Yumiko had been in the hospitality industry for more than 15 years but felt there was something missing in her career. After a friend told her about the SL program, she decided to sign up to explore what she might do next. "I had never been on a women-only program before, so I was curious about it," recalls Yumiko.

The executive says she found it to be a unique experience in which she felt safe and liberated: "I could really be myself while communicating with female leaders from across the globe, discussing experiences, challenges and dreams that I had in my personal and professional environment. I also soon realized it was the norm for women to be in leadership roles," she says.

The executive believes that, before attending the course, she had most likely been confronted with gender issues in Japan but had been unaware of them: "I hadn't really seen it as a problem because it's so normal for women to be a minority in the business field in Japan."

But as well as opening her eyes to gender equality, the program also inspired her to take the next step in her career. Yumiko had come to SL not with a specific challenge, but with a feeling of uncertainty about where to go next.

She recalls how her coach at IMD advised her to acknowledge this emotion of uncertainty, to analyze it deeply, to ask what was most important to her – and to find the words to express, rather than ignore it.

In this way, the program presented her with the challenge she needed, which was to develop herself more and be a better and more authentic leader, says Yumiko. "This acknowledgement gave me a chance to start a new journey to develop myself, my capabilities to lead my unit and even lead myself."

Yumiko, who is now President of Ango Hotels, says the challenge that SL elicited helped her grab an opportunity to start her dream business – 'ENSO ANGO', a hotel project in the center of Kyoto that enables guests to discover the local culture.

The hotel is comprised of five buildings in five different locations, all within walking distance of each other. As well as guest rooms, between them the buildings contain a meditation room, gym, as well as a restaurant and bar.

"It looks like five small hotels, but it operates as one," she explains. "Each building has different public facilities, and this encourages guests to stroll around. Our purpose is to give them the best chance of meeting local people and feeling the culture of this living city." The hotel's unique feature is publicized in a number of media even outside of Japan such as The Guardian and others.

Yumiko adds: "I don't think I would have done this project if I had not attended SL. After the idea came to me, I quickly thought that I should do it because it felt emotionally important."

As for this year's International Women's Day, although it is not generally celebrated in Japan, Yumiko says she has plans to celebrate it over dinner with a fellow SL alumna who also started her own venture after the program.

The business woman says she still tries to follow the advice her IMD coach gave her three years ago (when she attended SL) – to find the words to express, rather than ignore issues. She says this has resulted in her feeling more open and a little bit closer to her team members.

Following this same advice has also made Yumiko determined to raise more awareness in Japan about gender inequality.

In the hospitality industry, for instance, women are in a better position to understand the business, because they make up a lot of its employees, guests, and purchasing decision makers explains Yumiko. "I believe women and men should therefore understand this and make better decisions to evaluate [their performance] fairly and promote women into leading positions."

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