Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
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Kenji Sekine (Part1)
We bring you the story of a young Japanese social entrepreneur today. Kenji Sekine, who manages the click-to-donate website called “ekokoro!“, a Japanese counterpart of Care2. The words “ekokoro” significants “Good heart” (the pronunciation of “E” is the same as the one of “ii”, which means “good” in Japanese).
At ekokoro!, you donate automatically as soon as you buy something. You don’t need to give any donation because its sponsor companies pay that.
Also the companies who sell goods or services can widen their range of target and foster among users their images of working on social action program.
The funds raised are contributed to the NGO/NPO organizations which are involved in land-mine removal, humanitarian support, environmental conservation and so on. Sekine launched the ekokoro! to back up people who work for global peace or greenery business with the needed cash.
You can enjoy shopping and make a social contribution casually through the ekokoro!, so it sounds like a breakthrough system. But when he first started that, companies and people took no notice of it. That situation had continued for years but he didn’t give up his business at all.
When he was 22, he went to the Gaza Strip for the first time and his soul was stirred there. That’s why he has continued his own project no matter what adversity he had.
This interview is divided into two parts. In the first part, we follow in his path. Then we tell you about his method of balancing social action work and profit-making business, and the vision of his ideal world.
*Kenji Sekine (1976-)
Born in Kanagawa, Japan. After graduating Beloit Collage, USA, he worked for several IT companies. He established his own company in 2002 and launched “ekokoro!” in May 2003. He changed the corporate name of his company to “United People Co., Ltd.” in February 2007. He received the Social Business Award from Microsoft in September 2007. He expanded into movie distribution business in 2009. Sekine and United People started the journey project called “BADO!” in 2010.
“ekokoro!“, a Click-to-donate website (Japanese)
During your graduation trip, you entered the Gaza Strip without thinking and met a Palestinian boy. He told you about his dream and you really got shocked. Because he told you that he wanted to develop a big bomb and kill his enemies. I’ve heard that’s the initial trigger for the launch of ekokoro!.
I went there for the first time in January 1999 so 11 years have past. But I still remember that day perfectly. The west sun entered a room, aroma of coffee smelled in the air and a tablecloth was spreaded on a table in a room… Those images remain strong in my mind.
When I met that boy, I received a “seed of dream” from him. It means that I held a dream of building a peaceful world by achieving a solution of wars and conflicts at the moment of meeting him. I’ve never given up on a dream for that ever since. Actually things have gone wrong many times but I will do my best to make it come true, no matter how long it takes.
You mean that you could keep working on ekokoro! even though you’ve encountered many obstacles so far because that event was so traumatic for you.
That’s right. Actually when I started ekokoro!, I could collect only 20,000 yen (US$200) for donation in six months. When I ask a company to sponsor my project, they thought ekokoro! was a dating service website because of its heart-shaped logo.
Also even an NGO staff asked me, “Don’t you have a foul heart, not a good heart? (ii kokoro→ ekokoro) Many people said, “You’ll give up easily.””You should do it after you make a business out of something else.” But I’ve never given up my business because of not only meeting a Palestinian boy but also another shock.
When I was working at an IT company, I broke down from overwork. It made me reflect on how to be, how to live and how to work. That means I started thinking “What should I spend the rest of my life for?” seriously for the first time.
Everybody knows that life is finite. There are people who pass away around you but you won’t get a real sense of that unless serious things drop in your lap. However I got to know the universal truth “Life is finite” through my own experience.
If all men must die, I didn’t want to waste 10 years, a year, a month, a week, a day and even a second. So I decided to spend every moment on what I really wanted to do.
Suburb of Jerusalem
Nov. 27, 2004 *Photo by Kenji Sekine
I haven’t decided what to do yet, but at the bottom of my heart, I was eager to change a Palestinian boy’s dream. I really thought that boy wouldn’t hold such a cruel dream of developing a bomb to kill enemies if I could create a peaceful world.
