The Power to Seize and Enjoy the Opportunities in Front of You: Two Mercari Leaders on Their Mindset and Actions for Personal Empowerment

At Mercari, we promote various initiatives with the aim of providing equal opportunities and appropriate support so that anyone can demonstrate our company values, regardless of their background.

As we just celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8, we thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on diversity within our organization. Mercari believes that gender equality, the fifth Sustainable Development Goal put forth by the UN, is also deeply connected to our Group’s mission of “Circulate all forms of value to unleash the potential in all people.”

As an introduction to our new series called “Creating New Value: Amplifying the Voices of a New Wave of Leaders,” we spoke to two of the leaders in our organization, Sayaka Eda (@Sayaka), Mercari CFO, and Miho Maekawa (@Miho), VP of Experience Design (Marketplace).

The stories shared by our leaders in this upcoming series are not just limited to audiences of specific attributes such as gender, nationality, or age. We hope their stories will empower all kinds of people to take ownership over their own career and pioneer the career path that they want.

Featured in this article

  • Sayaka Eda

    Sayaka completed her pre-doctoral course (master’s degree) at the Graduate School of Science and Engineering from Keio University Graduate School. In April 2006, she joined Goldman Sachs Japan Co., Ltd. After joining the company, she was engaged in investment/loan projects that utilize their own funds, etc., and was appointed as a Managing Director at the same company in 2017 based on her extensive financial knowledge outside of corporate finance. Outside of her work, she also serves as the Co-Chair of the Japan Women’s Network and leads the promotion of D&I. Sayaka became CFO in January 2021, later becoming VP of Corporate and CFO in July 2022. Since January 2023, she has been in her current position as SVP of Corporate and CFO.

  • Miho Maekawa

    After graduating from an art university in the US, Miho joined Microsoft as a UX designer and worked on the launch of the company’s portal site and its global expansion. She transferred from the US to Microsoft Japan in 2008, where she was in charge of developing the UX design of its news media in Asia. In 2015, she joined Fast Retailing as the very first UX designer and helped establish the company’s entire design organization. Miho led the UX design of internal and in-store systems and the online site of each brand at Fast Retailing, before moving to Mercari in May 2022 as the Head of Design (Marketplace). She was appointed to her current position as VP of Experience Design in January 2023.

Continuing to forge my own career in diverse organizations

──To start, could you both tell us about your careers and what led you to join Mercari?

@Sayaka: After I finished my master’s degree, I joined a global financial company based in the US. Both at this company and at Mercari, I would often get asked about my role model, but the truth is, I’ve never had someone I idolized to the point where I thought, “I want to be exactly like them.” Of course, there have been many people, both men and women, whom I respect and have learned many lessons from. However, there is no one specific person that I have always looked up to or strived to be like.

Actually, I did not have a strong desire to get into finance, either. In college, I majored in applied sciences and biotechnology, which obviously is very different from what I am doing now. It all started when I was job hunting, and I noticed that many of the ambitious high-achievers around me were applying to financial companies. This made me start thinking, “I wonder what a general consumer like me can do in the world of finance.” And just like that, this simple curiosity kicked off my career in finance.

Just as many people imagine, most of my counterparts in the finance industry were men. The first team I got assigned to was made up of many different professionals, but I was the only woman when I joined. Even though I was the only woman, I enjoyed my work, and I never felt like I was not assigned to certain tasks or put at a disadvantage just because I am a woman. Perhaps partly because it was a US company, the company was constantly embracing and encouraging diversity in many forms, including gender, race, and background. It was a very diverse organization where no one person was the same, regardless of their job or position.

I decided to join Mercari because at this previous company, I was seeing that more and more of the deals that were creating buzz worldwide were involving tech companies. I was vaguely following the tech industry from years before this, but once I saw this trend happening, I became very interested in the rise of tech and its impact on the economy. During this time, I happened to have a chance to talk to Shin (Representative Director and CEO) and Naoki (Senior Vice President of Japan Region) about Mercari. In our conversation, Shin and Naoki spoke about how Mercari was just getting started, and how they believed that the company is going to get even bigger. Before I met them, I had always thought of Mercari as Japan’s cool and hip unicorn company that was at the height of its success, but talking to them made me realize that they had much bigger ambitions in mind. I was inspired by this conversation, and it made me want to be a part of their vibrant organization that was aiming high and growing fast.

