Sachio Semmoto, who revolutionized Japan’s telecom industry, shares his perspectives on living and growing
Sachio Semmoto is a risk taker. In the 1960s, he left a stable job with Japan’s government-owned telephone company to pursue a master’s and PhD in the United States. He passed on the Ivy Leagues in favor of the University of Florida, where, on a Fulbright Scholarship, he studied electrical and computer engineering. While at UF, he saw a massive opportunity to take on his former employer’s telecom monopoly. His idea would eventually improve his home country’s industry models, economy and position in the world, while creating for himself a corporation worth billions.
Semmoto was recently honored for his contributions in international philanthropy at the Academy of Golden Gators, which recognizes extraordinary commitment to the University of Florida.
Semmoto, who now chairs the Tokyo-based Renova while also fulfilling corporate, educational and civic duties, says the path has been far from easy. But looking back on his journey, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.
“Trying to create new, challenging things is good for society, good for the industry and good for my own life,” he says.
Here, he shares lessons he learned along the way:
1. Find people who encourage and believe in you.
As Semmoto was preparing to graduate from UF, he had many lucrative offers from U.S. companies. “I told my professor, Don Childers, that I was ready to accept one of those offers. But he told me, ‘Sachio, don’t you want to go back to Japan and contribute to your own country?’ That was excellent advice.” He also found encouragement in his personal life. “When I told my wife, Frances, that I was ready to leave our very safe life and pursue the idea of starting my own company, I anticipated she would resist,” he said. “But she said, ‘Believe in yourself. Take the risk. I’m always behind you.’ That was the best support for my life to change.”
You must get used to being misunderstood. If you know deep down that you have a good idea, pursue it no matter the opposition.
— Sachio Semmoto —
2. Develop a thick skin and tenacity.
“People called me stupid, untraditional and a failure,” says Semmoto, recounting the road that eventually saw him helm companies, head foundations and lecture at prestigious universities around the world. “They laughed at me and didn’t give me a chance. But I had confidence that my idea would work.” He advocates for a relentless focus on the ultimate goal. “Don’t be distracted by naysayers,” he says. “You must get used to being misunderstood. If you know deep down that you have a good idea, pursue it no matter the opposition.”
3. Prepare 200 percent. And then “Jump!”
Semmoto preaches research and attention to detail, offering as an example a 700-page business plan he prepared for the CEO of Goldman Sachs in New York. “At first, he did not believe our business would be reliable,” Semmoto says. “But after explaining it and then one month’s worth of due diligence, they decided to invest the first $20 million in my company. That was the real start in the $4 billion of financing that followed.” Form a business plan that considers every detail, he says. “Then, after you prepare, take the risk. Jump!”
4. Keep a clean mind and spirit.
Don’t let setbacks dishearten you, Semmoto says. “During those times, think back to your original starting point and decide the right direction with a pure mind, a clean mind, suppressing your ego,” he says. And don’t let success cloud your vision. “Stay humble,” he says, “and have a strong will.”
5. Believe in the power of work.
Semmoto acknowledges that he encountered many obstacles on his way to building large corporations. “I had to face serious difficulty, socially, legally and financially,” he says, “but I never stopped working. I never stopped challenging. I’ve always thought, once I give up, that’s the end.” He admits there were times he regretted his chosen path, acknowledging that his safe job with a government-owned company would have given him a smoother and easier life. “But at the end of the day,” he says, “my challenge was more beneficial to Japanese consumers and lead to the betterment of our society.”
6. “Don’t keep your knowledge to yourself.”
Knowledge and experience should be shared, Semmoto says. “I made so many mistakes starting out and growing my company from zero,” he says. And helping younger entrepreneurs is fun, too, he says. “It gives me lots of insights and energy. It’s much better than just retiring as an old man. I would rather stay young.”
7. Always be of service to humanity.
Semmoto’s guiding principle: Make decisions that are good for the community and for the employees. “I define success as whether your new company can contribute to the betterment of your community and country,” he says. And always consider your employees and their families when taking risks. “Employees work for me,” he says, “but I work for them and the community.”