If the conflicts are not solved, the number of children who take animosity will increase and some of them will set off suicide bombs as a result. And there will be an endless chain of hatred. That chain must be cut. I thought I would cut it.
They paid me well at the company which I was working for at that time. But I almost got myself killed. So I thought that I should not shed blood for a high salary, I should not shed blood for working for a company which has a good image, I should not shed blood for gaining experience to start my own business. Then what I would have to do popped up. Bugbears that annoyed me have gone.
After I was transferred to a hospital, I was laid down on the floor of a tool shed. All the beds were occupied so I had no choice but lying on a futon which was put on the floor. I felt very pathetic when I thought that was the result of working too hard. But on the other hand, I thought that the situation wouldn’t get worse.
You thought it wouldn’t get worse than sleeping alone in a tool shed.
Yes. So even now I think I would be able to survive even if I fail the venture and end up in a financial bind. Because I wouldn’t be killed even if I go to the wall for my business and I would be able to start over any number of times.
Japan is a democratic country, a free state and freedom of speech is guaranteed constitutionally. And I’m living in Japan. I can seize an opportunity here if I try. So I thought I would do anything without inhibition.
You realized that life is finite. Did it make you think about life of infants who are involved in conflicts?
You can do anything as long as you’re alive. In the meantime, there are people who lost their lives even though they didn’t want to die. They’ve died from the Iraq war, War in Afghanistan or the Haiti earthquake. Nobody chose death. People who are not soldiers are killed by earthquakes or missile strikes.
It’s difficult for us to prevent an act of nature. But I think man-made disasters are preventable. We may have been able to halt the Iraq war. And I may be able to prevent wars that would occur in the future by forming a framework.
I have life. So I want to accomplish a framework for preventing wars and conflicts.
Israeli West Bank barrier that is being contructed by Israel.
Nov.27, 2004 *Photo by Kenji Sekine
In the end of 2008, the Gaza War occurred. That was the largest invasion of the region ever by Israel. UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemned the Palestinian armed group in Gaza but they accused Israeli Army of violation of the International Humanitarian Law and its war crime. I cried the whole time during the year change period. I was always crying even in public when I recall the invasion and felt extremely insecure.
Gaza Strip is the land where I found my dream. I interacted with many people and children there. I met Palestinians who live normally. But their houses were destroyed and their families and friends were killed. I saw that in the news footage and it broke my heart.
I visited Gaza Strip for the first time in January 1999 and I launched ekokoro! in May 2003. When I started my project, 4 years had already past since I visited there. But I felt my way in my own business to build peace. I had spent five or six years on ekokoro! until the end of 2008, but the Gaza War occurred.
I thought, “Even though I’ve worked for peace building for several years, the situation in Gaza Strip is at its worst!”
There is more. In March 2003, shortly before establishing ekokoro!, the Iraq war occurred. Also the 911 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001. Since the end of the Cold War, there always have been people fighting each other. And war has been escalating primarily in the Middle East. It makes me feel gloomy.
So what you did was to build an online support system to back up NGO/NPO organizations that were tackling humanitarian assistance, ban on land mines, poverty issues. That is, you established the e-kokoro!. You thought that your idea would be successful, that’s why you moved into action, right?
Yes. An entrepreneur spirit drove me to start my project. Nobody asked me to do that, I wanted to do that. Even if 99.9% of people said I would fail, I would overcome the adversity I face. That’s the entrepreneur spirit. What I had was only that.
For example, the invention of a washing machine made it possible for housewives to spend time working outside or on their hobbies. That’s a kind of a contribution to society because that helped women a lot. And to me, a contribution of society is to work out the concrete issues at hand.
*Photos by Ryuta Hayashi
What I’m working on is to solve deep-seated problems such as conflicts, poverty, a ban on land mines and so on. So it would be difficult to turn a profit on that.
But I think all entrepreneurs or people who are tackling problems including me have the same spirit at heart.
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