The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship held the 2023 Japan Synapse this winter break, bringing 10 Brown students to Japan. The trip, which took place from Jan. 15-22, was led by Sheila Haggerty P’19, assistant director of the Nelson Center, and Ben Hokenson ’24, the lead student organizer. Hokenson said the aim of the trip was to “get an understanding of the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem in Japan.”
Last spring, the Nelson Center held a weekly conference called Tuesdays in Tokyo with Japanese entrepreneurs. Four students who participated in the 2022 Synapse attended this year’s trip. To fill the remaining spots, the Nelson Center opened applications to the Brown community, looking for students who demonstrated “a vested interest in entrepreneurship,” Haggerty said.
In Japan, the Brown cohort met with numerous entrepreneurs. These included Brown alums Johnny Shields ’06, the founder of TableCheck, Matthew Romaine ’01, the founder of Gengo, and Anthony Miller ’79, the CEO of Pacific Alliance Group Japan. They also met with Kevin Kajitani of avatarin and Masato Iino of Scale Out Corp.
Haggerty was especially pleased to meet Kathy Matsui, a general partner of MPower Partners and a key figure in promoting gender parity in the workplace in Japan, where the business culture is heavily “male-dominated,” Haggerty said.
“It was important to me that we hear about how people are trying to change that dynamic, so meeting with her was one of the highlights for me, because she's so influential in policy,” she added.
Haruka Masamura ’25, a trip attendee who is also from Japan, said she “never really looked at Japan through the lens of entrepreneurship in the way” she did on the trip. “It was pretty new to see it that way.”
The trip also included visits to a number of cultural sites and activities.
“One of the exciting things about the trip was that we got to see … everything from the modernity to the culture and the religion,” Estela Morais Westphalen ’24, another trip attendee, said.
These excursions included a visit to Meiji Jingu — a Shinto shrine in Tokyo — Nijo Castle, a grand sumo tournament and a Kabuki theatre show.
Hokenson said that the trip “was really inspirational for a lot of people,” adding that some trip attendees found ideas for their theses and future career plans during the visit.
For Masamura, one of the most memorable activities was an impromptu trip to Tokyo Disneyland.
Haggerty and Hokenson said they hoped to get to know the country better through this visit. “We told the travel agent we want to be in Japan as though we were living and working in Japan,” Haggerty said. She hopes to share the experiences of the 2023 Japan Synapse with more than just the students who went on the trip.
“The larger goal for the program is to allow this experience that was for a small group of people to have vibrations that are wider in the Brown community,” she said. The trip organizers are planning to hold an event later in the semester where the students can present on their experiences.
Moving forward, Hokenson hopes to make the program “a year-long commitment” and to “have a group of people … that have committed to the whole process,” he said.