On a routine day at Kyoto University, I met with one of the most fascinating and driven entrepreneurs I have ever met. Not only is she an incredibly warm individual, but Mariko Fukui has accomplished a tremendous amount in her mere 28 years of life — the highlight being Aalto International, the company she launched at the age of 25. Before we get to her current endeavors, let’s take a look at her journey.
Mariko Fukui's Career Path
Right after graduating from Doshisha University in Kyoto, Mariko began working at a PR agency in the Hakuhodo group in Japan, where she learned the art of perseverance and hard work. It was not uncommon for her to begin her workday at 7AM and finish around midnight, making her miss the last train home, and pay her own money for a taxi.
Despite these incredibly challenging circumstances, Mariko now knows and still appreciates the experience as the foundation to her career. However, she soon realized that she needed a brand new challenge. At the mere age of 24, Mariko Fukui made a life-changing decision — move to Singapore and help launch the local office of a Japanese company.
A Brand New Challenge in Singapore
Again, she worked tirelessly, but what was more impressive is the fact that she barely spoke any English. Naturally, since she was in a sales role in an English-speaking country, her ability to sell the company to new clients in English was paramount. Without earning commission, Mariko’s salary would not cover her modest, daily living expenses.
As one can imagine, attempting to sell services of a foreign company that just entered a brand-new market with no network, no understanding of the competitive landscape, and no well-known clients, is like trying to catch the rarest of monsters in PokemonGo. Her ability to speak English and convince potential new clients was directly correlated to her ability to pay for her living expenses in Singapore. Therefore, Mariko had to work that much harder to try to secure appointments, often making 100 cold calls in a day, trying to earn the trust of just a single client.
Amidst these obstacles, Mariko gritted her teeth, and made it happen, eventually becoming fluent in English — a feat that is incredibly challenging in it of itself, without the added pressure of hitting quarterly Sales targets.
The Start of Aalto International
After working in Singapore for 1 year, Mariko decided that she needed yet another challenge. This time, she made the courageous decision to become an entrepreneur at the age of 25. After all, she wanted to stay in Singapore and continue working in such a multicultural environment, with delicious foods from all over the world.
But the most important reason to stay in Singapore for Mariko was the fact that it is comparatively easier to start a business there rather than in her native Japan. It is said that a prospective entrepreneur only needs 1 Singaporean dollar and about a month of waiting to start a business in the country. A fellow female founder, Yuka Fujii of Famarry — a platform dedicated to connecting the right photographers for a family's photography vision —also launched her company in Singapore.
At the time of establishment, Mariko knew that she needed a co-founder that would believe in her vision and complement her strengths and weaknesses. The way in which she met her cofounder was also a compelling example of her character and the initiative she takes. She knew a potential candidate who used to work at a Big 4 auditing firm in Singapore from her university network, and who was holding an executive position at the time. Nevertheless, she convinced him to join her in setting up Aalto International.
Aalto International Company and Mission
The two set off to create a global branding consulting firm with a multinational team representing 10+ countries, and with offices in Germany, Japan, and Singapore. With a strong mission to become a bridge between Japan and the rest of the world, Aalto International began securing household brands in Japan and aiding them in increasing their global exposure. All of these clients seek the indispensable value provided by Mariko and her team.
Currently, Mariko is a part-time student at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Management, and a full-time CEO. How she does it all is still a mystery to me. But the only thing that one can confidently say is that Mariko truly enjoys working with her team and clients. What she is currently accomplishing is not something that everyone can do.
Throughout our interview and casual lunch, Mariko was unabashedly honest and full of positivity. Grinning from ear-to-ear, I could immediately sense her love for her chosen career path, no matter how “つらい” (Tsurai = painful / difficult)” it can be at times.
All in all, Mariko Fukui of Aalto International is one captivating woman — and someone everyone should have the opportunity to meet. For now, please enjoy her company’s website and her personal LinkedIn.