modules to youth with socioeconomic disadvantages. As of this year, her organization has supported close to 700 young adults. Until 2003, she also worked for an international NGO in Afghanistan, running landmine risk awareness projects that would educate women and children about the danger of mines. From 2010-2011, she worked in Bahrain for the Kingdom’s Economic Development Board to diversify its economic base. Among her many accomplishments, she has also served on the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Hiroshima Global Academy’s advisory board, and the U.S.-Japan Leadership Program of the United States-Japan Foundation’s advisory board. She was awarded Nikkei Woman of the Year 2013 by Nikkei Woman Magazine and was selected as one of the AERA Leaders for 2020 by AERA Magazine, Asahi Shimbun. Now, Tsubouchi is a Yale Greenberg World Fellow in order to reflect on how she can enhance her work on youth leadership on a global scale. Recently, Tsubouchi graciously sat down for an interview with the Globalist. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


What led you to your current career path? What made you want to become an entrepreneur and found BEYOND Tomorrow? 


I never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur. I started BEYOND Tomorrow in response to the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, which killed close to 20,000 people. At that time, I was actually living in Bahrain, where the Arab Spring was happening. So I was between two historic events, and I questioned myself as to how I could actually be most useful. I decided to go back to Japan to start a new project to help young survivors of the disaster because what was happening in Bahrain in its geopolitical context seemed too big for one person to make a significant difference. The disaster-affected communities in Japan were going through real emergencies and one person’s difference was needed, so I decided to go back to Japan to start the organization. There were many other young leaders who were willing to support the launch of the organization, and we started with 17 founding members including political leaders, business figures and NGO people that I had met at different junctures of my career; Among the 17 of us, I was the one who took on a full-time role to kickstart the project with two teammates that we hired. Right after the launch of the organization, we decided that we were going to be providing financial aid and also organizing leadership modules for our high school and university students of disaster-affected communities. And the philosophy behind it was that adversity makes great leaders – those who have gone through unimaginable grief are gifted with a sense of compassion and abilities to act for those in need. So it was not meant to be a charity project for the vulnerable— it was more of a leadership effort to discover and invest in hidden talents rising out of despair. We wanted to reach out to young people in disaster-affected communities who have leadership potential and aspirations to rise as leaders that can make a difference in their hometowns. In 2016, we decided to expand the original focus of the project to all over Japan and support youth facing other types of hardship including losing parents, being abused by parents, and/or living under foster care, and by this year, we’ve supported close to 700 young adults with financial aid and leadership opportunities.  


What have been the largest challenges that arose in founding BEYOND Tomorrow? 


Well, I think the biggest challenge was to make sure that we stayed aligned with the long-term mission. The mission was to nurture leaders of the next generation from a pool of young people who have gone through different hardships. But when we are focused on day-to-day operations, it’s not easy to stay aligned with the long-term mission necessarily. On one hand, we work with each student on the micro level, and on the other hand, we have to fulfill the expectations of the donors who are willing to support the project. And many times, I think there’s a temptation to make the project more of a charity, —helping the poor — compromising on the long-term vision. But then, our goal was to transform the conventional view to see the disadvantaged youth as vulnerable into a new value that their difficult upbringings will help them rise as leaders that can make a positive change for society. Making sure that we are doing the work for that cause, not just to help the poor, is the biggest challenge, I think, but the most important and rewarding one as well. 


The next thing that I wanted to talk about is your work in Afghanistan and Bahrain. Do you mind talking about your experience? What was it like working in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in Bahrain during the Arab Spring? 


My first job after getting out of college was at McKinsey. I was a business analyst there. I saw 9/11 happening on TV in my second year at McKinsey. Seeing that happening on TV, I just realized that anyone’s life might end at any moment, and if that was the case: am I doing something that I’m really passionate about? And my answer was no. I always wanted to go into the humanitarian assistance field, so I applied to this international NGO and they said the only place they could send me to was Afghanistan. So I went there. We were running landmine risk education projects in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is one of the most contaminated countries with landmines in the world, so there are many people being killed by landmines every year. Our project was teaching — particularly women and kids — about the danger of landmines so that people would not go into minefields. I was there until September 2003. The time in Afghanistan taught me the importance of education and leadership development as well. When I first got to Afghanistan, that was around the time when people who had fled from the country had started coming back. So, at the moment, we could really feel that education was making a difference. And also, seeing what happened last year, I did feel that if we had been able to nurture visionary leaders, that could have helped build a better future for the country. The landscape could have been different last August when the Taliban came back to take over the government.  


