There are over 4,000 alumni and former students spread throughout the world who are having an impact in their local and global communities. Here, we hope to regularly focus on a few who have taken time to share stories about their journeys after NIS!
Interview with Rachel Wolff, Class of 1993, by Eimi Olson-Kikuchi, Class of 2015.
These two alumni sat down at their computers on the opposite sides of the world from each other a towards the beginning of the COVID pandemic and had a chat about their involvement with Nepal and their memories of NIS.
Eimi: Could you tell me what you do, what your role is, and what CARE does?
Rachel: Sure. CARE has been in Nepal continuously for about 45 years, and the focus there, as it is around the world, is on making life better for women and girls, finding justice in their lives, and helping them escape poverty. We have found that focusing on women and girls is the best way to help their children, families, and entire communities. If we can empower them, we can train them. We can give them agency to work on all the systems in their lives that exclude them, oppress them, and forget about them. This way they can actually take part, have a voice, and help lead change in the communities transforming some of the policies and unjust systems that have caused them and their children to suffer.
R: We focus heavily on health — helping with family planning, reproductive health, sexual and reproductive health rights, all the way through to when they start giving birth, then with maternal health, child and newborn health. Research tells us that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, health is very critical. Also, education, especially, for adolescent girls here in Nepal is an issue. They are easily excluded, and dropout rates for girls are much higher than for boys. We help them stay in school, delay marriage, and then have healthy births once they’re adults and married.
Alongside that, we help with agriculture, which is still a major way that women earn an income for their families and survive in Nepal. We help with farming for women and also dealing with climate change which affects them. We also help women with their economic options outside of farming, like small businesses, enterprises, and skills-building. Nepal, is very prone to earthquakes also, like Japan.
E: That’s incredible. Did I hear you correctly, that you mentioned girls dropping out of school at higher rates than boys? And that you were working to prevent child marriage?
E: Right. That’s actually one huge issue, that and malnutrition. We at the Nepal Youth Foundation noticed an increase in numbers during COVID. A lot of our COVID responses tackled those issues — education, child marriage, and malnutrition. Would you say you have noticed those too, over at CARE, or were there other issues in Nepal that COVID has exacerbated?
R: Yes. Hunger and nutrition are a huge focus of ours. Thankfully because remittances have continued, something we were worried about in the beginning, the floor hasn’t fallen out at this point. There hasn’t been a massive hunger crisis like in other parts of the world. But, another concern that we have been addressing, and monitoring, especially with the lockdowns, is that women were unable to get to their antenatal and postnatal appointments. We did see an uptick, especially in the first year of COVID, in maternal deaths and newborn deaths which we had worked so hard to prevent! The numbers have really started to come down over the past fews so that was really tragic. I think during this year’s lockdown everyone was much more aware. Again, men are in charge right? In villages and in local governments and they don’t think about these things because they’re not the ones who are pregnant. Raising awareness and making sure that communities are prepared to make accommodations for women and keep them safe is so important.
E: Oh my goodness! You all must’ve been so busy during COVID this last year and a half, though.
R: We have! It has really affected people’s lives, especially in 2021 with the Delta variant. CARE launched a major COVID response in both years.
E: Yeah I bet! Now, moving away from COVID, something that’s really guided me and my team in this work is being really critical and aware about how we fundraise and talk about our programs. Our founder and fundraising team in the US has always been majority white, and even though all of our programs are led, managed, and run by Nepalese people and our entire staff in Nepal is Nepalese, we are the ones who communicate the great work they do, and the ones who usually ask for and provide funding. Our donors are also largely from the US. So it’s been really important for us to move away from this white-savior narrative. We’ve been highlighting our Nepalese staff, using asset-framed language, and communicating program-related materials with sensitivity and integrity. So, from one non-Nepalese person to another non-Nepalese person who does this work in Nepal, I’m wondering if this has come up for you and your team. What are some things that have been helpful for you all - operating in Nepal - when thinking about this? I think it’s a really important discussion for us to have.
