SKYAH's founder on staying behind the scenes, being your own guide, and sofa days.
Yukari is the founder and CEO of SKYAH Co., Ltd., which imports and promotes authentic finished products from Africa, and assists Japanese companies and organizations expand their footprint in Africa. She is also the founder of MY DREAM. org – a non-governmental organization set up in 2012 to support the village of Bognayili in North Ghana, with a vision for helping children pursue their dreams. One of MY DREAM’s goals is to create a totally self-sufficient ecosystem of sustainable businesses and social return activities in Bognayili village by 2022.
Yukari was born in 1986 and grew up in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, in the Shikoku Region of Japan. After graduating from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, she joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ United Nations Policy Division, and completed a Masters’ degree in Global Health at Columbia University. She gained experience as a diplomat working in various African countries, leading several initiatives related to health, education, trade, agriculture, aid, and humanitarian issues, before founding MY DREAM and SKYAH. Yukari was included in Forbes Japan’s “List of 55 Women with a Sense of Mission”in 2016, and currently divides her time between Japan, Africa, and Asia.
How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?
I think of myself as a “Kuroko” – the stagehands who dress in black and support the dolls in Japanese puppet kabuki theatre. My passion is to assist African and Japanese entrepreneurs in achieving their goals and deliver better value, but my role is always behind the scenes, and the spotlight is always where it should be – IE. Firmly on them.
What's the most exciting thing happening in your life right now?
All the discussions I’m having with entrepreneurs about new ideas for sustainable development, and the possibilities they will open up. The fact that these are people who aren’t afraid of creating things from scratch or making mistakes, and have the determination and ownership needed to truly make things happen. The fact that we have a deeply-held shared belief in what we are doing. It’s so different to the conceptual dialogue you might typically associate with big corporations, for example! These discussions are alive and real, and you can literally feel the positive impact and value – however big or small – that will come out of them for so many people as a result. It’s these possibilities that really excite me!
Which figures (historic or present, public or private) played the most important influence in your life so far?
My father, who passed away in 2015. He was a business owner and entrepreneur, and passionate about the community. From when I was a child, he would talk about believing in your dreams, and about pursuing them. To be your own guide, and not expect anyone else to guide you. That when you set out to achieve something, if you listen to your heart to find the steps that will take you there, the pathway will become clear. But that you must always make your best efforts, and you must always take responsibility for your decisions. To be an adult who takes the driver’s seat in life – that it is your life to live, and no one else’s, and that the responsibility always lies with you. To own your failures, and not be afraid of making mistakes. To stay humble, and to always learn from others. And to never forget that whatever you achieve is the result of the people around you.
What's been the biggest failure/mistake you've experienced in life or work so far? What did you learn?
I’ve made so many mistakes! One that comes to mind was during the early years of MY DREAM – the NPO I founded in 2012 to support a village community in Ghana. One of MY DREAM’s goals is to be self-sustainable by 2022 – and we are already well on the way to achieving this. However, for the first two years we were completely reliant on donations. It was my responsibility to raise this funding, and to manage relationships with our donors. Our projects were starting to fall behind schedule, and I became concerned we would not be able to meet our deliverables on-time. I started asking the villagers involved in our project to move things faster, telling them we needed to keep the promises we had made to our donors.
One day, I sat down with my co-director to go through all the things that weren’t going to plan. He listened patiently, and then started to explain why the delays were happening. It turned out that many of the people on the project were going through some serious difficulties in their lives, including with their families. Managing these issues was a significant burden on top of the work they were doing. Listening to their stories, I suddenly realized my focus and priorities had been in the wrong place. The whole time, I had been concerned about meeting deadlines and keeping our donors happy. I had lost sight of the people we were actually trying to support. My job should be to represent them, and to empower them, while helping our donors to truly understand their real-life situations and the best efforts they are making to work towards our goals.
Since then, I’ve always been mindful of how important it is to see things from all different perspectives. I’m so grateful to my colleague for helping me to have these realisations early-on. Otherwise, our program would not have made it this far.
Looking back, what key pieces of advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
Don’t be afraid of making shifts in your life – moving from the comfortable into the unknown. Just don't worry about it: the path ahead will open up if you believe in yourself.
And to be mindful about who you spend your time with. Surround yourself with people who make you feel positive about life and about yourself, and who give you energy and good vibes!
What key values do you live by?
To always be true to myself, and to “walk the talk”.
What keeps you up at night?
When I’m thinking about the projects I’m working on. I get so excited when I have new ideas, and even end up dreaming about them!
What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?
The fact that however hard things get, I am 100% confident that people will benefit as a result of what we are doing. Knowing this keeps me totally motivated.
What are your morning rituals for getting a great day going?
To be honest, I’m not really a morning person and don’t have any set routines for getting my day going! Still, I usually wake up feeling excited and energized about the day ahead, because I’m lucky enough to love what I’m doing. Having said that, if I have time, I do like to put on a simple hydrating face mask after I wake up. And then, depending on my schedule and how I feel, some days I have tea or coffee and a bite to eat – and on other days, I have nothing at all and just get up and go!
Where/when do you have your most "A-ha" or "lightbulb" moments?
Usually when I’m reading. I’m not a book person, but tend to read lots on the Internet, as well as magazines and articles etc. When I’m reading, I often find it gives me new ideas for the projects I’m working on – sometimes totally unrelated to the topics I’m reading about!
How do you energize outside of your work?
I enjoy looking for new organic ways to detox and destress. Finding exotic spices and ingredients from abroad and using them to make something new back home in my kitchen always gives me a thrill.
What's your guiltiest indulgence?
Occasionally I’ll have days when I wake up and feel like doing nothing – and spend most of the day reading manga on my sofa. But it’s never something I feel guilty about, as I see it as important time for detox and relaxation!
Also, I love carbs – especially good pasta – but as I’m doing my best to keep fit and in shape these days, I try to limit myself to indulging just a few times a month!
What's on heavy rotation at home right now?
I often work while listening to music, but have no specific preferences. I usually run a search on YouTube, like “uplifting, work, focus” etc., and see where it takes me.
Favourite travel destination?
Ghana. Especially Northern Ghana. The region is resplendent with nature and all different kinds of animals, including livestock, just running around free among the communities. People are so friendly, respectful, and humble, which has taught me a lot. Year by year, the region is also evolving socially and economically.
Top bucket list travel destinations?
Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia – the largest salt flat in the world. I saw stunning photos of the place some time ago, and have never been able to forget.
What will you be doing post-retirement?
I don't know whether I'll ever retire (lol)! I hope I’ll be able to keep on doing what I am doing now, for which I’ll need to stay sound and healthy for as long as I can!
And to close with, your favourite quote?
有言実行 (“Walk the talk”) and 無知の知 (“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”). These two quotes describe what I learned from my experiences working with villagers in Bognayili, Northern Ghana for MY DREAM projects. They’ve taught me how little I know and how much I need to learn to move forward. And that it is they who, more than anyone else, are the ones walking the talk.