BY KARIN LING
Remember when you used to be able to get a four-year degree and then go on career cruise control for 30-some years? Ah, how times have changed. To gain a competitive edge in the workforce these days, the pursuit of continuing education is the way to go. One group of individuals who embraced life-long learning back in the ‘90s decided to create the Japan Market Expansion Competition, or JMEC. Sixteen years later, they offer one of the most unique training programs around for mid-career professionals seeking a challenge.
Female professionals, largely a minority in Japanese corporations, are one group of individuals well suited to alternative ways of building a career portfolio. The program director of JMEC, Laura Loy, is proud that women make up 45 percent of its participants. Their interest in the program fits in with a larger trend. She says, “Here in Japan, for foreigners especially, remaining competitive means seeking out-of-the-box solutions. At JMEC, we have seen an increased interest from both individuals and organisations who are looking for an opportunity to do just this.”
Think of JMEC as a mini-MBA that brings together two mutually beneficial parties. It’s one part project, with clients made up of global-minded companies seeking a strategy for expansion, and one part education. These clients are partnered with JMEC participants assigned to teams to research and design their business plan. This follows weeks of intensive training and guidance from experienced mentors. Tanja Bach, the assistant program director, has taken part in JMEC through various capacities, first as a participant and returning later as a lecturer and mentor. A long-time advocate of the program, Bach describes it as “an accelerated, intense introduction to international business. The most unique part of JMEC is the chance for hands-on practice to meet a real company’s needs.”
JMEC participants are a mixed bunch, including former JETs, entrepreneurs, and future business executives from around the world. The program starts with a series of seminars and workshops that take place on Saturdays. Participants discuss case studies with directors of corporations and hear anecdotes and advice from entrepreneurs. Examples of workshops from last year include: the crucial “Business plans: Where do I start?” and the cautionary “Eight successful ways on how to mess up your business in Japan.”
Presenters are selected not only for their years of business experience in Japan, but also because they provide participants with applicable skills for working with project clients. Anne Good, President of Eureka! and presenter of the “Effective Meetings” workshop, was impressed by the participants’ level of engagement. “It’s wonderful to see their enthusiasm and their great ideas. It is actually pivotal to the teams working together.”
The next, and main, portion of the program has participants working in teams of five or six and assigned to a company based either in Japan or abroad. Companies that have desired a JMEC business plan for expanding in the Japanese market are diverse. Some of last year’s clients included the Crafts Americana Group, National Australia Bank, and Tokyo Sinfonia. For the companies, taking part in JMEC means receiving a quality business plan at an extremely reasonable price.
The opportunity to tackle a real-world project can be both thrilling and daunting. A valuable source of support is the mentor assigned to each team. This person and the team consultant help to ensure the smooth running of the group’s project while sharing contacts and opinions backed by their years of experience. Teams are assigned to reflect a balance of professional skills and language abilities and, not surprisingly, members find an important source of strength in each other. No matter how much or how little experience individuals have when entering the program, this strong base of support ensures that each team produces a well crafted plan of professional quality.
Working on the business plan takes place over 5 months with each team committing, on average, 1,200 total hours (on research, individual work on the plan, and participation in team meetings). The nature and intensity of the project guarantees that participants come out of the experience with a deep understanding of all the factors needed to bring a business idea to fruition successfully. This is a core skill that will take them far.
So what about the ‘competition’ part of the Japan Market Expansion Competition? If working on a company’s expansionist ambitions is not exciting enough, you have the added buzz of competing with about nine other JMEC teams for the recognition of designing the best business plan. Thanks to the generous support of corporate sponsors, prizes range from laptops to flights and exclusive networking memberships.
Why sign on as a participant or client?
JMEC participants are known for their ability to think beyond traditional marketing campaigns to provide strategies with a creative twist. Female participants play a significant role, as they contribute a perspective not usually heard in male-dominated companies. This fresh outlook at a fraction of the cost of traditional consultants is one advantage of hiring JMEC for a business plan.
Meanwhile, participants benefit from the unique structure of the program, which Tanja Bach describes as “a safe discovery ground where individuals get to take risks.” A timid member could step up to represent the team as the client contact person. A participant uncomfortable with numbers could offer to help on (and learn from) the finances portion of the plan. Bach says, “With the support of the team, you will get to know your strengths while learning how to work around your weaknesses.”
Former JMEC participant Lisa Chung reflects on her experience: “My main objective was to prepare myself for when I either start my own company or propose corporate ventures. I also wanted to learn about industries I had yet to be exposed to during my career. In addition, I was able to build on a lot of soft skills such as team-building, motivating others, and presentation skills.” No matter what your background is or how you plan to draw from your JMEC experience, the skills and networking contacts you take away will be invaluable towards your future pursuits.