R: Absolutely. At CARE, we’re actively having these discussions about decolonizing aid. Making sure that our teams and leadership are globalized is a huge part of that. At CARE we’ve set a target for 80% of our country director leads to be from the Global South, obviously I would be in the minority. But even here in Nepal, we have a majority national team. I am the only expat in the country of 80 staff, and we have two assistant country directors who are Nepali women. It’s also about ensuring women’s leadership in our own organization, in our own country programs. This is really critical.
I think where it works well is when you intentionally combine the local and national, the knowledge, expertise and leadership, and you’re building Nepali leaders. In fact, many of our senior and mid-level staff are advocates and human rights activists in their own right — aside from the work they do in CARE. They’re known in the country, they do op-eds, they’re a part of the movement. They’ve dedicated their professional lives to these issues as well. It’s really important, who you’re bringing to the table. It’s not just about a person being Nepali — do they also represent the movements that you are trying to support? Do they bring that perspective? Do you have minority ethnicities represented? Do you have women? But when you do have international staff, whether it’s from the Global North or another part of the Global South, are you doing that in an intentional way?
For me, I can’t tell my staff Nepali context, I don’t speak the language. But what do I bring? Well, I worked in Bangladesh, which is in the same region. I bring experience from there — models that we can think about or adapt, or even things that didn’t work in Bangladesh that we don’t want to repeat. I grew up in Japan, and studied in Vietnam, so I’ve had that wider pan-Asian experience. I’ve worked extensively in eastern and southern Africa, where a lot of donor money has gone, historically and currently. So there are a lot of models that we can learn from there. The more experience that I get and the older I get, I recognize that as much as we have to go deep and understand the nuances and every context is radically different, the world is not that different. A recent Nepali leader that I met asked me, “How do you find the caste system in Nepal as a foreigner?” I said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever understand it, it’s very nuanced, it’s rooted in hundreds and even thousands of years of history…” but on the other hand, I feel like wherever you go in the world, every culture, every context, every country, go back a thousand years, go back ten thousand years, it’s just about power.
The issues between women and men. The issues between religions, castes, economic strata, how racial issues are playing out in the US, it’s all about power. So it’s both — it’s being humbled to say, “I don’t understand, I need to learn, I bring some ideas but I depend on my team, we find the best together.” But we also need to reflect and say, “You know what, human dynamics — why we screw things up — there are so many similarities.” So it’s holding out to both of those extremes and moving forward together in humility. That’s when it works. I think that’s what an organization like CARE brings to the table in this day and age: that we are authentically rooted in the local context where we work. Again, we have the long history and the nationalization of the staff, but we don’t leave it at that. There’s something missing if all of the work in the country, even in the US, is only being done by groups that understand that context. So combining that, bringing in the richness of an organization like CARE that has worked in 100+ countries. We bring in models from Sri Lanka, from India, from Tanzania, from Panama - you know, you name it. There’s such richness there and we can make a difference faster sometimes because of that. And like I said, avoiding mistakes too, that’s important. (laughs)
E: Tying that to your time in Japan, do you think you’re able to come to that conclusion, and have these thoughts, and this kind of global awareness because of your upbringing in Japan and your time at NIS?
R: Before I came to NIS, I was completely enmeshed in Japanese culture. In fact, my first six months at NIS, I was enrolled in ESL because my English was so bad. My first teacher at NIS, Mrs. Quinn, bless her heart — I love her so much, really helped me. I think she felt sorry for me because I could not spell to save my life. I attended NIS for three years with my two sisters, from 5th to 7th grade. My father [Steve Luttio - 1969] is an NIS graduate, and all my aunts and uncles also attended, giving us deep family ties to the school. I had always heard them talk about NIS. I loved attending, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Three years sounds so short but it felt like 30.
E: Where were you living before attending NIS?
R: We were in Kagoshima where I attended Japanese yochien and elementary school. My father, having grown up in Japan, of course is a native speaker, and my mother was quite a linguist so her Japanese was excellent. We were supposed to speak English in the home, but we didn’t. My sisters and I only played in Japanese, and all of my friends were Japanese speakers. We had zero foreign friends. There was no English in my life, except for when my mother would speak to me in English — to which I would respond in Japanese. I was one of the top students in my class in Japanese public school. I was only watching television in Japanese. Everyone in my life was Japanese.
