Aya Iwasuji: Driving innovation for Japan

The associate director of the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center brings her passion for people, language, and culture to build relationships and drive change.

A business consultant and educator, Aya Iwasuji understands the challenges involved in creating cross-border business partnerships. And as the associate director of the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center (NSIC), she channels a talent for communication and a deep understanding of cultural diversity to help Japanese companies embrace Silicon Valley culture and expand their innovation strategy.

Here, Iwasuji discusses how she uses her love of language — and SRI’s business and technology resources — to create partnerships that benefit all:

I came to SRI because I’ve always been fascinated by growth – the growth of individuals as they move through challenges and adapt, and the growth of companies as they face problems and have to change tactics, mindset, or culture.

It all comes down to people. Technology is important, it enables innovation, but we always need solid people and teams to create change. At the Nomura-SRI Innovation Center , I get to take part in exactly that type of evolution. My main role is to work with and support our onsite corporate member participants, while also building a relationship with the individuals at their headquarters in Japan.

My road to this work hasn’t been straightforward. After graduating from college in Japan with a degree in international relations, I became interested in teaching Japanese language, and opened a small school in Hokkaido, where I grew up, for international business professionals. I saw how my students struggled not just with language, but with their new culture and the non-linguistic communication aspects of their lives, and I felt I should experience that to be a better teacher for them.

Bridging Japan and Silicon Valley cultures

I decided to come to the U.S. and pursue a master’s degree in linguistics at San Francisco State University with the idea that I’d learn more about language, be exposed to a new culture and language, and hopefully return to Japan a slightly better version of myself. I never expected to live outside Japan or have a career related to my study of English.

After receiving my master’s degree in 2009, I first worked with a small agency that supported international students and interns, which led me to start thinking about Japan as part of a global community.

I moved on to work at NEDO Silicon Valley, a Japanese national research and development funding agency, where I worked with Japanese corporations wanting to engage with U.S. startups, research institutes, and universities. It was the first time I was exposed to technology and innovation, and I could see overlaps between my work there and the language work I’d done previously. I saw that in corporations, engineers often speak one language, businesspeople speak another, and management speaks a third, and these linguistic and cultural differences cause a lot of friction as these different groups struggle to communicate with each other.

In late 2020, I was having coffee with a friend from SRI when they mentioned the idea for an innovation center for Japanese companies within SRI, and asked if I was interested in becoming involved.

I knew SRI was a very mission-driven organization with strong assets around technology, but what really made me believe it was a great company was the fact that everyone I’d spoken with at SRI was passionate about what they did.

Enabling innovation at SRI

Today I manage center operations and work with member companies as they create new businesses and innovation initiatives and grow their organizations. By simultaneously keeping in communication with our onsite participants, the divisions that sponsor them, and their company’s executive leadership, we’re able to advocate for each of these touch points of the organization to help companies objectively understand the challenges they face, and where NSIC can provide the most impactful support.

It’s fascinating to watch as our onsite participants begin to change their business mindsets and how they think during their time here. Seeing that is one of the moments when I feel most accomplished.

My career began with teaching Japanese to English speakers and English to Japanese speakers, but now it’s expanded to interdisciplinary communication — working to bring out the best in individuals and companies as we build a bridge of people and ideas moving between Japan and Silicon Valley. We’re pushing boundaries, and that’s the fun part.

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