You also served on Bahrain’s Economic Development Board. What were the challenges you experienced there?


I went to Bahrain from 2010 to 2011. Bahrain is an oil-producing country, but it’s trying to diversify its economic base with an intention to diverge away from an oil-dependent economy, and the Economic Development Board’s mission was to bring different types of businesses, like banking and manufacturing, into the country. I was in the Global Marketing and Communications Department, and my role was to improve the profile of the country by inviting global flagship events into the country, including Formula One and the Golf Championship. But then in February 2011, the following year, the Arab Spring happened. The whole uprising actually occurred right in front of my apartment building. I could not leave my apartment building for one week. My building was surrounded by tanks and people were being shot right in front of my apartment building, so it was a big shock to me. What I realized there was that even though Bahrain was trying to be a destination for investors and businesses, there was a big gap between what the country was trying to achieve on the economic level and what was actually happening on the political or civic movement level. Bahrain was trying to be business friendly, but then what happened in February 2011, during the Arab Spring, made that message difficult to convey to the world. So, finding a coherent message during that situation was a big challenge but it taught me the reality of making things happen in the part of the world where the way decisions are made is completely different from the West. In retrospect, it was definitely an indispensable experience.


You are spending this semester at Yale as a World Fellow. What drew you to apply for the program? How is the program going so far?


After running BEYOND Tomorrow for 10 years, I wanted to take a step back and reflect on the work I had done. I wanted to think in a broader context about how I could scale the work in a way that could be more helpful for the world. To this end, I hoped to understand what was happening in the world, not just through media, but by learning from other leaders who have been working for different causes to make society better. And I knew someone who’d done the World Fellows program more than 10 years ago, and having heard that story, I thought this program would give me an opportunity to position the work that I have done in the bigger context and think about how I can actually make it better and take it to the next phase. When you are focused on day-to-day operations of the organization, you just really don’t have time to think about the longer-term. 

Having joined the program, it’s been fascinating. The best part about it is the people, definitely. It’s 16 of us coming from different parts of the world, doing different but extremely important things for our communities, sometimes risking the lives to fight against certain things. Learning about what’s happening in the world and the different ways to make the world better through others’ personal stories has been the most striking thing for me. 

I also very much appreciate that people here really root for you and offer unwavering support when you speak about your dream out loud. It is something very special about American culture, and it has encouraged me to chase my dream to build a global platform for youth leadership and dialogue.


How are classes going? / What classes are you taking and why? 


Within the fellowship, we have skill-building sessions, like media training and communication workshops. There might be similar courses in business schools or policy schools, but what makes it really different here is that you actually learn these skills by interacting with other Fellows who have gone through real-world experiences. Some of them have real life stories to tell, so acquiring these skills with these people is a unique experience that you cannot get anywhere else. We also have discussions on ways to make changes, and these discussions have brought the world so close to me. There are so many issues that put people’s lives at stake I didn’t even know about, like how someone’s life was affected by the political landscape in Belarus. All these things that are being told by these Fellows have brought the world really close to me. Even though I thought I was paying attention to what has been happening in the world when I was in Japan, this live environment has made a whole lot of difference. 


As an entrepreneur and advisory member for various humanitarian assistance initiatives, do you have any advice for students who might want to also work in humanitarian assistance?


If you’re interested in humanitarian assistance fields, humanitarian assistance is really about being around people and having respect for each individual. I think, when you are a student, it helps to meet people, hear their stories, and learn to put yourself in their shoes because each individual has a story to tell, and relating to it is the start of the journey in humanitarian assistance. I think it’s a great privilege that you can meet a lot of people — particularly in a place like Yale, where you’re so privileged to be surrounded by such a diverse and talented group of people all around you. The second thing probably is to know what your passion is and what you really like. If you’re going to be doing it for a long time in your career, it’s got to be something that you are passionate about, rather than something that you think will impress others. Knowing your true passion will help you live your own life, chase your own dream, and speak your own words instead of having someone else take decisions on your life. And that will probably be the core, wherever your journey takes you to.  

Irene Kim is a first-year in Berkeley College. You can contact her at irene.kim@yale.edu.