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Treat everything neutrally: What D&I means to Mercari’s CLO

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There are people with very diverse backgrounds gathered at Mercari. For us, Diversity & Inclusion is not a special initiative, but a philosophy that dwells in our everyday business. We interviewed one of the members who have been thinking about and putting into practice how we can make a more energetic and comfortable workplace for everyone.

Yoshiaki Sakurai is Mercari’s CLO (Chief Legal Officer), leading the Legal Teams in both Mercari and Merpay, but also is active in many ways promoting D&I at Mercari group. A meeting with someone of a certain minority sparked his realization of the importance of viewing everything neutrally. We talked to Sakurai about the universality of the D&I.

What’s most important is the natural, positive motivation for everyone to participate

– First, can you explain why you decided to join Mercari?

Sakurai: I joined in March 2018. Mercari was right in the middle of its huge growth, and there were still quite a lot of things that needed to be done. Mercari was just starting work on the mobile payment service Merpay, so I decided to join because I thought I could utilize the financial law knowledge I gained in my previous job. Having top talent in various positions all working in the same place was also appealing, and I felt like I would be able to grow here. There were a number of reasons.

– What impression did you have of the Mercari service?

Sakurai: From the very beginning, I had the impression that Mercari was very particular about making sure the service is easy for anyone to use. It’s trying to be available for all kinds of people. As a company, Mercari hires talent from all different backgrounds equally, regardless of where they’re coming from or their nationalities, so it felt like they were working to create a diverse organization. I was particularly impressed when the US CEO John Lagerling was appointed as a director.

Yoshiaki Sakurai (Chief Legal Officer)

– What do you do at Mercari?

Sakurai: I supervise legal affairs, and lead the Legal Teams in Mercari and Merpay. I’m also active as an ambassador for the Diversity & Inclusion Team. This is something I do as an individual, not as part of the legal division.

– What kind of things do you do as a D&I ambassador?

Sakurai: D&I at Mercari started off as a club. We gathered volunteers and started working bottom-up, which I think shows how open Mercari’s culture is. Mercari has three D&I communities: Multicultural, Pride, and Women. Of those three, I help support the Pride community. I participate in regular meetings, help come up with messages we send externally, plan events, connect with other people in the legal community that work with D&I…

– What kind of events do you hold?

Sakurai: In May, to go along with Pride Week, we did a “Rainbow Pride” project to create a rainbow pride flag using pictures of Mercari employees. We also regularly host Lunch & Learn events, where we invite guest speakers to talk about D&I, and volunteer to participate in LGBT-related events. One objective is to increase awareness of Pride-related topics and events within the company, but most important is the natural, positive motivation for everyone to participate.

You never know who might become a minority at any time or place

– How did you become interested in D&I?

Sakurai: As someone who has studied law to become a lawyer, I strongly feel that lawyers are supposed to defend human rights for all people. But what made me particularly aware of minorities was one case I was involved in when I was a legal trainee at Japanese national Judicial Research and Training Institute.

– Can you tell us more?

Sakurai: I had the opportunity to interview someone involved in the case, and since it was related to what happened, he told us that he was gay. Apparently he realized he was gay after his wife passed away. He was around 60 years old, and had children. In my head, I knew that that kind of thing happened sometimes. But it’s not often that you meet someone like that and get the chance to talk to them. This was over 20 years ago, and society’s reaction to sexual minorities was totally different than it is now. After talking with that man, I was strongly aware than you never know who might become a minority at any time or place. The person sitting next to me could one day realize that they’re gay. Even I might feel like that someday. And that’s natural.

– That sounds like a very formative experience.

Sakurai: It was. My experience studying in the US was also very memorable. In the US, Asians are a minority, and people whose first language is not English are a minority from that standpoint too. And my previous job was in a company whose main office is in overseas, so in certain work environments, I wasn’t always in the majority there either. Depending on the time and place, someone usually in the majority may end up being in the minority, and vice-versa. That’s why I believe it’s important to view everything neutrally.

– Is there anything D&I-related you would like to do in the future?

