Eriko’s profile on MIT Legatum Center
“Energy and persistence conquer all things.” – Benjamin Franklin, Statesman
Eriko Yamaguchi, a young Japanese social entrepreneur who proved high quality products can be made in developing countries, finished her master degree in BRAC University Bangladesh as the first foreign student and founded Motherhouse in 2006. Currently in the Matrigor factory in Bangladesh, workers are turning flax fibers into high quality bags. Starting with 1 and a half employees, Eriko’s company now has 8 shops in Japan and 4 in Taiwan, employing 50 people, with the factory in Bangladesh employing another 76. The growth is fast for a small business. Turning back the pages, there are many stories to discover. These stories answers one key question
– what are some of the key components in the making of a social entrepreneur.
Unless she uses a scarf to cover her face, Eriko Yamaguchi could easily be recognized on the street of Dhaka as a foreigner. Many have told her that her business would fail, and she would learn the lesson. But Eriko did not believe in the failure part, she learned the local language and was ready to kick off her venture. In order to learn design, she flew back to Japan, enrolled in an art design class, only to find out that the advanced tools she used in Japan don’t exist in Bangladesh. To convince her first employee to join the company, she kept “visiting” the local designer. He was eventually touched by her determination, and decided to split his time between his previous company and Motherhouse. In order to set an example for other workers in the factory, she worked side by side with her employees in the factory, from 7 in the morning to 9 in the evening. Although it was a lot of hard work, Eriko finally built her local business knowledge and acquired the expertise needed to take her business to the next level.
In 2006, barely any bank would be interested in giving Eriko the money to build a factory in Bangladesh. She raised 2.5 million Japanese yen for the business by taking 1.5 million yen out of her own pocket and getting the other 1 million yen from her co-founder. And the money she used was made through her part-time work in Bangladesh, while her business partner worked at a large company in Japan during the day and Motherhouse at night. Before the first employee joined Motherhouse, Eriko was making bags by herself, using a pair of scissors and an old sewing machine. She once trusted a person and gave him the materials and equipment. The next day she went back, everything was gone. Often people encounter obstacles and got caught up in them. Eriko didn’t. She was clung to the edge without giving up.
Motherhouse operates on a very different belief than many other multinational corporations. It pays twice the amount of what other factories pay in Bangladesh to ensure high productivity and quality from its workers. In order to reward the best employees and to motivate others, Eriko launched a reward program to send top workers from Bangladesh to visit Japan. Although it took a lot of effort for her employees to get Japanese visa, Eriko insisted on investing in this program. After the first employee came back from his trip and shared his adventures in Japan with his coworkers, others in the factory became more motivated to outperform. Instead of exploiting workers in the developing country, or simply helping the poor by giving for free, Eriko empowers her employees by nurturing their passions, and helping them maximize their potential.
Eriko did not have what many thought to be necessary to start a social enterprise – she didn’t have deep pockets, strong local connections, or the expert knowledge in a specific field. Yet she created one of the most successful social enterprises to date simply by being persistent. Through persistence, she acquired local knowledge, built her expertise and empowered many workers. Her story would teach many young, ambitious social entrepreneurs the essence of success –believe in yourself, keep walking.