If you head to Tokyo's Roppongi district and catch an elevator to the 34th floor of the city's tallest building, Tokyo Midtown, you will arrive at the employee cafeteria of Fast Retailing, the company behind the casual clothing retailer Uniqlo.
While enjoying the splendid views, you can also tuck into such culinary treats as "nikujaga" (meat and potatoes) or stir-fried pork and kimchi. You won't be eating alone, though. Your purchase will help to provide a school meal for a child far away in Africa.
The world is a strange place. While 1 billion people suffer from hunger and malnutrition, another 1 billion are said to be struggling with health issues related to obesity.
The NPO Table for Two International (TFT) is trying to tackle this "dietary imbalance" through the medium of a good meal.
It does this by providing a "table for two," figuratively speaking, where a Japanese adult can dine with an African child. The way this works is quite simple--when someone buys a healthy, low-calorie meal or packed lunch from a participating employee cafeteria or convenience store, 20 yen (25 cents) of the cost will be used to provide meals for children across Africa.
Companies can kill "three" birds with one stone by participating. Not only will they be assisting Africa, they can also help employees and customers to lose weight, all the while improving their corporate image.
While many Japanese NPOs have "imported" their operational methods from overseas, TFT has developed a homegrown modus operandi that it now "exports" to countries such as China, Taiwan, India and Italy.
"We always wanted to expand overseas. That's why our name includes the word 'international,' " says TFT's director, Masahisa Kogure, 39. "If we had used the word 'Japan,' we would look like the local affiliate of an overseas organization."
BUSINESS ACUMEN, LUCK THE KEYS TO SUCCESS
TFT was established as an NPO in Tokyo in October 2007. Founding members included Masaakira James Kondo, country manager for Twitter Japan; Motohisa Furukawa, minister for national policy for the administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda; and Nobuo Domae, group senior officer at Uniqlo. The busy schedules of the three men, though, meant an executive director was needed to oversee the day-to-day operation of the NPO. The person singled out for this job was Kogure.
At that time, Kogure was working at the Japanese movie and kabuki production company Shochiku, after having previously worked at the foreign consulting firm McKinsey. Now in his mid-30s, Kogure was having doubts about his life as an office worker, so when he heard Kondo's ideas about TFT, he realized this was what he wanted to do.
However, this would entail giving up his stable lifestyle, a decision Kogure was reluctant to make.
As a result, Kondo cooked up a plan to convince Kogure to make the leap. He took Kogure to New York to the office of Columbia University professor Jeffery Sachs, a giant in the world of development economics.
Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Madonna … From the photos of famous people lining the office wall, it was clear Sachs was no ordinary academic. Indeed, he had once played an active role in the world of developing country assistance, having previously served as special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general, for example. After hearing Sachs talk about how poverty could be eradicated with modern technology and knowledge, Kogure realized "this is the kind of person I want to work with." Kondo's scheme, in other words, had worked to perfection.
Kogure quit his job and started working at TFT, though things were difficult to begin with. He initially received no salary and had to live off his savings, while the organization's small office was equipped with only two desks and one computer. When he did call companies to drum up business, he was usually given short shrift and sent packing.
Despite this, Kogure was able to use his experiences in the corporate world to gradually build support.
For example, he knew it was no use just getting approval for TFT activities from the corporate social responsibility (CSR) department of a target company. These plans would come to naught without action from the general affairs department, where the real decision-making power lay, so Kogure prepared draft copies of internal memos to help speed the company's decision-making process.
He also skillfully manipulated the corporate desire to be "industry leaders" or "in step with the rest of the crowd." He would tell one firm, for example, that it could become "the first in this sector to participate," while informing another that "Company A is already on board and has received lots of acclaim."
One man who knows all about Kogure's business skills is Takahiro Inoue, president of Shochiku Geino.
"He achieved a great deal during his time at Shochiku and changed the way we did business in a number of areas. He learned a lot from Japanese corporate office culture," says Inoue, who still shares a drink with Kogure on occasion.
As much as Kogure's business acumen proved to be useful, luck also had a role to play in TFT's success, with the NPO's launch coinciding with the spread of the concept of CSR throughout Japan. Word of TFT's activities soon began to disseminate among CSR officers at workshops and so on. The NPO was also boosted by the 2008 introduction in Japan of metabolic syndrome checkups, a move that saw companies turning their attention to the issue of employee obesity.
The number of participating firms and organizations has rocketed from 102 in 2008 to 224 in 2009, 379 in 2010, and 462 in 2011. Participants range from industry giants (such as Toyota Motor Corp., Panasonic Corp., Mitsubishi Corp. and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp.) to public institutions (such as the House of Councilors, Osaka city hall and Sapporo Regional Taxation Bureau) and educational facilities (such as the University of the Sacred Heart and Kagoshima University). More than 14 million meals have been shared as a result.
Kogure has also realized his dream of working with Sachs, with TFT recently teaming up with Millennium Promise, the NPO set up by Sachs and others to assist developing nations.
SOCIAL PHILANTHROPY IS COOL
It is Kogure's belief that "social ventures are also business ventures." For Kogure, money-losing organizations that rely solely on volunteers will not last long.
Operational costs such as wages and office rental fees are covered by a portion of the donations. Though TFT began life in the red, it is now well and truly in the black. Earnings for the last fiscal year stood at 129 million yen. This eclipsed operating costs of 23 million yen with the NPO recording a surplus of 12 million yen, even after donations were sent to Africa.
This has all been achieved on the back of just three full-time staff members, including Kogure, who still finds himself rushing around companies and organizations since becoming the NPO's representative.
Another one of Kogure's maxims is "if you don't enjoy yourself, no one else will join in." Every week on Sunday night, he hosts his own program on the "J-WAVE" FM radio station. He encouraged his radio station to convey the idea that anyone can make a contribution to society.
Kogure's program continues to broadcast his message, that "Social philanthropy is fun and cool."
* * *
Kogure was born in Tokyo in 1972. After receiving a bachelor's degree in engineering from Waseda University, he went on to research artificial hearts at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, where he completed his master's in 1999. He then worked in the corporate sector at the Japanese branch of the consulting major McKinsey, followed by a stint at Shochiku. He assumed the position of executive director at the NPO Table for Two International in 2007 and currently holds the post of representative director. TFT gathers donations from more than 480 companies and organizations. This money has been used to provide more than 14 million school meals to children in African nations such as Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Last year he was selected as an "Asian Entrepreneur of the Year" by the Swiss Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.
Favorite word: "Omoi." There are two different Chinese characters for this word. One conveys the sense of thinking about things in a rational way. I prefer the other character, which I associate with the right side of the brain and the feelings that spring from deep inside the heart. We need to listen to our hearts more carefully, rather than just thinking about things in a cold, intellectual way. I think the world would be a better place if people thought a little bit more about this meaning of the word "omoi."
Africa: I've visited schools in Uganda and Rwanda on a number of occasions to make sure our donations are being spent properly. I often find myself traveling along some really bad roads wondering "what on earth am I doing here?" When I see the smiling faces of the children, though, I realize it's all worth it.
Cooking: On my days off, I relax by cooking, in between looking after my newborn son. My wife does the cooking two-thirds of the week and I cook the rest of the time. My wife loves my Neapolitan-style spaghetti, though I suppose it's a dish anyone could cobble together, really.
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