Sakurai: As I said earlier, D&I at Mercari started out as a club and was built bottom-up. As a member of upper management, I think that supporting these bottom-up activities is an important part of Mercari’s culture. To give some examples, I want to create a D&I statement and advertise it around, and increase recognition of the D&I community both inside and outside of the company. When it comes to hiring, I want to show everyone our attitude of unbiased hiring regardless of the candidate’s background.

– So you want to use your position in management to spread D&I’s message and build a D&I-focused organization?

Sakurai: That’s right. But we need to be careful. One topic that’s disputed often in the US is “affirmative action,” which gives minorities favorable treatment. Many people are concerned that this is actually reverse discrimination. At Mercari, we think it’s more important to reject the concept of excluding or discriminating against minorities than to simply set quotas and arbitrary numbers to reach. This is something to keep in mind not just in making hiring decisions, but in creating work environments and systems. We want to share this attitude with our users, too. I’d like to push for openness and fairness across our service as a whole.

– The Mercari service is designed to be open and available for everyone. I feel like it’s fundamentally similar to the D&I ideology.

Sakurai: I agree. Mercari is a service that aims to eliminate waste from the world and give fair chances to everyone. But we’re not just doing D&I because it goes well with our business. I think it’s important for all businesses to deepen their understanding of diversity and create systems and ideologies, no matter what kind of business they run. In Mercari’s case, it fits well with our business model, and people started working on these activities from the bottom up. In some ways, this may be the ideal.

– I see. That makes sense.

Sakurai: To go even further, I want to reach a state where these things are natural, even without having to promote D&I. We need these movements and messages because some things aren’t going well. Raising our voices should not be the goal; I want to create a world where all of these things come naturally.

In this job, you have to imagine both the good and the bad

– What issues does D&I still have to work on at Mercari now?

Sakurai: I think that if we’re talking about whether all Mercari employees really understand the stance I’ve been talking about and the D&I statement, we still have a while to go. But I also think that there are many members who just naturally and unconsciously accept it. We have members from around 40 countries, and members of sexual minorities too. But most members just accept this as normal. We haven’t really been able to convey this culture to people outside of the company yet, so I’d like to spread the word.

– What are some things you would like to do next?

Sakurai: D&I is not a standalone project. It is a stance that we want to spread to all of our potential applicants and users of Mercari and Merpay all over the world, and that we want to become natural. People tend to think of D&I as something that’s only for certain groups of people, but that’s not true. We already share it widely within Mercari, but I want to go even further and spread it to the industry as a whole. If there are better ways of tackling these issues, we want to know them too. I want to create opportunities to share knowledge both inside and outside of the company. D&I is often talked about in legal terms, and there are lawsuits alledging that not recognizing same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. In order to convey the idea of thinking not just about what the situation is now, but what we should do to change it in the future, I hope to help by running community activities and utilizing my connections with the legal community.

– I think everyone should learn a thing or two from this mindset.

Sakurai: In this job, you have to imagine both the good and the bad. To do so, you use tools given to you by the law. The law isn’t black and white; there are some gray areas that aren’t clear no matter how closely you read the text. You can often look at past cases and legal precedents to predict the future. But some of the things Mercari is trying to do don’t have any precedent. So we might just be imagining how things will go in every situation.

– It sounds like you’re exploring a brand-new area with no signs to guide you.

Sakurai: As we rapidly gain more and more employees, Mercari is in the middle of a tremendous change. I want to keep an eye on both society and Mercari and identify the important movements. I think this is the neutral attitude that’s most important.

Yoshiaki Sakurai

Sakurai began working at Nishimura Law Office (currently Nishimura & Asahi Law Office) in April 2000. In May 2011, he joined the legal department at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities Co., Ltd. He then joined Merpay as the Legal Head in March 2018. In February 2019, he was appointed Mercari’s CLO (Chief Legal Officer). Graduated from the University of Tokyo Faculty of Law and New York University School of Law (LLM). Sakurai is a lawyer registered both in Japan and New York.

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