E: That is incredible.
R: Yeah, so it was a unique upbringing that truly made me not only bilingual but bicultural. To this day, I still consider Japan as my home. It’s my spiritual and emotional home. I don’t get back that much but that’s how I feel. The bilingual part, of course, is great and enriching, but the bicultural part has been such a gift. My natural personality is very stereotypically American. I’m highly independent, I don’t like anybody telling me what to do — but my Japanese side forces me to be very respectful of my leadership. So I thrive in these large organizations because I am an excellent leader. I guarantee you, I would not have had that had I not been raised in Japan.
Coming to NIS was the bridge for me. After NIS, we went back to the United States and that was not a good experience for me at all. It was horrific. I was so angry, I didn’t fit in, I struggled. I adjusted eventually and had a good high school experience but I struggled for a couple years. If it were not for NIS, it would have been a hundred times worse. NIS is what allowed me to sort of bridge that 99% Japanese experience with the “I’m back in America, this is horrible.”
I felt so at home at NIS because I could speak with my Japanese friends and the longtime Japanese residents whose Japanese was just as good as mine. I could be part of the classroom and the extra curricular activities in English. I could blend the languages and blend the two sides of me — which was pretty common in my day and I’m sure in yours as well. So it was really the best of both worlds and prepared me to re-enter US society, and eventually accept my American side. You know, people always still ask me where I’m from...
E: a contributing factor that led me to where I am now is my upbringing in Japan and specifically my education at NIS. It definitely shaped me into becoming a more global-minded person.
E: Oof, that’s always a tough question to answer for a lot of us from NIS.
R: Right! Well my passport says US but I grew up in Japan. That’s what I usually say, and that allows me to have a conversation that’s meaningful to me about who I am.
E: Absolutely. For me, a contributing factor that led me to where I am now is my upbringing in Japan and specifically my education at NIS. It definitely shaped me into becoming a more global-minded person. It’s so unique and such a privileged position to be in, to be able to grow up in that international space, so yeah, I’m right there with you. You were at NIS for three years, is there a favorite thing, event, club, person, teacher, etc. that you remember during your time at NIS?
R: Oh, yeah. Mrs. Quinn, my fifth grade teacher was very influential. I have my yearbooks right behind me, actually. Mrs. Bergman in 6th grade, I think I had her in 7th grade as well. Her husband Mr. Bergman was the principal at the time. I really loved the academic challenges. As much as I had to catch up on my English, NIS was very, very stimulating. We had classes of 10-12 people, and the curriculum was flexible and based on individual needs. I felt challenged in every area.
When I got back to the US, I was miserable, because supposedly I was in “one of the best school systems in the United States,” but it wasn’t. I advocated for myself, very forcibly, saying things like, “this text we were reading in the 5th grade, I am now in the 8th grade - give me something better.” So, yeah, NIS had really good academics.
E: The small class sizes at NIS are such a gift. I went to a really big public university after NIS, and didn’t really personally get to know my professors. I was in classes with 300-400 students my first two years. It was such a strange experience after NIS.
R: Yeah! Activity-wise, I was most involved in musicals. Back then, we had an incredible music director — I can’t quite remember his name, it was a long Eastern European name [Roskowski?] — anyway, he had been in Japan forever. He was very gifted and I was involved in shows all three years at NIS. It was the most seminal part of my experience at NIS. The first year it was Wizard of Oz. Back then, we would do one show on campus but we would also perform them at a theater in Nagoya City.
E: What! I don’t think we did that when I was at NIS.
R: Yeah it was a huge part of the PR of the school for the city. Because we had such a gifted musical director, he led the whole thing, and I think he had relationships with the set companies. We used the full broadway script, music, and everything. We did Wizard of Oz, Bye Bye Birdie, and Annie. I had roles in all of those! As a 5th grader I played Mrs. Hannigan, I was taller than the high schoolers at that point. I also played the mother in Bye Bye Birdie. I had roles and solos in all of the plays. There were rehearsals every night allowing me to even make friends with the high schoolers. My sisters were involved as well - actually the whole school would be involved, because all the extras would be the elementary school kids. The director intentionally chose shows that could easily bring every age group. So of course, with Wizard of Oz, all the munchkins would be the little kids.
