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JAN 26, 2007

Round-the-World Business Trip 2007. No 3: Boston Scenery

By Yoshito Hori

I checked out of my New York hotel at 4:45 a.m. It was still dark and freezing cold outside. In order to make my 8:30 meeting at Harvard University in Boston, I had to be on the 6:30 flight from La Guardia Airport. Since the events of 9/11, security at American airports has become very tight, and so I had to leave early to allow for extra time.

Thankfully, check-in went quickly, and I soon found myself boarding the plane feeling fairly relaxed. The airplane pulled back from the gate amid a light snowfall to wait at the side of the runway. The pilot informed us that, due to the cold weather, ice was forming on parts of the plane, and our take-off would be delayed until it could be removed.

Every 15 minutes we received a progress report always ending with the request, “Please wait a little while longer.” I was feeling disappointed an hour later, when this announcement was repeated for about the fourth time.

“The flight ahead of us is now undergoing the same deicing procedures. Since it’s more efficient to concentrate on just one plane at a time rather than trying to handle both, our flight will be canceled; only the flight ahead of us will depart. This means we will now be returning to the gate. Any passengers still wishing to travel to Boston will need to see about changing to another flight.”

After all my years of traveling overseas, the credibility of American airline companies in my eyes has reached a low point. Domestic travel, particularly in the United States, is the worst. There is little regard for arriving on time, and they seem to have absolutely no qualms about canceling flights when there aren’t enough passengers. On the other hand, even when the airline causes the delay, you will not be allowed onboard if you’re even a fraction of a minute late reaching the gate. To top it all off, here I was, forced to wander all over the airport.

This time as well, I got the feeling that they were simply trying to pad their profits by canceling one flight and cutting costs while still receiving the same fares. Although I felt put off, thinking this approach completely disregards customers, to avoid being emotionally dragged down by these negative feelings, I started to play classical music on my iPod, collected myself, and made my way to the next flight.

By the time I left New York, nearly three hours had passed since the original flight was scheduled to take off. Naturally, I could not arrive in time at Boston to participate in the first meeting of the Harvard Business School Alumni Association’s Board of Directors. I had been appointed as a member of the committee for choosing the next members. This was a key meeting in which the final decision was to be made, so it was a real shame that I hadn’t arrived in time to attend.

Taking just a moment to check into my hotel and leave my luggage, I turned back toward the conference hall where the HBS Alumni Association’s Board of Directors meeting was being held. I ended up joining the group from the status report on the MBA program before lunch. To make up for missing the morning session, I seized every opportunity to contribute to the discussion. At international conferences like this, where you sit, how often you speak up and the quality of what you have to say really make a difference. Remaining silent is viewed as essentially the same as not showing up at all, so it was crucial to demonstrate initiative.

At lunchtime, I sat next to Harvard Business School Professor Sahlman, who is highly recognized for his work on venture capital, and we swapped notes about the current venture capital climate worldwide. As a student, the professor roomed with a man named John Doerr, a renowned venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a U.S. venture capital firm. John Doerr was involved in the creation of Netscape, Amazon and, above all, Google. By the way, one of Professor Sahlman’s classmates at HBS was current U.S. President George Bush.

A case discussion took place in the afternoon, and we separated into sub-groups to debate. I joined the sub-group concerned with running the alumni club. This was a great opportunity for thinking through how we might manage a network of alumni from what I hoped would become the number one graduate school in Asia.

I was scheduled to make a recruiting presentation to students of HBS and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) at about 6:00 p.m., and thus I cancelled my attendance at the Board of Directors’ dinner. Although I referred to it as a presentation, communication was not one-way; the approach was similar to what had taken place in Chicago and New York. I fielded questions from the students and responded to them one by one. Those in attendance asked all sorts of questions.
Starting questions related to the launching of GLOBIS:

· What was the biggest lesson you learned at Harvard?
· What made you want to start your own business?
· Wasn’t it hard to quit Sumitomo Corporation?
· What is the toughest thing you have experienced so far?
· What are your dreams for the future? Do you have your heart set on anything other than GLOBIS?
· How do you sustain your motivation?

They moved on to more general questions about venture capital:

· What are the differences between the venture environments in Japan and the United States?
· What are your criteria for determining investment in a venture?

Then questions about the business school:

· How exactly do you intend to have your GLOBIS Business School become the number one school in Asia?

And finally a question about worldwide implications.

· What does the future hold for Japan in Asia?

As you can see, there was quite a variety of questions, even including a little career counseling. I carefully answered each question.

Afterwards, I decided to have dinner with the students at Harvard Square across the Charles River. Boston winters are freezing cold. The temperature was ten degrees below freezing, and the wind made it feel even colder. I was relieved to finally set foot into a warm restaurant, where about 30 people joined me at a long table. In order to speak to as many people as I could, I moved around about three times during the course of the meal, and genuinely enjoyed the conversation.

The HBS Alumni Association’s Board of Directors meeting continued the next morning at 8:15. The first session of the day was a status report on the executive program. The overall board meeting wrapped up by about 1 o’clock, and the directors then parted company. The next meeting is scheduled in June.

I ate my lunch in a taxi as I headed for another meeting that was to begin at half past one. I then interviewed two potential employees at 3:30 and 4:30, and by the time I returned to my room it was already past 5 o’clock.

Finally, I was finished with all my meetings and responsibilities and started into what was to be my only private time for the entire trip. If you don’t take a little time to enjoy yourself during long round-the-world business trips, the entire enterprise becomes emotionally unsustainable.  “What could I do in Boston?” I wondered. I had been considering various options on my way from New York, but eventually decided to do something that could only be done in Boston.

My first port of call was a seafood restaurant. The very mention of Boston and New England conjures up images of clam chowder and lobster. I chose a relatively casual restaurant, and after thoroughly enjoying myself there, I went to Symphony Hall to take in a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During my studies as a foreign student in Boston, Seiji Ozawa had been the conductor and I occasionally attended concerts.

This performance featured music by Mozart and Haydn. Despite my high expectations, the performance lacked inspiration. When I thought about how much more they appeared to enjoy performing and how much they had changed, I couldn’t help thinking about the crucial role of leadership. That said, the concert still provided me with a welcome change of mood.

I caught a taxi and returned to my hotel. After checking my email, I once again faced the task of packing my things. I had accomplished everything I had planned for this trip to the U.S. The schedule had been somewhat frantic, with one night in Chicago, a night in New York, and ending with two nights in Boston.

My next stop was across the Atlantic Ocean in London, where a conference had been scheduled for European investors. I would have to rise early again tomorrow morning, so bundling up warmly, I decided to go to bed without too much delay.

January 26, 2007
Aboard the flight bound for Narita
Yoshito Hori