Sayaka Eda (@Sayaka)

@Miho: For me, I went to study in the US when I was a university student. Initially, I went to study archaeology, but it was right around when the tech boom was happening. With all this interest surrounding tech, I decided to also enroll in a computer programming course, where I first learned about the concept of “user experience (UX) design.” I was fascinated by this whole field focused on effectively communicating a message to users through design. I wanted to learn more about it, so I decided to transfer to an art university.

After graduating from university, I started my career as a Product Designer at the headquarters of a US-based tech company. There, I worked on designing the MSN portal site and expanding it across all global markets. In terms of the working environment, it was also very diverse with people of various ethnic backgrounds, even in the senior and executive levels of the company. Similar to Sayaka’s experience, I also really enjoyed working at a company where each individual was unique and this uniqueness was celebrated. It was fun to be a part of an organization where people of different backgrounds, experiences, and upbringings were working as one team to achieve one shared mission.

After spending eight years at this tech company, I joined a major fashion retailer as their very first UX designer. When I first joined this company, I was a part of the development organization, which was a very global environment with many people from outside Japan. However, in some departments, there were still many people who were not familiar with what a UX designer is or does. This required me to explain my mission as a UX designer to show how I was contributing to the business, and in doing so, I found that what really helped me was the things I learned while studying in the US about communicating my message. It was then that I felt that all the dots connected, and that all of my experiences led me to that moment.

With regard to Mercari, I was drawn to the company for the same reason I was drawn to the fashion retailer—I would be able to do work that has a global impact. I was excited about how the fashion retailer’s brands transformed the way people view apparel not just in Japan, but around the world, and I felt that same kind of excitement with Mercari. At Mercari, I would have an opportunity to make a big impact and change people’s lifestyles or values on a global scale.

──Both of you have taken on new roles recently, with Sayaka being appointed as SVP of Corporate and CFO last December and Miho as VP of Experience Design (Marketplace) this January. How do each of you view your new roles at the company?

@Sayaka: As the CFO of Mercari, I feel that my job is to develop a vision to make sure each team’s efforts are contributing to the Group’s overall growth.

Without a clear vision, it is like being on a ship with no captain—no one knows where they’re supposed to be headed, which can lead to bigger problems down the line. It is of course important to establish hypotheses within the company and execute them, but we must also look outward and be aware of how we are viewed by people outside the company. Are we on the same page with our different stakeholders? Have we been engaging in enough conversations with them? If the answer to either of these questions is “no,” we may find ourselves in a spot where it is difficult to receive investments and other forms of support for our businesses. If there is even a small possibility of us not being on the same page with our stakeholders, we must identify where the misalignment is coming from and course-correct. My mission is to continue driving growth while maintaining this alignment and balance. This process of identifying the internal and external perceptions of Mercari and making sure they are aligned is challenging, but it is also what’s fun about my job.

@Miho: Something I am very mindful of in my own work is that the current Mercari marketplace is not something that was created by us employees. Rather, it is a service that was designed and shaped by our millions of users. I think my role as VP of Experience Design is to understand the values of each person participating in our marketplace to enhance the overall user experience through UX design. That way, we can build a service that helps our users maximize their potential. And, in order for the Experience Design Team to work toward this goal and provide a positive experience to our users, I believe it is also my job to create a comfortable working environment that allows each member to demonstrate their strengths and perform at their best.

The challenging process of establishing new rules from scratch

──As leaders who are paving the path for others, I imagine you have encountered some difficult challenges that are unique to your role. Could you tell us about how you have faced these challenges and worked through them?

