Now in its third year, tech-centered Slush attracted a star-studded lineup of entrepreneurial business leaders to its Tokyo event in late March. Thirty-eight year old Uber co-founder Garrett Camp (net worth $6.9bn) spoke to a mostly young audience about entrepreneurial startups. So did Carlos Ghosn, the 63-year old chairman of Renault, Nissan Motors and Mitsubishi Motors, on the impact digital startups will have on the future of autonomous automobiles. Hidden among the event’s pageantry were an army of volunteers who feverishly work behind the scenes to make Slush a success.
Meet Meg Kitamura, one of Slush’s 300 volunteers, a high school student from Kanagawa. Unlike her peers bound for Japanese universities that start this month, Kitamura’s classes commence in September at New York University. Her senpai encouraged her to fill her ‘gap year’ usefully by introducing her to Slush’s organizers.
On meeting Mari Matsuzaki, Slush’s point person in charge of volunteers, Kitamura was asked if she wanted to lead the group responsible for organizing the meeting area—a space where attendees can book a table to hold private discussions. She had always been interested in facilitating people and coordinating events. Still, Kitamura had her doubts.
The position didn’t pay, not even for the costly train fare between Kanagawa and Slush’s central Tokyo offices. Nor was she interested in entrepreneurship, startups or investing. However, her senpai encouraged her to take the job on the basis that the experience alone was worth it. “I thought it would be a really good thing to do while I didn’t have anything else,” she admits.
Slush is the largest event of its kind in Japan, attracting some 5,000 attendees, 500 startups and 200 investors from dozens of countries. The nonprofit organization is based in Helsinki, Finland, where the idea originated. The event is organized mostly by volunteers who are arguably “the most important part of Slush—not the speakers, not the investors and not the startups—because they make everything happen,” says Kitamura. Volunteers get working in earnest a couple months before the event.
Kitamura joined in February. In the two month run up to the event, she organized the volunteer “crew” for the meeting area, contacting them, assigning shifts and so forth. It was a difficult task because the volunteers need constant encouragement. They aren’t paid, many have other responsibilities, and unlike a regular job, there are no penalties for not showing up.
She also had conflicting responsibilities, such as attending her high school graduation ceremony the week before the event. Thankfully, her teammates covered her during her absence.
Kitamura told Beacon Reports at the event, “I only get three hours of sleep every night because I need to get everything ready.” But she says that she nor her teammates mind the hard work. “The volunteers and the people around me are always smiling, even though they have to wake up at 4 or 5 AM. They’re always on the run. They’re having a fun time,” says Kitamura.
What impressed her most about Slush is its flat management. In Japan’s age-based hierarchical culture, it is impolite to speak freely with more senior people. Aged 18 years, Kitamura is one of the youngest volunteers. “People who are 22 and 23-years old who are graduating from college and are going to become adults soon—I can’t approach them normally. Here there is a flat community, so we can talk to whoever we want, whenever we want, about whatever we want,” she says.
Kitamura reports having made many close friends at Slush. “The people that I’ve met during this event are awesome,” she says adding, “I think I’ll keep in touch with them for a long time coming.”
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