Our Stories

Getting an Education from His Classmates

Recalling his Owen experience, manufacturing leader Heiki Miki pays it forward

Heiki Miki
Executive Officer & General Manager, Shinagawa Refractories

Vanderbilt MBA 1996

Heiki Miki discovered Vanderbilt in 1994, when he was part of a wave of Japanese managers coming to top U.S. business schools to help fill a shortage of homegrown managerial talent. Heiki, who was only the fifth Japanese student to graduate from Owen when he received his MBA, wanted to attend a small program but one that was ranked in the top 25. The school also needed to have a great marketing faculty. Vanderbilt matched his criteria perfectly.

“I didn’t want to go to a big city with a lot of other Japanese students,” says Heiki, who had spent six years in Los Angeles as a child. “My wife and sons—who were 2 and 6 at the time—were coming with me, so I wanted a place that would be right for them.” (He didn’t realize Japanese automaker Nissan had such a significant presence in the Nashville area until after he arrived.)

The cultural shift may have been more dramatic than in some larger cities, but Heiki says everyone at Owen was very generous in welcoming his family and helping them get settled. Inside the classroom, Miki says the MBA curriculum helped him expand upon and connect the dots in areas where he’d already had some experience, like finance, marketing and operations.

His true education, however, came from interacting with classmates on teams carefully assembled by professors to expose students to a wide variety of people from different professional and cultural backgrounds. That tight-knit atmosphere—fostered by regular social events, including Thursday afternoons sipping beers together—also gave Heiki and other international students a chance to practice their multilingual schmoozing skills, something that has been integral to his internationally focused sales career in the manufacturing sector.

Once Heiki left Nashville, staying connected to Vanderbilt became much harder, if for no other reason than the logistics of travel. Even following the Commodores in sports proved difficult, given the time-zone difference. In 1999, however, an Owen representative contacted him about helping to arrange a Vanderbilt delegation’s visit to Japan. That experience, which turned out to be a great success, inspired him to reconnect with the school.  

A year later he joined Owen’s Alumni Board, the same year he and his family moved from Japan to Connecticut. Today, Heiki, who manages global business for Shinagawa Refractories, a leading refractory manufacturing company in Japan, splits his time between the U.S. and his native country.

His re-connection with fellow alumni and his extensive travels have given Heiki new opportunities to serve as something of a roving ambassador for the school. In 2015, he launched the first Vanderbilt Alumni Association chapter in Japan, bringing together graduates from across the university. And he does everything from mentoring international students to organizing sushi dinners for Vanderbilt faculty and staff as they pass through Tokyo.

At the first gathering of the Japanese chapter, Heiki knew his efforts were worthwhile. “I got to the venue a couple of hours early and saw an older gentleman sitting near the door,” he says. “He approached me and said ‘I graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School 40 years ago and have been waiting for something like this for a long time.’”

Heiki looked at him and replied, “Me too.”

“I wanted a place that would be right for my wife and two sons.”