Our Stories

Exploring His Entrepreneurial Side

Consultant takes new skills (and ideas) back to Japan.

Ryo Sakai
Finance Manager, Eli Lilly Japan

Vanderbilt MBA 2022

Working for a consulting firm in his native Japan, Ryo Sakai developed a model for evaluating subordinated equity for a social microfinance company. “No one, not even our managers, knew how to do it,” Ryo recalls. But he carefully researched this type of equity, which he describes as a “unique type of security among Japanese startups,” and he built an evaluation methodology after consulting with internal and outside experts. The model’s success “made me stronger and more proactive,” he says—and gave him confidence to go much further.

Obtaining an MBA in the United States had long been Ryo’s dream, but he was initially apprehensive about pursuing it. Even though he speaks English, he was concerned about a language barrier and his lack of experience with living in the U.S. “To mitigate my fear,” he says, “I wanted to get familiar with the culture of the schools I was considering as early as possible.”

He was drawn to Vanderbilt for several reasons. “The small class size looked attractive to me,” he says. “At a small school, it’s easier to get to know each other.” Second, Ryo knew he wanted to be “a global business leader who can use a market-based approach to alleviating poverty and social injustice. The Vanderbilt MBA appealed to me because it has both business and social perspectives.”

Third, Ryo drew inspiration from some of the school’s Japanese alumni, particularly Heiki Miki (MBA 1996) and Yuto Kataoka (MBA 2020). Kataoka, he says, “helped me when I first visited Owen for an interview. People from Owen are very kind, respectful, and gentle. That drove me here.”

As a Japanese student, Ryo is particularly proud of receiving the Edmund B. Fitzgerald Scholarship, since Fitzgerald received the Order of the Rising Sun Gold and Silver Star of Japan, in recognition of his work over a span of 30 years to improve trade relations between the U.S. and Japan.

At Vanderbilt, Ryo was able to pursue his interest in social entrepreneurship by participating in Project Pyramid, a student-driven, multi-disciplinary initiative aimed at reducing global poverty. In fact, he says, an immersion experience in Puerto Rico involving Project Pyramid—and the influence of Professor Mario Avila, who oversees the project—inspired Ryo to explore starting his own business.

He even returned to Japan with an idea for a new venture. At Vanderbilt, Ryo enjoyed making friends by preparing sushi for his classmates. They also enjoyed eating chicken fingers, fries, and house-made sauces at McDougal’s, near the Vanderbilt campus. “They are so delicious that I’m thinking about making a franchise contract with them and starting a shop in Japan,” Ryo says.

Fun Fact: Ryo loves skiing and preparing Japanese food.

People from Owen are very kind, respectful, and gentle. That drove me here.