Japanese Connections 

Kikka Hanazawa is the visionary founder of Iroha. She has been known as a social entrepreneur and nonprofit founder with a profound dedication to leveraging business as a force for good. As the CEO of VPL, a certified B Corporation, she led the company to international acclaim, championing sustainability and women's empowerment. Her innovative products gained recognition in various media and retail outlets, earning prestigious awards such as the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and CFDA Lexus Fashion Challenge. Kikka's work has been spotlighted by prominent media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, NBC, BBC, Forbes, the New York Times, and Vogue. Her efforts in social impact have garnered accolades like the Asia Society’s Game Changer Award and Forbes 48 Heroes of Philanthropy, alongside recognition by Fast Company for "World Changing Ideas."

Wearing VPL in the 2020 movie "Underwater"

Throughout her career, Kikka has demonstrated a commitment to social entrepreneurship through initiatives like Fashion Girls for Humanity and Home For Humanity, which empower creators to address global issues such as fair wages and sustainability. She has mobilized over half a million people across 180 countries for humanitarian efforts, reinforcing the transformative power of entrepreneurial thinking. Kikka has been an advisor to the New York Public Library, the Swarovski Foundation, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Metropolitan Government of Tokyo. In 2023, she also became the first Japanese woman to serve on the Board of Trustees of Columbia University.

Born in Tokyo, Kikka holds a BA in Architecture Theory from Columbia University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.                                              


Iroha: What was your motivation and inspiration for starting Iroha?

Kikka:I had multiple reasons. One was based on my personal experience coming to the United States. This is the "land of opportunity." There are so many things that are only possible in this country. What is important to me is that I still feel I am Japanese, and it’s not like the United States is the only country for me; Japan is always in the back of my mind. I didn’t totally immigrate and leave Japan forever. Some first-generation Japanese feel they are here temporarily, not permanently yet. Regardless, we have been here long enough that we are members of this society and community now. We need to engage.

Many of us do this individually. People don’t necessarily belong to Japanese American organizations. Those are usually dedicated to advancing the Japanese American community as opposed to just first-generation Japanese. I found some organizations that have "Japan" in the title. Usually, these organizations have been founded by known Japanese people or generous American philanthropists to promote Japanese culture among Western people. So again, we don’t really fit into those organizations exactly.

Instead of working with established organizations, I felt it would be easier if we started from scratch, so I founded Iroha. Iroha is not really an organization. It was founded by select members from different fields. We have a nominating committee. We talk about who we want to feature. It is all nonprofit.

We wanted to focus on this question: "How do we come together when someone needs help or support?" Even if they are in other fields, this is an opportunity for us to get to know other leaders, even those in Japan or those culturally connected to Japan. It is a good way to connect. We also want to include people who are ethnically from other countries but who were born and raised in Japan. Anyone with cultural roots in Japan is welcomed by Iroha. 

Iroha is a way to spotlight and showcase the works of many different artists who are creating something unique and original. Stories inspire me and are interesting to other people; they are all worth telling.

Iroha: What is the purpose of Iroha?

Kikka: During the pandemic and around the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, Asian hate crimes were emerging and escalating. Many Japanese people who were attacked felt they were attacked by mistake, but the reality is that Japanese people are a part of the Asian community. Each event was, and unfortunately continues to be, an attack on all of us. Even if the reason for each attack is wrong or unjustifiable, when something like that happens, we need to unite and come together.

We at Iroha are not promoting anything specific at this time, but I want to make sure we have a community that can come together when needed. We Japanese lacked that type of community here in the United States until now. 

We are also here to collaborate with other organizations. More importantly, we aim to recognize talent. We are fortunate in that many organizations recognize Japanese talent today, but we should also promote and recognize people of our heritage on our own. Why not celebrate ourselves? There are phenomenal people in art or music or other professions every year, people who have done incredibly in their own fields.

Iroha: What projects are you currently working on?

Kikka: We at Iroha are currently discussing the creation of an award, prize, or recognition event. We would like it to be annual. I hope it will help to address the Asian glass ceiling issue. So many deserving Asians are working within large companies, yet without recognition, they will never be able to branch out as entrepreneurs or go off on their own. They are always working for someone else -- always number two. I would like to recognize those overlooked talents even if they are working for someone else. Their successes and accomplishments deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

Iroha: Please describe some of your personal past projects and initiatives.

Kikka: I was always in fashion. My most recent project has been to create an online digital fashion platform, called Yabbey. It is a spinoff from my nonprofit, Fashion Girls for Humanity, which I created after the 2011 earthquake in Japan.

During the pandemic, Fashion Girls for Humanity was a platform where people could upload medical gown designs – they reached even rural towns and countries and islands all over the world, people I never thought I would communicate with. We touched over 300,000 people from over 100 countries.

My first customer communications were actually from Africa. They asked that we add conversions from imperial to metric on our product pages. I ended up receiving so much feedback from all over the world. I was able to evolve the technical package and patterns based on the feedback (thanks to much needed help from Ryuhei Oomaru). I truly felt this was the future of apparel production. Because I always struggled when it came to the concept of sustainability. It upset me when items were over-produced and extra stock was had.

So Juri Sasaki and I created Yabbey, a for-profit social enterprise. Yabbey is a platform that cumulates apparel tools, designs/patterns, and instructional videos all in one place. Through the platform, you can communicate with people you never expected to reach in as many as 160 countries.

