Eight Keywords for Delving Into Mercari: Our First 10 Years and the Potential and Future We Seek to Unleash / The Fourth Keyword: “A Diverse Organization”

February 2023 marked the tenth anniversary of Mercari, Inc. We now have a new Group mission of “Circulate all forms of value to unleash the potential in all people.”

Here at Mercan, we have kicked off a new series feature called “Eight Keywords for Delving Into Mercari: Our First 10 Years and the Potential and Future We Seek to Unleash,” where we will shine the spotlight on the thoughts and dreams put into this new Group mission and what we intend to achieve in the future. We will hear from key people who will lead Mercari into its next era, and try to paint a picture of the present and future of the organization that is Mercari to help us imagine how we can contribute to the company in the coming ten years.

For the fourth article of this series, the keyword is “a diverse organization.” We spoke with Jeff LeBeau (@jeff; Vice President, Chief Executive Officer (Marketplace) / Director of Souzoh, Inc.), Aiko Cho (@choco; Mercari D&I Team manager), and Hiroaki Tanaka (@napoli; Souzoh engineering manager) about how D&I has evolved at Mercari, how they plan to apply the new Group mission to D&I efforts, and what they think of as the ideal “diverse organization” that Mercari is aiming for.

Featured in this article

  • Jeff LeBeau (@jeff)

    Vice President, Chief Executive Officer (Marketplace) / Director of Souzoh, Inc. After graduating with a BSc in Economics from the University of Oregon, USA, Jeff worked as a freelancer in localization and development of global expansion strategies for web services. From 2014 onward, he worked with venture and mega-venture companies in both Tokyo and Silicon Valley. He joined Mercari US as Business Operations Manager in June 2017 and transferred to Mercari JP the following year to work on developing data-driven business strategies. Jeff was appointed Vice President of Analytics in 2020 and assumed the position of CEO of Mercari Japan in January 2022. He has been in his current position since July 2022.

  • Aiko Cho (@choco)

    D&I Team manager at Mercari. Aiko joined Mercari after working as a television reporter, working at Johnson & Johnson, then working in Sales, Biz Planning, and HR at Recruit. In her current position, she is one of the members central to promoting D&I at Mercari.

  • Hiroaki Tanaka (@napoli)

    Engineering manager at Souzoh, Inc. After graduating university, Hiroaki joined a mobile website development company as a software engineer. He started his own business in 2010 after holding positions at several companies. There, he worked on social network game development and operation as company representative. Following this, he joined Souzoh in 2017. At Souzoh, he was involved with development of projects including Mercari Maisonz and Mercari Now before transferring to Merpay in 2019, where he helped launch Merpay Online Payments. In 2021, he joined the current Souzoh.

From personal feelings to company initiatives: The grassroots beginnings of D&I at Mercari

——First, I’d like to ask about Mercari’s effort to create a diverse organization in its first 10 years. Why has Mercari decided to place so much emphasis on diversity?

@jeff:Since Mercari was first established, we have always aimed to become a global marketplace. As part of this, we’ve worked to create services that are easy for people of any background to use, rather than focusing on specific demographics. In order to do so, we need diverse viewpoints and perspectives within the company. So it was really a necessity to work toward having diversity and an inclusive culture.

Jeff LeBeau

@choco:The term “diversity and inclusion” (D&I) began to be used widely within the company in 2017, four years after Mercari was established. That was when we began heavily recruiting non-Japanese engineers in order to further our work toward becoming a global product. As the organization became more diverse, members began taking on D&I initiatives as a grassroots project. In 2019, we launched an official D&I Team as part of Mercari’s HR division.

Since then, we’ve carried out various initiatives to promote D&I, but promoting D&I was never really the end goal. We’ve always thought of D&I as something essential to achieving our mission.

——@napoli, you were already part of the company when D&I efforts began in 2017, right? What was Mercari like when the number of non-Japanese employees started increasing?

@napoli: I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was a major division between Japanese members and non-Japanese members, but I do remember that it wasn’t very easy for everyone to get used to working with each other. There were much fewer Japanese members who could speak English than there are today. We frequently ended up with teams made up of only Japanese members or only non-Japanese members, because communication caused difficulties otherwise.