@Miho: Compared to a big company that has been around for decades, a relatively young company like Mercari is not going to have all its systems and processes figured out yet. Sometimes, you will need to build whatever you need from scratch and figure it out yourself. It’s challenging, but I’ve always liked creating things from scratch, rather than using things that already exist, so I personally enjoy this kind of environment. Of course, sometimes I fail, but those are also the experiences I learn the most from. So, I think it’s been good for me. What about you, Sayaka?
Miho Maekawa (@Miho)

@Sayaka: Yes, I’ve encountered the same challenge. Mercari is very different from large companies or companies with a long history that already have most of their rules and systems in place.

For example, let’s take a look at the decision-making processes. At a large company, people must check whether the decision is following all of the defined rules and processes, which can feel troublesome. However, at the same time, I think these rules also ensure a certain level of consistency and logic. At a young company like Mercari, we oftentimes must establish rules without this kind of criteria or shared logic for decision-making.

Mercari is in a very difficult phase right now. That is, as an organization with 2,000 employees, we are not a huge company, but we are also no longer a small startup. Even in this in-between phase, we still have a startup-style culture where we ask for everyone’s opinions before making decisions. The thing is, at the scale we are at now, this process requires a lot of time and energy. There are positives to this process, like being able to reach a decision that more people are happy with and are committed to. However, since there are more discussion points, it also takes more time and makes it harder to reach a consensus.

Even in society overall, if you start examining whether the existing rules and conventions are still relevant, you will probably find that many of the rules are not effective or need updating. But, for the current phase that Mercari is in, it is important to begin defining what kind of frameworks to establish and work on creating the mechanisms we need. It is a daunting challenge, especially since we don’t have the answers to so many of these questions yet, but in the end, I think it will be worth all of the time we spend searching for these answers.

Many big companies that have been around for a long time are top-down. Instead of collecting everyone’s opinions before proposing an idea, the people in leadership make a decision, share it, and then tweak it as necessary. People often bring up the term “communication cost,” even within Mercari, but I think there is more to it than that. In the end, I think it’s hard to say definitively which approach is better than the other, since they both have their pros and cons.

──People often talk about how the financial industry is relatively tough and “old school,” if you will, but how was your experience, Sayaka? Did you face any challenges at your previous company that are different from these challenges at Mercari?

@Sayaka: I think what you said is true—it is a tough industry. (laughs) But I will say, since this image already exists, the people who enter the industry know what to expect going in. I myself was focused on how much experience I can gain in a short amount of time and being able to work in a global environment, so I personally never struggled with it. And, I think it was the same for most of my colleagues. I always had the pressure to perform well and get good results, but I think that exists at any company and is a good kind of pressure. I still am very committed to getting results in my work today, though, so perhaps some of this attitude did come from my experience in the financial industry.

──Miho, I also wanted to ask you about your experience working in the US and in Japan. Were there any big differences that you noticed in the work styles of these two countries?

@Miho: You know, I actually don’t think there are any huge differences between working in Japan and the US. I think it depends on your role in the company more so than the country you are working in. For example, when I was working in the states, I was an individual contributor, and I was mainly focused on my own work. For individual contributors like me, I think the situation was pretty close to people’s image of the work style in the US, with good work-life balance, and people prioritizing time with their families over work. However, this was not the case with my colleagues who moved higher up in the company. They still prioritized their families, but their workload would inevitably increase, so it was harder for them to maintain this balance. In that sense, at the very core, I think the situation is the same in Japan and the US.

With that said, there is one difference that I remember feeling when I came back to Japan, and that is the lack of diversity in values and opinions. I had many non-Japanese colleagues, but the company as a whole was still very Japanese in its ways. I think in general, even for companies that have expanded globally, the branches in Japan still tend to operate under Japanese values and conventions.

At first, it was difficult for me to understand and follow the way of doing things in Japan, but I think that I am now able to look at things with a more open mind. Now, I can view these different parts of Japanese culture as also being necessary for me to understand the user experience here and create something that is better for our users.

The key is enjoying the environment you’re in and building on small successes

──Amidst these challenges, what parts of your work do you find the most fun and meaningful? Have there been any formative moments in your career that have shaped the way you go about your work? If there are any particular breakthroughs or moments that come to mind, I’d love for you to share them with us.

