Bullied and harassed to the point where she was afraid to leave the house, Eriko Yamaguchi knew suffering firsthand. Growing up in a Japanese subculture of hyper-competitive high-achievers, she almost gave up on herself. Then she discovered that she had a talent for business and finance, and found herself at the top of her university class. But she never forgot what it meant to feel left behind. As her classmates decided to join big corporations or public agencies, she scouted out the poorest country on her side of the globe.
“I went on Yahoo.com and asked, ‘What’s the poorest country in Asia,’ she recalled years later. “I saw the photos of Bangladesh and thought, ‘Oh my God.’ The next thing I thought was, ‘I should go there.’"
In Bangladesh, Yamguchi attended graduate school at Brac University in Dhaka. When she wasn’t studying, she scouted the local economy, looking for clues to the nation’s problems and for opportunities. Always interested in fashion, she was drawn to the areas where people worked at sewing machines in small shops and factories, turning out low-end textile products. In time she settled on the notion of designing and making handbags in Bangladesh to sell in Tokyo. The concept would exploit her interest in fashion and the big women’s fashion market in Tokyo while providing work for people in Dhaka.
At first, she had trouble finding anyone in Bangladesh who believed that local workers were up to the task. As she recalled, she was “misled, lied to, and betrayed” many times before she began a partnership with a shop where workers (all men) turned coarse jute fabric into sacks for grain and potatoes. “They were making these sacks that cost $1 each and we had to get them to sew fashion bags worth a hundred dollars and more,” she said. “To make things more difficult, I was a young woman in an Islamic country who had to be the boss.”
Months of effort were required before Yamaguchi could get workers to start stitching samples based on her designs, and even then she discarded two dozen attempts before she got one bag that was good enough to show retailers in Japan. But gradually she coaxed workers to improve their skills and she built a stock of 160 pieces. She named her company Motherhouse in tribute to the famous Catholic nun Mother Theresa. In her first round of sale visits, Yamaguchi won orders to place bags in 13 stores. “Everyone in Bangladesh thought that when I left to go to Tokyo, I would never come back. When I returned with orders, they realized this was a real opportunity,” said Yamaguchi.
In order to seize the opportunity, Yamaguchi had to overcome a series of practical and cultural obstacles. Workers had to be convinced that she really considered them partners and that when she asked, “What do you think?” they were supposed to offer genuine replies. “No boss had ever asked them questions like this and no one was used to being part of a team.” To build a sense of esteem in her men, Yamaguchi issued photo identification cards. Many workers had never possessed a photo of themselves and they prized the cards. She opened a lunchroom and served free meals. She also raised their pay above the going rate, in order to acknowledge the superior skills required to make quality leather goods.
Gradually, the shop started making more “keepers” than “rejects” and word came from Japan that the bags were popular. Consumers liked the price, and they liked the idea of buying from a business established by a Japanese woman to make both a profit and a difference in the lives of people in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Today, Motherhouse operates seven retail shops in Japan and one in China. The factory in Bangladesh has outgrown its quarters and moved, three times. Wages have increased to double the rate paid by other manufacturing companies. Most importantly, says Yamaguchi, more than half of her customers know nothing of her social mission and make their purchase based entirely on the fashion she offers, and the workmanship.
Of course, the mission beyond profit remains a source of intense satisfaction for Yamaguchi. By investing in workers whom she respected, and in a place others ignored, she had overcome many of the obstacles that thwarted more formal development schemes. Instead of subsistence wages, her employees get salaries that support them as working class citizens, and they feel a self-regard that is even more valuable. Yamaguchi reaped similar rewards as she saw her Athena-style model for business succeed.
“How do you define success and happiness?” she asked, looking around a brightly-lit shop with dozens of bags on offer. “In the past, it was possible to belong to a big organization and believe that you were guaranteed some success and happiness by just staying there. Today, I think it’s about contributing something more. What you do, even in creating a business, can be about partnership, collaboration, trust, and making other people happy, too. There’s a new business ecosystem and it requires better thinking,” she said. “Sure, you have to compete, but that doesn’t always mean paying the lowest wages. Sometimes it means understanding things better and being more creative. It can work.”
We met Yamaguchi while traveling the world for our new book, The Athena Doctrine. She was one of more than 100 innovative women and men we encountered across the globe who already recognized a market and swift change in the way we value gender traits. In a world that’s increasingly social, interdependent and transparent, feminine attributes such as empathy, collaboration and communication are ascendant.
The shift towards the feminine does not portend “the end of men,” but it does suggest a natural balancing that vastly increases the capacity of both men and women to solve problems and create a good life. In our surveys, 81 percent of people say that man or woman, you need both masculine and feminine traits to thrive in today’s world—and we found that people who think in a more feminine way are nearly twice as optimistic about their future. From this point of view, an embrace of feminine values can be thought of as a competitive advantage, not unlike a breakthrough technology, or a major market insight. And data from our survey revealed that countries whose citizens think in a more feminine way have a higher per capita GDP and higher reported quality of life.
We all, male and female, innately possess feminine qualities like empathy, candor and selflessness—the difference lies in which of us choose to suppress those qualities, and which choose to leverage them to establish a more open, more flexible, and ultimately happier society. This is what The Athena Doctrine is all about.