E: Wow! I think I did a couple plays, and I was a part of Oliver Twist, once, but I don’t think I had a speaking role. I was one of the extras in 5th or 6th grade. I was more involved with athletics at NIS so that was probably the only musical I was a part of. But that’s awesome, I didn’t know about the connection NIS had with the city. NIS actually has a new theater now, they built that recently - I’m not sure if you saw.
R: The last time I visited must’ve been… Gosh, I don’t know. I took my husband to visit Japan long ago, maybe in 1998? I don’t think I’ve had a chance to go back since then.
E: They’ve got some really great new buildings.
R: Of course, living abroad now, our younger children haven’t quite started school. They’re three and five, and my older ones are 20 and 22. Our older ones went to International School in Kenya, and when I visit these schools and take a look, my reference point is NIS - the only International School I’ve ever attended. My dad, aunts, and uncles went to ASIJ and CAJ, but NIS is my reference point for everything. So if a school is even half as good as NIS, then yeah. NIS had it all. It was the right size, a safe and fun place for me. The academics were stellar. I mean, I went to Georgetown University, and got my MBA at Wharton — and I remember being at Georgetown like, “Yeah, NIS was as good or better.” I got the best education of my life at NIS!
E: I totally understand that. I went to Berkeley for undergrad and found that some of my high school classes were more challenging than classes there.
R: NIS is where I was challenged, intellectually, the most. It was where I had the best community experience — I loved my teachers, and I was very stimulated extracurricularly. Can’t beat that!
R: And oh my gosh, the fun we had on the bus! Did you take the bus?
E: I think I took the bus for a very short period of time, but we moved really close to the school soon after that.
R: We lived in Toyota, so we took the Tomei bus with a couple other kids that lived there, and it was like a 20 min ride into Nagoya City. Then we’d wait, 45 minutes to an hour, because of the timing, for the NIS bus. There was this park where we’d all hang out. Then the NIS bus ride would take another 45 minutes. So that would be like an hour and a half to get to school. And my poor baby sister, when she started kindergarten, she was so tired. We would do homework on the bus. I remember the high school students would pick the music, and we would be like, “Oh this is so cool, this American music.” You know, I had never really listened to western music before that, so I was getting exposed to pop culture on the bus as well. It was super fun and a highlight too — hanging out on the bus every day.
E: Yeah I bet (laughing). So do you keep in touch with other NISers?
R: Yeah, loosely. One of my best friends, Hanako, she was one of my bridesmaids at my wedding. She had gone to boarding school in the U.S., but she was from Nagoya and her entire schooling before that was at NIS. We’re friends on Facebook. I haven’t seen her in many years, but that was a dear, dear friendship. Other than that, it’s mostly Facebook friends.
E: Before we finish, is there anything you’d like to share with other NISers, or current students at NIS?
R: I would say take full advantage of everything the school offers. It’s hard to know when you’re there how unique and special the experience is, but recognize that going to an international school, and NIS in particular, is such a unique experience. Hardly any other people on the planet get to have that experience. To have an international experience within a Japanese context is really special. Going to school with people from all over the world, with all kinds of international experiences, roots us to be international citizens. When you live your life in your home country or travel around the world, when you can conduct yourself and represent yourself as a global citizen, it’s a different contribution that you can make to our world. So I would say take full advantage of that both while you’re there and after you’re there, and keep in touch with your roots. It’s such a special school — and let’s support the school, because if we have more leaders, globally, who can be bicultural and multicultural in the way they conduct themselves, then those leaders can make change in a way that is different.
E: Yeah, fantastic! Thank you so much. So last thing: I haven’t been to Nepal yet, but I’d love to visit. There was supposed to be a trip not too long ago, but COVID happened. I’m wondering if it’s OK to touch base with you if that happens. I’m sure my colleagues and I would love to visit your office and have you visit ours as well.
