Did you read the news story this year about an Aichi daycare worker forced to apologise for becoming pregnant ahead of senior staff? It was disappointing but, sadly, not so surprising. Stories like this illustrate the prevalence of workplace discrimination against women in Japan, even within the very industries whose purpose it is to support them. It’s yet another reminder of the necessity for female decision-makers in all sectors but particularly in businesses designed to serve women.
“There has also been a steady stream of visitors eager to know how a community such as ours might be replicated. ”
Ryozan Park started in 2012 with a share house in Sugamo and over the years has garnered attention for its decor, events, collaborations and our “kozure” office in Otsuka that offers coworking and childcare (now an English preschool). There has also been a steady stream of visitors eager to know how a community such as ours might be replicated. I have never been able to put my finger on what makes us different, but I recently came across the term love ethic as it applies to business and wonder if this is what people have been noticing. See this post for more on the subject, but to summarise here, a love ethic or love-based economy is one that benefits all stakeholders by prioritising people and environment over profit.
The growth of a lively and diverse community in Sugamo led us to open a share office in Otsuka in 2015, with the goals of enhancing our community and supporting working mothers. We dedicated an entire floor of the new office to family and opened a part-time daycare there, a little oasis where parents, children and staff could co-exist.
“…most companies can’t afford to sacrifice their bottom line for an ideal. We are no different.”
It all sounds very nice, doesn’t it? But most companies can’t afford to sacrifice their bottom line for an ideal. We are no different. Ethical and social initiatives are not much use if a business is not financially tenable.The decision to close Kosodate Village, our part-time daycare that ran from 2015, was a tough one, but we had to accept after three years that our beloved child-rearing village (it does take a village, after all) was, to borrow a cinematic term, an acclaimed flop. The part-time mimamori system was perfect for the niche market it served – freelancers who wanted to work at an office with their children by their sides – but the market was too niche. Kosodate Village was a commercial failure.
Faced with the prospect of losing three years of hard work, not to mention the community that had taken root there, it was time for a make or break decision. Certainly, the easiest path was to call it a valiant effort and to turn the floor into another reliable co-working space. But entrepreneurship is about trying, failing, and trying better. We had already done the work of creating a service of high value for our community members. The answer was not to retreat but to make changes that would render the business financially profitable. We had to move forward.
“We were able to help her back to work by offering the chance to bring her son to the office, flexible hours and childcare facilities.”
Margaret, an experienced preschool teacher, curriculum developer and teacher trainer, initially approached me in 2015 after stumbling upon our website. She expressed an interest in working together saying she felt a synergy with the spirit of the company and what we were trying to achieve. Three years later, we were able to build on that initial connection when she became our headteacher. Meanwhile, Naomi, a licensed Japanese hoikushi and former RZP share house resident, had come to work for us at Kosodate Village after leaving her position as a primary school teacher when her first child was born. We were able to help her back to work by offering the chance to bring her son to the office, flexible hours and childcare facilities. Once we had secured the two essential pillars of Margaret in classroom and Naomi in administration, the task of launching a financially and socially profitable comprehensive English preschool became much less daunting.
The three of us forged ahead, with our Marketing and Incubation Manager, Kuv, working on our website and advertising, while Nori and our Community Manager, Shingo, hurried to file the necessary paperwork for government funding. It was a busy time, to say the least, planning the new business while ensuring the quality of service for the final stretch of the Kosodate Village system, but we were all motivated by the mission, Naomi and I propelled by the fact that we were pregnant with our second babies who, like their older siblings, would go on to attend the school we were creating. We heard about the success of our application for funds just a few months before opening and were able to set about improving our space and hiring the best staff we could find. Fortunately, like attracts like and we were able to round off our permanent staff with three experienced and dedicated teachers who bring their hearts to work.