@Sayaka: Earlier, I said that I’ve never had any role models. My answer to this question is similar, in that I’ve never really had any breakthrough moments either.

I personally do not carry a vision of what I want my career to look like in five or ten years. I am constantly giving everything I have to the work in front of me at that moment. That’s my style. Regardless of whether people think it’s good or bad, it’s the way I have gone about my work until now, and I haven’t had any moments where I’ve felt the need to change it.

I will say, though, that whenever I’ve been presented with an opportunity that I thought would bring more potential out of me, an opportunity that would challenge me or teach me something new, or an opportunity that would allow me to work with people I have never worked with before, I have always seized these opportunities with no hesitation. These choices may have just come naturally to me, and I may have been making them without really realizing their significance, but looking back, I think each of these decisions led to valuable experiences that gave me moments of “I didn’t know I could do that!” or gave me the confidence to think, “I got this and there’s nothing to worry about.”

Thanks to these decisions and experiences, I have continued to grow, and I have found myself time and again doing things that I did not think I could do a year before. So, rather than one breakthrough moment, my career has been an accumulation of these small successes. This might be an obvious answer, but the total of all these experiences has made me who I am today.

@Miho: Yes, I know what you mean. In both my life and career, whenever I have encountered new people or environments, I have taken it as an opportunity to learn about myself and my own ability to accept and adapt to change. There is diversity in people and in ways of thinking, and I try to make sure to always be aware and understanding of this diversity when making decisions.

@Sayaka: And, if I can just share one more thing about formative experiences. People often talk about how for women, big life events like marriage or having a child change their career path, or at least make their career more difficult. However, Miho was in the states, and I also worked at a US-based company, so we have both been in environments where things like marriage or having a child are not seen as being as big of a deal. There were no moments where I felt like I needed to choose between work and marriage or motherhood.

It is so important to emphasize that you do not need to choose one or the other, and that you can have both. This stance is important both on a personal level and organizational level. If it is hard for you to balance both for whatever reason, you and the organization should be able to make adjustments, and you should also be able to ask the people around you for help. It is not easy, and I’m sure everyone has their difficult moments. Even if someone looks like they have it all figured out on the outside, look beneath the surface and they are probably frantically kicking their legs, trying to stay afloat. (laughs) However, it is OK to want to have both and to make choices that allow you to have both. This has always been a given to me, and in my own life, I have made decisions that give me this balance. What I want to say is, it’s OK to be greedy!

@Miho: I completely agree. Actually, I was originally hoping to continue working in the US, but I had to come back to Japan for visa reasons. I was devastated at first, but once I came back to Japan and started living in Tokyo for the first time, I ended up really enjoying it and staying here after all. I think any kind of change in your environment can feel scary. But, every environment has its own charm and fun to offer, whether it is new relationships or new opportunities for growth. I don’t know if this is just my personality, or if I’ve just been lucky enough to be surrounded by kind and supportive people, but my past experiences have taught me not to worry too much—everything will turn out fine.

I’ve learned that there is no need to get attached to your current environment or limit yourself to the choices you have now. Every challenge you face will teach you something new, and it may not always add to your career, but it will without a doubt add more to your life.

──Thank you both so much for your time today. Before we end, could you send a message to the next generation of leaders?

@Sayaka: The main thing I want people to take away from our conversation today is to seize all of the opportunities in front of you. Even if you want the environment around you to change a certain way, whether that is society or an organization, it can be difficult to enact that change immediately. That’s why my advice is to figure out how you can maximize your own potential in that environment, and have fun doing so. I think the important thing is to chase your own goals and what you want to achieve in your life. Of course, there is more to life than just work, but there is still meaning in enjoying what you do and the relationships you have formed at the workplace.

@Miho: This is related to the point about role models, but each and every person has a different story and background, including Sayaka and me. That’s actually what’s beautiful! Each person is special in their own way, and there is no need for us all to be the same. As long as you believe in yourself and stay true to your core values, I think things will naturally fall into place.

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