R: Please! I insist. That would be fantastic.
E: Great! Well, thank you so much. Hope you have a fantastic day.
R: Yeah, I’ve got the day off, actually.
E: Right! Happy Tihar! (Nepali holiday).
Last year we asked Aya (Hozumi) Rae ('06) to interview Tina Fahy ('82) because of their similar interests in Marine Biology.
Read on to learn what Tina has been up to…
A: It’s nice to meet you Tina! I want to start with how you ended up at NIS.
T: My father (Dick Fahy) was a private school teacher and we moved around a lot as a family depending on where my father was teaching. We lived in Wisconsin and before we came to Japan we lived in Connecticut where my father was the director of studies and a history teacher. My father had fought in the Korean War, was wounded, and was flown to Tokyo for rehabilitation. He fell in love with the country so when he had the opportunity to become the assistant headmaster for NIS, he jumped at the chance. He thought his four children were young enough (we ranged in age from 3rd grade to 7th grade) that it would be a wonderful opportunity for us to move to Japan for a few years and experience the culture but also take advantage of going to an international school. That’s how we ended up there in 1975.
T: A long time ago, I know! Nagoya was very different then. The city did not have a lot of foreigners living there, so we received a bit of attention (all good!) and we were often approached by students who wanted to converse with us. We modeled, helped sell American products in stores, and taught English to Japanese students. It was a wonderful experience.
A: That’s such an interesting story. Did your father enjoy his time when he returned?
T: Yes, he loved it. I think this was probably his favorite job ever because he was second in command to the headmaster, he was able to teach, including teaching English at night. We traveled all over the country when we could during vacation to learn and immerse ourselves in the Japanese culture. As a family, we also traveled to India and the Philippines during the holidays. We all definitely gained an appreciation for Asia.
A: How long did you stay in NIS as a student?
T: I was there from 1975-1978. I spent one year, my 9th grade, at Canadian Academy. I lived with the headmaster (Dr. Guy Lott) and his wife (May) there, who was the former headmaster of NIS. My brothers continued on at NIS.
A: So you and your 3 other siblings went to NIS?
T: Yes, I have three brothers, Richard, Carter, and Nat. My mother had never taught before and when my father got hired, the headmaster asked if my mother was willing to teach 3rd and 4th grade and she said yes! So she taught my brother Nat for a couple of years and really loved it. The whole family was very much immersed in school. We lived in teachers’ housing right below the gym. We had access to the field, tennis courts, playground and the gym. It was great.
A: Do you still keep in touch with some of the people you met in NIS?
T: I was much better at keeping in touch when I left Japan and was in high school. Now Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with classmates and former teachers. My mother has been very good about visiting and staying in touch with some of her very good friends (like the Sapps). Christmas cards are always exchanged. We, especially my parents, had really good friends in Japan. I wish I could stay in touch more with some of them but we had such small classes.
A: How many people were in your class?
T: Oh my gosh, I think about maybe 8?
A: And I thought my graduating class was small with 18 people!
T: Yes, it was very small compared to most US schools.
A: What was your favorite memory or event from NIS?
T: I think my brothers will agree with me that Field Day was the most memorable event of the year. The whole school got together to compete in athletic events - it was almost like a mini Olympics! We prepared for that day every year, we were excited about it and received ribbons when we placed. It was really fun, very exciting, and each class had an important role that day, either in providing food, beverages, etc. My father was sometimes in charge of the starting gun, which he took very seriously!
A: Do you remember any teachers that were your favorite?
T: Yes, very much. Mrs Steenberg, my 8th grade science teacher, was very influential to me and probably too many 8th graders who took her class, because the class was so challenging. We had to keep a plant notebook throughout the year, where we had to find ~100 plants and put them in our notebook, research and write them. If we couldn’t find all of the plants, we had to look them up. Internet wasn't available then so we would have to look them up in books, write about them and their life history and draw them. We also had an animal notebook where I think everyone had a pet and we had to observe that animal and describe different behaviors, preferences, etc. We dissected frogs, cow eyeballs, and earthworms, which I never did following that in high school (just fish in college!). She was great, she helped me learn to love science and the importance of observation, curiosity, good scientific writing and the fundamental principles of biology. I didn’t know if I was going to study science, math, English or history later in college, but it turns out I focused on marine science so, I think she had a lot of do with that.