I am also interested in and growing more involved in architecture. Currently, I am supporting the creation of a shelter design for people who are affected by natural disasters, political conflicts, and homelessness. As long as they can access the internet, they can download designs and start building on their own. The project is now led by Momoyo Kaijima and Lauren Stadler, both professors at ETH Zürich, and the nonprofit Peace Winds.

The original idea to create a shelter actually came from my 16-year-old son, Kai. Last summer, he built a shelter by himself in our backyard. Professor Abe from UCLA supervised Kai’s shelter design in LA.

I love initiatives that involve so many different parties. My experience with Fashion Girls for Humanity taught me that when people come together you really can change the world for the better. Whether it's fashion or architecture, I love doing things that involve many people, organizations, and countries. Connecting people makes change.

The website for this architectural venture is projected to debut sometime in 2024. Thanks to ETH Zürich, architectural students will be able to research designs around the world and gather them, creating something digitally tangible in a year for the public good.

Making something tangible is important in this age of AI. It is a luxury in a way. Tech and AI make everything efficient. In the future, we will hopefully be able to work fewer hours and days per week, and we will have more time to spend doing something tangible like making our own home and clothes like we did a hundred years ago. It was a necessity before, but it is a luxury now.

To create your own clothes or home or shelter, it is culture. It is what we should pass on to the next generation. We should inspire every generation to leave better things and a better legacy.


Iroha: What are your thoughts regarding Asian hate and Asian glass ceiling issues?

Kikka: Over the past few years, things have changed dramatically in the United States. I first came to the United States in 1989, and I definitely experienced racism then, often simply because there weren’t as many Asians in America as there are today, even in New York. I was honestly scared to go beyond New York City. In New York, I felt I could be Japanese and that no one seemed to care, but I knew if I went beyond New York things were different.

Recently, I have been very taken aback by feeling as though things are going back in time. It is shocking. The population of Asians in the United States is almost three times greater now than it was in 1989 when I arrived. So of course, some things have definitely gotten better, but others seem to be going backward given what has been happening in the past few years.

As we saw with the Black Lives Matter movement, one cannot merely hope that things will get better on their own. We must work on it. Things cannot get better without making an effort, and it is best if we work together. 

For me, Iroha is one of the answers.

I am not trying to be critical of anyone in particular. I hope this platform gives us the opportunity to think about these issues and better people's relationships with each other. 

I constantly ask myself, "How can we make it work?" I feel like there is a long way to go. It is not something that can be solved overnight.

I constantly ask myself, "How can we make it work?" I feel like there is a long way to go. It is not something that can be solved overnight.

What is most shocking to me is that race is a cultural construct. It is not scientifically proven, but some DNA tracking companies present it as a science and a good way to classify humans. Race is not scientific. Race is a cultural or even religious belief. It is not based on the color of skin. It's not that. I think even Americans, with all of their diversity, are confused by this. That’s what I mean when I say there is a long way to go.

We have a lot to work on, especially within the workplace, in this country. Everyone has to make a conscious decision to make things better.

Iroha: Based on your background, do you have any advice or a message for young people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Kikka: One thing I actually always say is, “Don’t follow anybody’s advice!” I think much of the advice I got was sometimes outdated. It seemed like fitting advice at the time but it wasn’t forward-looking, and it often didn’t apply even just five years later.

Reflecting on myself as an employer and employees I have advised, I feel like much of what I had to say has to be wrong by now. 

If anyone older than you tries to give you advice, be skeptical. I came to the United States and didn’t follow anyone’s advice. I didn’t ask for advice, and I’m glad I didn’t. If I did receive advice, it usually wasn’t what I wanted to hear, so I just didn’t listen.

No one else but you is capable of looking at your future and determining what is right for you. I know I was definitely wrong when I gave advice a few times, so do not listen to anyone else. 

Follow your gut. 

Things change too quickly these days. People don’t know what is going to happen a year from now or five years from now. So trust yourself and go after what you want.

Iroha: Outside of work, what are you most interested in right now?

Kikka: Two projects! 

First, I am super interested in the complex issue of gender equity/parity in Japan and how to address that problem. Japan currently ranks 125th out of 146 countries for gender equity. The government is trying to make changes, but this is one of the things I can actually help. There are so many businesses in Japan with positive cash flow and without successors. I would love to become an investor. I would want to invest in cash-positive companies and make their successors women with plans to rebrand and market - women who will add a feminine perspective upon their takeover.

A process like this could address issues such as women in our culture not having access to or utilizing childcare by allowing women to work from home. We could present opportunities to motivated and driven women throughout Japan. Someone has to teach them how to run a business, take over a business, or rebrand. You do not need to start businesses from scratch. You can find businesses that are profitable or just break even and see what women can do with them.

Second, I would like to create a program through which I will fund an interesting project that high school students come up with in Japan. I want to find students in rural towns throughout Japan and have them find content that Japan is a world leader in, such as shrine architecture or food concepts like koji or fermentation methods specific to their town. I want their choice to be something super interesting for the rest of the world to learn about. Then, I would fund a project based upon their content choice, such as research or an entrepreneurial venture.

Californians have maybe ten things they can be super proud of on the global stage - wine, surfing, movies, veganism, etc. Maybe ten concepts. Japan has thousands - sake, whisky, sushi, kitchen knife, tempura, etc. So many amazing things in the eyes of the world, cultural aspects that we seem to have forgotten the value of. Perhaps people grow up with these concepts and just fail to realize how amazing they are. In any case, I want to leverage those cultural tangible and intangible assets throughout Japan, starting with high school students and their teachers, then connecting them with others who would like to collaborate with them as well.

written by Jessica Woolsey  / photography : Columbia University

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Fashion Girls for Humanity