If you told me 5 years ago that I would be on a US State Department sponsored speaking tour across Japan, I would have laughed and said, "No way. I have too many tattoos for that gig."
Japan has one of the lowest female participation rates of developed economies. Economists estimate that the Japanese could increase gross domestic product up to 15.6% if they can boost the female labor participation rate to that of men (62% vs. 80%). During the past year, Japan has seen a surge of interest in empowering businesswomen since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has staked his political reputation on his "Womenomics" initiatives to encourage Japanese corporations to promote women into 30% of corporate executive positions by 2020.
When the US Embassy in Tokyo originally asked me to consider doing a 5-city speaking tour, I knew I wanted to be part of this conversation. I've traveled to over 60 countries as a photo-journalist, interviewing women from Burkina Fasso, to Pakistan, to Thailand. This time, I wanted to hear the stories of the next generation of Japan's female entrepreneurs.
They were as inspiring as I thought they would be. I met incredible women like Misato Oi, a 19-year-old who is determined to write her own future. She shows tremendous cultural sensitivity, yet has pledged to discuss subjects that many people, regardless of age or culture, can be reluctant to bring up. She speaks boldly about gender inequality, new options for men, mental illness and suicide. I have seen her face into her own fears, and raise her authentic voice. In different cities, I encountered the same theme: women across Japan shared Misato's passion to challenge the idea of business as usual.
I vowed early on to make this presentation one of the most artistic I had ever delivered. I am passionate about mixed media, and I put my heart into this project. On stage I sang, danced, and even donned a superhero cape. The message was that no matter where we are, being a woman these days isn't about following the path -- it's about creating our own path and designing our own lives. It's about surrounding ourselves with inspiring female role models, both older and younger. And I was so inspired by these women in Japan.
Some people have called me crazy, because I refuse to fit in. But as women like Misato Oi and I learned together, the problems of tomorrow won't be solved with the solutions of yesterday. The people who are crazy enough to break today's rules will be the ones who pioneer the future.