“Parents who enrol their child have automatic coworking membership and access to our community, events, and other business incubation resources. ”
So now at Ryozan Park Otsuka, our share office with 12 private rooms for start-ups and a 100-member co-working floor, we also have a full-time English-language preschool. Parents who enrol their child have automatic co-working membership and access to our community, events, and other business incubation resources. They also have the opportunity to go up to the dining kitchen and be with their child at lunchtime, enjoy coffee with other parents, or feed their child dinner before the commute home. We hold monthly catered lunches as well as skill share events and workshops and encourage free dialogue between teachers and parents, setting additional time for this over coffee once a week. Crucially, none of these events is compulsory: our goal is to make life easier for parents rather than add to their workload.
I am proud and feel assured knowing that women are at the helm of this ship. Too many initiatives for the betterment of women are concocted by committees of men (see the all-male panel of Kanagawa’s Woman Act campaign). From inception to production, RZP Preschool is the work of women weaving together a rich tapestry of experience and culture; our core staff is comprised of veteran child-care experts from Hawaii, Tanzania, the Philippines, and Japan with more than six decades of experience between them and each, coincidentally, from large, female-dominated sibling groups.
“The tightrope we walk is trying to pay competitive salaries so that we can provide the safest, highest-quality education possible while keeping school fees low enough so as not to be prohibitive to the very people we are trying to support.”
So we have modified our model and calibrated our ideal. The question remains: is it sustainable? Well, almost six months after opening, we are breaking even. That’s okay. Government support allows us to first focus on the quality of service and social value. We were able, for example, to take the decision not to register students to capacity at the very beginning but to start with a manageable number and ensure the quality of their experience before filling up part way through the year. We also have time now to put into action our plan to increase revenue – utilising the space during evenings and weekends – to ensure we are independently sustainable at the end of our two-year funding term. The tightrope we walk is trying to pay competitive salaries so that we can provide the safest, highest-quality education possible while keeping school fees low enough so as not to be prohibitive to the working mothers we are trying to support. Needless to say, it is quite difficult and completely worthwhile.
That’s why funding for projects like ours is so important, and why it is vital to include in planning decision-makers who care about creating value over profit. Too many public services claim social contribution by their mere existence without considering the quality of care they provide. But finding the right staff is only one part of the recipe when creating a healthy community. During Open Days for prospective students, successfully communicating our ethos to parents is as important as explaining the curriculum and school fees. We want to welcome families who share our values and have a desire to cooperate and collaborate, who can offer their skills and experience to enhance the community.
“We were incredibly touched when another mother offered her time for free to cover a teacher’s bereavement leave.”
The results are already evident: one student’s mother has started working at our head office (flexible hours, of course) and another now prepares allergen-free afternoon snacks for the class. We were incredibly touched when another mother offered her time for free to cover a teacher’s bereavement leave. Parents are also taking lunches together in the neighbourhood and staying after pickup time to communicate and build connections. From both standpoints as the owner of the business and as the parent of a child at our preschool, it makes me happy to see the coalescence of individuals who, just a matter of months ago, were perfect strangers.
So is Ryozan Park Preschool the ideal place for work-life balance? I hope so, at least for some. It is indeed based on an ideal, but as with the reality of many a dream, compromises have to be made. The initial impetus for creating a daycare facility at our share office was to support new mothers, many of whom have nowhere to spend time with their little ones except the four walls of their home, but small babies require one-to-one attention, and since we don’t have the funds to ensure the quality of care we want to deliver, we decided not to accept students under a year old to our preschool. Although this is disappointing, I hope to revisit our potential to help new mothers once the preschool’s start-up years are over. Meanwhile, I’m pleased to say that in the three years since we opened RZP Otsuka, we have helped four members of staff (and six babies) through their pregnancy and/ or to return to work with their baby by their side.
“…a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be.”
Of course, some mothers don’t want to come back to work so soon. Others want to go back and prefer to put their child in all-day care. We’re just here to provide a third option. After all, a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be. It’s where she can be effective and fulfilled, where she can use her skills to her own advantage and to the benefit of those around her. It’s where she is supported to realise her full potential. And she knows, better than anybody else, just what she needs for that to happen.