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Principal and Japan Representative, SAP Labs Silicon Valley

Kakeru's story

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I’m representing SAP Japan with Japanese companies in Silicon Valley. This is the first time in my life where I feel my achievements match my sense of eternal motivation.

Kakeru Tsubota
Principal and Japan Representative, SAP Labs Silicon Valley

For someone who achieved so much in his teenage years, it almost seems incongruous to hear Kakeru Tsubota refer to his adolescence as a period when he always seemed to be chasing after his shadow.

He modestly says it was his spirit of independence that inspired him to start swimming when he was only a year old. He took to karate when he was three. At 13 he discovered the freedom of hitch-hiking and said that travelling across Japan in this manner – by himself, of course – was a very liberating experience.

“I was born on the very rural side of Japan, in a place called Fukui, which is a prefecture on Honshu island. It is one of the least famous of the 47 prefectures. It is probably the furthest city from Tokyo in terms of transportation. There isn’t even an airport. I was raised in a very domestic way but one of the things that I am very grateful for is that my family really did let me do whatever my interests dictated.

“That kind of independence and intellectual curiosity guided me to spend a year studying abroad in the United States at the age of 14. That changed my perspective and it was like a life-changing moment for me. Learning English at the age of 12 was a stepping stone towards this and I just happened to be very good at English. I had an English teacher at school and because she was Canadian and therefore a native speaker, I kept asking her questions after classes and that kind of conversational learning and communication really did scale up my ability to be bilingual. You could say it set me apart from my peers and I won an English contest as well in Fukui. That gave me a level of confidence and self-esteem which in turn was a stepping stone to spending that year in the United States.

“Being an exchange student was a huge culture shock because it was so different from what I had expected. At first, I was very negative about making friends and trying new things. But then I started to make the best friends of my life and I built some very good relationships. My English skills too, improved exponentially. By the time I returned to Japan a year later, it was certainly in my mind that I would definitely spend the rest of my life in the United States.

“Later, I was accepted by several US colleges but not the ones that were my top priority. On the other hand I was also accepted by Japanese schools, which were pretty good ones. So I ended up going to one of the Japanese schools that I was accepted into. You could say I was kind of escaping from the fact that I hadn’t got into the overseas universities of my choice. The fact that I didn’t go to UCLA, where I was so fortunate to be accepted but which was not my very top priority, meant I always had this notion that I seemed to be always following my shadow and chasing after it, despite the fact that the shadow came from my own decision.”

Kakeru laughs at the suggestion that he finally managed to leave his shadow far behind with his achievements in the corporate world. He moved from a role at an international IT company in Japan to becoming a global account manager at SAP in February 2016.

“Really, 2018 was the very first year that I actually felt as if I had caught up with my shadow. My current position is that I’m an expat from SAP Japan to SAP Labs Silicon Valley, which is kind of our headquarters for innovation. I’m the only one out of about 4,500 employees here who is from Japan. I’m representing SAP Japan with Japanese companies in Silicon Valley. This is the first time in my life where I feel my achievements match my sense of eternal motivation.

“As the principal of SAP Labs in Silicon Valley, I have a second role as well – venture partner and mentor for SAP.iO, which is our venture arm, but also for intrapreneurship, by which I help start-ups and also SAP internal employees to raise their IP and become like a $1 billion setup. I define myself as a bridge between SAP Japan and SAP Global, and secondly, as a bridge between Silicon Valley on the one hand and Japanese companies in Silicon Valley.

“SAP Silicon Valley is a very unique icon for a traditional company like SAP which has transformed into one of the most innovative companies in the world. A lot of companies in the Valley are very young and very energetic but they haven’t been through the innovative challenges and dilemmas that SAP has been through. That kind of story context resonates very deeply with Japanese companies who are trying to scale themselves. Their focus is not to build new business only, but they have to transform old businesses into new businesses and they look at SAP as their reference model.

“I get more than 2,500 visitors annually flying in from Japan to meet me, asking for those insights and story-telling and guidance. The first priority in my work is story-teller and also exterior speaker for executives of Japanese companies. We have so many CEOs of large enterprises, people from government and people from other industries, coming to me and looking for innovative stories. The second priority is creating a community out of it, so we lead Japanese companies towards and through the process of transformation, looking at our reference or maybe co-partnering with us.

“I feel that I am executing new business opportunities for SAP Japan, encouraging and empowering Japanese companies to create a new mindset so they can understand what SAP stands for and so that they can position themselves in relation to the Japanese market.”

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