@jeff:In meetings that used both Japanese and English, it was hard to ensure that everyone understood the content to the same extent. You’d get people coming up to you after meetings asking for clarification because they didn’t understand something. I can speak both Japanese and English, so it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that there was a problem. But I soon realized that just because it wasn’t a problem for me, that didn’t mean it wasn’t a problem for other people.

——Language and nationality differences are pretty easy-to-understand examples of D&I. What other initiatives or efforts has the D&I Team worked on?

@choco:We’ve done so many different things. For example, we started the Unconscious Bias Workshop in 2019. This is a workshop to help individuals obtain the skills to recognize unconscious biases they might have, like thinking women aren’t fit for leadership positions, and question those assumptions.

There’s also Build@Mercari, which was launched in 2020. This is an online training and internship program that focuses on people who, for any number of reasons, have not received certain opportunities in life. The program particularly emphasizes support for women and members of the LGBT+ community, groups that are especially underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and tech fields.

One thing that’s unique about D&I at Mercari is that we share our knowledge and findings as openly as possible, rather than keeping them within the company. We work with other companies and various stakeholders and try to create a positive impact on society. Another unique point is that many of our initiatives are started by people who feel strongly about D&I and proactively volunteer to take the lead. Rather than projects pushed top-down by the company, our efforts are led by individuals based on their experiences and feelings, which means that everyone involved is enthusiastic and passionate about what we do.

Aiko Cho

——I can see how strong personal feelings would generate enthusiasm for the projects. As central figures in Mercari’s D&I efforts, do you three have any particular experiences that made you feel strongly about the topic?

@jeff:For me, it was struggling with my own nationality and identity. My father is a US citizen and my mother is a Japanese citizen. Through elementary school, I grew up seeing myself as Japanese. But I moved to the US when I started middle school, and when I moved back to Japan to start work when I was 20, I was treated like a foreigner because of my appearance and my name. Not just in work, either; in my daily life, I often get asked to show my residence card as ID because people assume I’m not a Japanese citizen. Eventually, it became so much that I even had a time where I actively tried not to think of myself as having any particular identity so I wouldn’t be hurt by other people.

@choco:I’ve also experienced struggles over my nationality as a Zainichi Korean (ethnic Korean permanent resident of Japan). When I was a kid, there was even more discrimination than there is now in processes like applying to higher education or applying to jobs. I grew up being told that I would be at a disadvantage compared to Japanese people with the same scores, so I had to score even higher to compensate. Japan didn’t feel like my home, but Korea didn’t either; I went to Korea for the first time when I was 20, and I was told to get out of a restaurant because I could only speak Japanese. Just like @jeff, I put my identity aside and focused on getting people to accept me by achieving results too good for people to ignore. But that changed when I first experienced the concept of “equal opportunities” at Mercari. I realized that rather than just trying to prove myself as an individual, I should be thinking about what I can do to change the state of the world for the next generation, and for generations after that. That thought is a strong driving force behind my D&I efforts now.

@napoli: My experience is rather different from @jeff and @choco’s. The growth of the internet has accelerated the movement to recognize the diversity within society. I felt great potential there. The ability to easily get to know people of different nationalities and in different environments made me notice things we had in common despite all the differences, as well as recognize the assumptions I had been making with no real basis. This movement to acknowledge our differences will continue for the next 10 years, 20 years, or even more. I want to promote D&I to fully commit to that movement.

Hiroaki Tanaka

——I see! It makes sense that new opportunities brought about by the internet became a major factor for thinking about D&I.

No end goal—as society evolves, the way we face D&I will have to evolve, too

——Mercari recently formulated a new Group mission, “circulate all forms of value to unleash the potential in all people.” How do you think this Group mission will affect Mercari’s D&I efforts going forward?

@jeff:I think this new mission has made it easier for all employees to think about D&I on a personal level. The “all people” part of the Group mission includes not just our users, but all of our employees, too. Thinking about our work as unleashing our own potential in addition to our users’ potential should make D&I feel much closer and more personal.

