I first encountered the GHIT Fund at the end of 2012. Previously, I was working as a project manager at mainly IT companies in Ireland and Japan. It was a very rewarding job, but I felt pulled to do something with more of a social good mission. I was always involved in volunteer activities in junior and high school, and I missed those experiences.
I was deeply impressed by the initiative that the Japanese government, pharmaceutical companies, and the Gates Foundation aim to cooperatively improve the current “neglected” situation of patients and diseases in developing countries and wanted to be a part of that effort.
I joined GHIT at the true start of the organization (long before its official launch in April 2013). There were only two of us at the time — Dr. BT Slingsby and me. We were starting from scratch, preparing the articles of incorporation and hiring new staff. We met frequently with GHIT’s launch committee and called in experts as needed (e.g., legal professionals and accountants).
The launch committee set up to build GHIT went beyond individual companies and organizations. I thought that the way in which each member went about his or her tasks with such determination was truly impressive. Even now, I vividly remember everyone’s solidarity, which increased every time we met. I am sincerely grateful to those who have been involved and have supported us since our inception. It is because of these people that we were able to establish GHIT, which is now a high-functioning organization.
During those early days, as one would expect, when I was working late — sometimes by myself — in our first (very small) office, there were moments when I wondered how this would all play out. Still, I felt everyone’s vision, passion, and faith in the future prospects of the organization, from Dr. Slingsby to the launch committee, so I trusted my gut and kept going. In all my life, I have never had a period that was as nerve-racking as when I entered GHIT. But the organization’s success provides clear evidence that colleagues who help each other can overcome incredible challenges together.
I believe that one of the key roles GHIT plays is to create a successful example of how cooperation between the public and private sectors can contribute to global health. It's a contribution with great importance for both Japan and the world, so even just the creation of a new model was significant. But the real work begins now. Our true mission is realized only when a drug in which GHIT invests is approved and starts benefitting people in developing nations. That is the real meaning of success.
In my own role, I communicate daily and build relationships with GHIT's funders, the Japanese government, private enterprises, foundations, sponsor companies, and GHIT’s Board of Directors. GHIT’s Council meets in person once a year, Board meetings are held four times a year, and the Selection Committee meets twice a year. Communication with everyone in between these meetings is essential. I need to hear everyone’s input to ensure that we all find value in being part of GHIT.
(Above) Small temporary office in January 2013
(Below) Members of the launch committee gathered beyond organizations
In my day-to-day work, it's important for me to show respect and appreciation to everyone inside and outside the organization. GHIT has many overseas stakeholders, and the challenge of managing those relationship goes beyond simple appreciating language and cultural differences. My past experience managing projects and team members spanning 30 countries taught me that one of the secrets to success is to accept different approaches and communication styles while maintaining mutual respect.
I communicate with many different kinds of people, and my job sometimes requires urging people to do something, or requesting something from them — in each instance, I strive to be respectful and patient.
Working in an international organization like GHIT, I am often asked, “Can I work there if I am not a returnee?” What I think is most important is a sense of balance. It is important to understand Japanese culture and learn how Japanese people work. But we must also understand how people from other cultures think and be flexible to respond quickly to both.
The GHIT Council, Board of Directors, and founders press conference held in Yokohama in June 2013 is a good example. That one event brought together the Japanese government, private enterprises, and the top leadership of the Gates Foundation, and I learned a tremendous amount — from conference management to fine-tuning collaboration with the people in charge. I also learned how important it is to think through how participation in a GHIT conference will deepen attendees' understanding of GHIT, and how we can ensure that the time they invested was meaningful. Although it was only a one-day event, I and the other early staff members of GHIT grew a lot professionally from that experience.
We've held many meetings and events over the past few years, and being able to steadily build trusting relationships with our stakeholders is tied to the sense of value I have in my work. Our initial group of nine partners has now increased to twenty-six. The appreciation GHIT staff members feel when new partners come on board and then choose to continue with the group shows how much GHIT’s vision and mission resonate on both sides.
Meeting documents at the time of GHIT launch
The fundamental appeal of working at GHIT is its people. First, we interact daily with a wide variety of external stakeholders and partners — funders, sponsors, Board Members, and Selection Committee members. Sharing a vision with these experienced, knowledgeable, and passionate people who are at the forefront of global health worldwide is extremely rewarding.
Internally, each GHIT staff members has a unique background and personality. These identities complement one other and create a special kind of team solidarity. As one of the very early members of the team, I've had the opportunity to watch as we've gained new people and grown as an organization; this solidarity is truly meaningful for me.
GHIT has been moving at top speed over the last five years, with growth always in mind. Constant evolution has been our natural state. GHIT is gaining more recognition globally, and we will need to continue to evolve to be a truly international organization.
Organizational expansion translates into growth in many areas. It also means that some of the challenges we face may increase and/or change. I am committed to doing my very best, and being surrounded by motivated and passionate people motivates and inspires me every day.
Outside of work, I want to devote more time to volunteer activities. I particularly enjoy supporting people with intellectual disabilities, and I have participated as a volunteer in the Special Olympics. I feel a kinship with people who face this type of challenge; we can communicate on a special level.
Along these lines, I worked as a volunteer during the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland for the Japanese national team, and also volunteered for the Irish national team at the World Winter Games held in Nagano, Japan. These remain among my favorite memories.
*This interview was conducted in August 2017.
Saho Kitawaki is Senior Manager of External Affairs at the GHIT Fund, which she joined as the first formal employee in 2012. She leads the institutional coordination for Governance activities, including the Board of Directors and Council members. Previously, she was Project Manager for international IT firms, in both Ireland and Japan, while prior to that she worked for Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Bank.