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The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity: Q&A with So Inc. founder & CEO Kiko Uehara

Written by Taro Ishida Published on   5 mins read

Kiko Uehara wants Japan to become more accessible to the world.

The 2020 edition of the Singapore Fintech Festival brought a new online format that had many events running simultaneously around the world, including World Fintech Festival Japan (WFFJ) which was successfully organized by newcomers So Inc.

So Inc. was founded by a former senior producer at Japan’s Nikkei, Kiko Uehara, in August 2020, with the aim of providing platforms to showcase Japanese thought leaders to the world. With a strong passion for connecting world-class talents, creating collaborative solutions, and deciphering problems, Uehara is looking ahead to see how he can help Japan move forward into a new era for business.

KrASIA recently spoke with Uehara about his experiences organizing an event during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

KrASIA (Kr): What has been the demand like in Japan for online or hybrid events?

Kiko Uehara (KU): Everyone wants to have more connections at meetings. I’ve seen lots of online events happening but I think the number of attendees is not so great. The biggest difference between virtual and physical events is the engagement and dedication of the attendees. In the past, if I attend the Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) I have to physically fly to Singapore so my whole week is dedicated to this effort.

Now, everyone is doing something in between and can be distracted by remote work so it’s very difficult for the organizer to capture the audience’s full attention while keeping them engaged is very challenging. I don’t know if we should put too much effort into online events because if you check YouTube, you have great talks already there by great people as well.

Kr: What was the motivation behind launching So Inc. this year, during a very disruptive period for events, and what have been some of the challenges that you’ve had since launching?

KU: In every crisis, there is an opportunity. The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity. I think this is the best time for me to start something new because all the big players cannot run events like before. The size of the event is now comparable as they are run by very small players like So Inc. and the big corporates.

Because of this pandemic situation, SFF had to go online so they were unable to invite international speakers physically anymore. That’s where the whole idea for WJJF came from because they wanted to connect every partner in the world to make a global SFF this year. This might be the only opportunity for Japan to have an SFF event with the Monetary Authority of Singapore as next year, if things get back to normal, they want to bring people to Singapore again.

Kr: What inspired you to cater World FinTech Festival Japan to an English-speaking audience when typically events like these are all in Japanese? 

KU: While I was at Nikkei we would have events with the official number of attendees at 10,000 or 20,000 sometimes, using 17 venues across one whole week. We invite good speakers to the stage which is very international. It’s called a global event, but it’s not really. The audience is 100% Japanese, and we only invite Japanese media so whatever is discussed is very domestic-focused. The media reports will be published domestically and nothing will be delivered to the rest of Asia or anywhere which has been a big concern for me for several years.

The problem is the size of the market in Japan is quite big, it’s one of the world’s biggest economies so corporates, banks, or startups don’t have to look globally. They can just concentrate at home and if they do well in the Japanese market they make a decent amount of money. We had a very difficult time finding a sponsor for the WFFJ because most of the corporates target Japanese customers. It’s crucial for Japan to open the gate to welcome new global talent or sending their young talents to Asia for world experience.

Kr: The language barrier in Japan is quite a large one to overcome. What needs to happen to alleviate that?

KU: When we organized WFFJ we were asked why not just use simultaneous interpretation. But we really wanted everyone to speak English, regardless of whether their English is good or not. When I see an event with simultaneous translation or subtitles I feel it’s really not coming from the heart when you hear someone else’s voice or subtitles. We may have a strong Japanese accent but every country has its accent.

Once you have a successful case like the WFFJ to show, more people will be encouraged to join this movement. I think that we just need one or two more successful events to create this momentum and things will really change over the next year.

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Kr: What are some of the broader changes and trends you’re seeing in the Japanese startup ecosystem?

KU: The US-China trade tensions have been happening for a couple of years now so US firms cannot invest in China, and China cannot invest in the US. Where is a good place for advanced technology investment? It’s Japan, but the capital is not really flowing here because of the language barrier.

The one good thing is there is now some foreign limited partners are putting money into Japanese funds. This also means they get access to foreign networks that the Japanese VCs don’t have. People are not recognizing that this is a good opportunity.

There are a lot of hidden gems in Japan but it is not well known internationally because of the language barrier. People want to know about what’s happening in Japan for startups, good technology, how the university spin-off startups are doing but there is no information.

We need to share all the good things about Japan with the world, and then welcome new global talent in. We can mix Japanese thinking together with global ideas, this is necessary for Japan, but hasn’t happened yet. That’s what we aim to do, I want to try to create platforms to discuss how we can take this opportunity to the whole of Asia.


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