@choco:In this mission, creating a circular economy is the “how,” and the real goal is unleashing the potential in people. It’s a goal that will take a long time to achieve, but because of that, it makes you think about the persistence of the organization. In order for the organization to adapt and survive for a long time, we need to strengthen D&I even further.

——What areas are you focusing on in your efforts to strengthen D&I?

@choco:The one thing I can say for sure is that we’re looking at the “culture add” approach. So far, Mercari has emphasized culture fit in building our organization, and that has certainly supported the company’s growth. But I believe that, going forward, it will be important to welcome people who add new perspectives unlike anyone we’ve seen before and leverage those differences. While we will have to be careful to maintain our foundation of mutual trust, I think the friction that will come from having an influx of new perspectives should actually drive D&I forward.

@napoli:I think the Souzoh engineering organization also needs culture add. Right now, many of our members are Japanese men in their 30s with senior engineer-level skills. Everyone is excellent, of course, but it’s not the most diverse organization. This homogeneity was a strength in launching the business, but in order to grow into a product that is easy to use for all different kinds of people, diversity is important. Going forward, we plan to recruit new graduates and interns. We want to work toward being a place where people of all genders and ages can thrive. While candidates will of course be expected to already have some level of technical skill, I think it’s important to have a work environment where people can continue to improve and refine their skills after they join.

I also think that there is plenty of room for improvement in our service. It doesn’t support multiple languages, for example, and may not be the easiest to use for people with disabilities. I’d like to discuss how to make the service more accessible going forward.

——What is your ideal vision for D&I at Mercari?。

@choco:I want to see Mercari as a place where people can enjoy differences more openly, rather than treating them as a problem to be solved. If we get too caught up in making absolutely sure not to say or do something that could upset other people, we end up holding back around others or avoiding certain topics entirely. But that’s the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead of being scared of our differences, I think we should aim for a foundation where we can have fun and even laugh about them.

@jeff:I sometimes encounter people who are unsure of how to approach me because they can’t tell whether I’m Japanese or not. But honestly, I’m happy when people are interested in me, and I’d rather they just ask questions directly. I wouldn’t be offended. When we talk about D&I, we tend to think of challenges and conflicts, but fundamentally, meeting people of different backgrounds should be exciting and fun. I want to make sure everyone knows that.

@napoli:In addition to framing D&I as a fun and interesting thing, I want to share specific methods for being inclusive of people’s differences. For example, we have something called a “Workstyle Sync,” which is a workshop in which team members share personal information such as what is important to them in their work, things they want other members of their team to know about their family or health, and their ideal workstyle. When a team openly discusses things they want each other to know, they are able to ensure psychological safety and deliver higher performance working together. I’d like to publicize more initiatives like this.

——I imagine it will also be important to quickly adapt to societal changes, too.

@choco:Of course. When it comes to D&I, it’s important to move discussions forward across society as a whole, not just one company. I was reminded of this just recently, actually. A woman leader I know told me, “I can’t wait for metaverse technology to advance so I can work virtually without anyone seeing my gender or appearance.” I think she was half-joking, but she was serious about feeling pressure as a working woman.

I can totally understand where she’s coming from, but there was also a part of me that thought, “Is that really the best way…?” In the metaverse, individuals can detach themselves from their identity. But wouldn’t doing so make it even harder to see our differences, and in turn make it more difficult to leverage those differences for innovation? I don’t have an answer to that right now, and I think different generations probably feel differently about it, too. But I do think that it’s important to talk about what D&I means in the context of these technological and societal changes.

@Jeff:D&I doesn’t have an “end” where we can say, “Okay, we’ve achieved peak D&I, so we’re done now.” As society evolves, and as we evolve, the way we face D&I will have to evolve, too.

@choco:With the new Group mission, I think Mercari will evolve as well. As we circulate all forms of value, both visible and invisible, there may be times when we unintentionally hurt or upset someone else. That shouldn’t scare us away from what we’re doing, but I hope we can all have a healthy sense of awareness and unite our diverse imaginations to create a company that unleashes the potential in all people.

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