1984 Volleyball Olympian Yuko Mitsuya: Empowering Young Women and the Next Big Pivot

 

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Yuko Mitsuya at The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017

 

“I’m tall, so I played volleyball. It was never a dream or a passion.”

It’s not what you’d expect to hear from an Olympian. But that’s how Yuko Mitsuya, member of the Japan woman’s volleyball team that took bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, started off her speech at a charity event on February 23, 2016.

“I didn’t really like how tall I was. Volleyball was the only way to deal with this.”

One imagines someone who succeeds at the highest levels would be filled with passion for their accomplishment. But the 177 cm tall woman from Katsuyama, Fukui, was ever humble in a talk that was inspirational. Mitsuya was speaking at an event called “The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017” in Tokyo, raising funds to provide young Japanese women with an opportunity to learn about leadership in the sports industry. Last year, five women went to New York City to participate in a program called Future Frontwomen, which gave them in-depth exposure to how the NBA is run and how sports can be managed as business.

Those five women were present to hear Mitsuya explain that the path to success is not just fueled by passion, it is one of hard work, persistence and learning. Mitsuya, currently the chairperson of the Japan Basketball Association and the former CEO of a lingerie manufacturer, explained that she made the team because she was tall, but in her early junior high school days, she wasn’t very good. She worked at it, got better, and was able to contribute.

 

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Mie Kajikawa and the Future Frontwomen

 

I wasn’t that good. I was really a problem to the team. I hated it, but this was all I could do. Over time I got better, and more confident. I realized that becoming good at something was not a matter of whether I liked it or not. It mattered whether I practiced. And I practiced every day, and learned. I tried very hard and eventually got recognized as the best junior high school women’s volleyball player in Fukui.

Her one big lesson for young women in Japan (and perhaps for anybody who desires to achieve) is that no matter how good you are, there’s always another level up. She succeeded as a volleyball player in junior high school in Fukui, but when she moved to Tokyo for high school, she realized that she still had a lot to learn.

I thought I was good, until I got to this next level. And I lost confidence. But my friends supported me and helped me recover my confidence as I improved. And that’s what’s important – always stepping up, going another level up. There is always an opportunity to rise up further. You do well and you get to the top, and you realize, there’s another level to climb. As I got used to achieving and stepping up, I could always improve. For women, young women, I believe there are lots of chances to step up. You shouldn’t let your pride get in the way, worrying whether you will achieve or not. You need to understand that getting to a certain level means re-setting your mindset and your goals, so that you climb to the next level.

Prior to Mitsuya’s retirement, the only life she had known was volleyball. But she took it to the next level by transitioning to teaching at the high school and university level. Three years after participating in CSR activities with the leadership of a lingerie company called Ten Arrows, she was named CEO of that company. That was a big step up.

 

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Yuko Mitsuya in 1984

When I became a company CEO, a lot of people said I was hired just because I’m a well-known person. But I want young women to realize that specialization in one area does not mean that you cannot do something else. You need to challenge yourself and try different things because there are common skills you can use in other types of work. Based on my experience in volleyball, I learned how to motivate people (which is important for company leaders). I learned another important lesson from sports, which is also important in companies: resilience. I encourage people to challenge themselves because you need the experience of overcoming issues. And if you fail, well, through failure you grow. More importantly, if you do not challenge yourself, you may regret not making the attempt.

 

Mie Kajikawa understands this. Kajikawa was first a basketball player at Nagoya University. She worked in sales for the Japan Travel Bureau in Nagoya, studied French in France for a month, spent a few years doing secretarial work for executives in foreign financial services firms in Tokyo until she realized what she wanted to do – study sports management in the United States. During her master’s program at Ohio University, she had a career-defining experience – an internship with the Detroit Pistons.

From that point on, the doors to NBA officials or relevant sports industry players, as well as sports associations in Japan opened up. Kajikawa went on to participate in Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics (which eventually went to Rio), and founded the company, Cheer Blossom, Inc., which provides consultation in CSR to Japan’s professional basketball league – B. League. And when she established the non-profit organization, Next Big Pivot, she became a significant player not only in promoting the empowerment of women in sports business, but also advocating for the development of basketball in Japan.

If you are interested in learning more about Next Big Pivot and Kajikawa’s plans, click here.