Profile #3: Asumi Saito, co-founder of Waffle.org

Paul: Asumi Saito is a young data scientist turned non-profit organisation founder from Tokyo. We met over Skype in 2017 when Asumi had just finished her master’s degree at the University of Arizona and was looking to return to Japan. Since then, she’s worked at several tech firms in Tokyo and recently founded Waffle, an NPO dedicated to helping girls enter the world of technology.

Hi Asumi. Thanks for chatting today. Can you please tell us a little about yourself?

Asumi: My friend once gave me the nickname “unstoppable force of nature” and I guess that explains me quite well. Currently, I am working at Waffle, a nonprofit organization that I co-founded with my friend. Our mission is to empower girls in tech. Before Waffle, I worked as a data scientist in IT companies for a couple of years.

You were just graduating in the US when we first spoke. Tell us a little bit about your journey from there to founding Waffle.

I did my masters in Econometrics and Data Analysis in Arizona and came back to Japan to be a data scientist. I never imagined my career in tech, however, while I was in the States, Airbnb and Uber suddenly came into our lives and changed my view to tech from geeky to something cool. 

After working at the first job (that Paul introduced me), I moved to the startup world to engage in the business with more meaning. I worked for cotree, which is an online counselling platform and Fracta, which works on digitizing water treatment plants. 

From the beginning of my first job, I was aware of the gender gap in the IT industry. Personally I was curious about ethical problems caused by AI such as giving higher scores of criminal sentences to black people than to white or making biased decisions on women job seekers. 

I left Fracta this spring to join Waffle as a co-founder. It was not an easy decision to quit a data scientist job and start a nonprofit, thinking about the salary and future career, however, the fact that we are the only organization working with girls in tech in Japan made up my mind. I strongly felt that their future is in our hands and we need to do this.

It’s certainly a brave decision to quit a full-time role to start an NPO. I see the lack of women in technology in Japan on a daily basis, so when I first heard about Waffle I thought it was a fantastic idea. Tell us what you do and why you started it.

Waffle’s mission is to close the gender gap in the IT sector by empowering and educating girls in middle school and high school. Our main business is a coding class called “Waffle Camp” where students learn HTML and CSS to create their own website. It’s fully online and I’m happy to tell you that students from Kyoto, Nara, and Tokushima joined it. We take the gender gap in the countryside very seriously. Also, we collaborate with IT companies and help them host girls-in-tech themed events. Last week we had an online event with Sputniko!, who is an ex-MIT/University of Tokyo assistant professor and a famous media artist. More than 100 teenage girls showed up. Our upcoming event is in November with AWS. Last but not least, we work on government lobbying as well.

3.4% – this is the number of 15 yo girls who are interested in jobs in IT in Japan. This is the lowest among OECD countries. We talk with students every day and they are so bright and talented and curious. The old school system and traditional gender norm of “science for men” is everywhere and does harm on their future. 

So in some cases, girls are actively discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM?

Yes. Surprisingly, in 2020, people still actively discourage girls from pursuing STEM. We met a student in Shikoku island who has a strong passion for both human-computer interaction and art. She told us her parents banned her from reading papers in her house and painting “strange” things (her paintings conceptualize human eyes). Also, her teacher once told her “You can’t get married if you are like that”. This is the reality in the countryside in Japan.

What can people do to help Waffle?

Please stand with us to change the situation, to open their possibilities. We are happy to give a speech/lecture to students, parents, teachers, and IT companies anytime. Our coding class is open all year so please encourage girls around you to join. We are interested in company sponsorship of all kinds. Please contact me to start with a casual conversation. [Editor’s note: Asumi’s contact details are below.]

 

What does your typical day look like?

We are like a small startup, so I do everything from building a website, creating contents, planning internal/external events, to managing students, asking them to submit their work. I went to the Cabinet Office for the first time last week too! Fortunately, people now care more about gender diversity than before so we get a new business chance almost every week.

Photo: with the minister of The Gender Equality Cabinet Office

Waffle co-founders with the minister of the Gender Equality Cabinet Office.

What’s a goal for Waffle for the future?

We want to meet with Michelle Obama or Emma Watson! 

Quickfire questions

– the advice you’d give yourself if you could go back and meet yourself before you went overseas to study and before you came back to Japan?

Before Arizona: Fill your suitcase with sunscreen.

Before Japan: Don’t lose trust in yourself. 

– how do you learn new skills?

YouTube and/or book. I used Running Lean to make Waffle Camp, the coding class.

– tell me a few of your favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

  • Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology – Kentaro Koyama [Amazon JP]
  • CHEER on Netflix

– your favourite place to visit in Japan?

Kyoto

– what’s the best thing you’ve ever spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

Massage or afternoon tea <3 

Thanks for taking the time to speak with my today, Asumi. Best of luck in growing Waffle and getting more girls interested in the world of tech! I hope someone reading this today gets inspired to sponsor you or support you in some other way.

If you’d like to learn more:

Waffle’s website: https://waffle-waffle.org/

Please like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Waffle.org

Please like us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Waffle_org

Your support counts! : https://syncable.biz/associate/555

I’m on Twitter 24/7: https://twitter.com/AsumiWaffle

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