A: After NIS, I saw you went to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy,
T: I attended for a few years and majored in marine science.
A: You already knew you wanted to study marine science?
T: I wasn't really sure but the Academy only had around 8 majors we could choose from and a lot of them were heavy on math and engineering and 2 of them were government/management but the one that really struck me was marine science. I learned to scuba dive while in high school and I thought it was a good mix of science and math, but it was very challenging and comprehensive with classes in physics, fluid dynamics, and oceanography in addition to the biological sciences. I completed my B.S. degree at the University of Rhode Island in Fisheries Technology and Aquaculture.
A: Could you describe what your job is now?
T: Since 1998, I’ve worked for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which is a federal government agency that conserves and protects marine species such as marine mammals and sea turtles but also includes fish and invertebrates. I work specifically as a marine mammal and sea turtle biologist and my main job is to assess the current status of endangered species and their habitat and analyze human impacts such as fishing on marine mammals and sea turtles throughout the US West coast.
A: So you do population assessments?
T: Yes absolutely! We conduct population assessments for endangered species; for example, I have been involved on status review teams for Guadalupe fur seals, and several species of sea turtles. Marine mammals that are not protected under the Endangered Species Act are protected under another federal law, even healthy populations like California sea lions (which was the subject of my Master’s thesis). Thus, we still need to protect them from human activities such as fishing and navy/military activities, coastal constructions, etc.
A: Does your job involve a lot of fieldwork?
T: Unfortunately not as much as I would like! But I have been lucky to go to the Channel Islands off California a number of times to help researchers tag and brand sea lions and fur seals. I’ve participated in aerial and ship board surveys, and I’ve also been lucky to travel down to Baja for multiple years to help conduct research on the effect of light sticks on gill nets and how they might reduce bycatch of sea turtles.
A: Wow so cool, so if you attach a light stick to the gillnets, turtles tend to avoid them?
T: Exactly, we’ve seen significant results, with a 50-60 percent reduction in sea turtle entanglements. We did that for multiple years using different colored lights and worked with high school students from San Diego, which was very rewarding. We also worked closely with Mexican fishermen, who knew how to find and catch turtles, so it was very rewarding.
A: So in your job you also get to work with students and become mentors for them?
T: Yes, one particular example I gave you was high school students from the inner city of San Diego who have applied successfully for the program to come down to Baja for 5 weeks and work besides researchers. It was very rewarding for us and for them. Over my career I’ve spent a lot of time mentoring both high school but mainly university students or early career NOAA scientists to help them with their career choices or opportunities they may not know about.
A: What kinds of opportunities do you personally think are important for students in NIS to explore a career path in marine/environmental conservation?
T: For high school students, I think it’s important to be exposed to as many opportunities, volunteer or otherwise, that you can in the field you may be interested in. Nagoya has an aquarium right? So even just volunteering at the aquarium, or beach cleanup or anything that will expose you to the environment, be it forest/ land management or the marine environment, is key because then you’ll understand whether or not it's a field you’ll be interested in or might be passionate about. Our earth is being challenged by all of the stressors that we as humans are putting on it and I want to leave this next generation with the sense of conservation and preserving what we have and regaining what we might have lost through phenomena such as climate change; rising sea levels, warming waters, loss of biodiversity, etc. I’m doing the best I can with the time I have. So I recommend internships, networking with former alumni like me, and even if you don't like what you are volunteering for or working on, at least it gives you a sense of what you don't want to do. If it doesn't challenge you intellectually or keep you curious it’s may not be the field for you.
A: So before your NOAA job, you had many other jobs?
T: Yes. After my undergraduate school, I thought I wanted to study admiralty law in part from my experience and classes I took at the Academy but also at university, where I was really interested in marine policy. I worked in a law firm in NYC for 3.5 years and decided I did not want to be a lawyer. I transferred to University of Washington to get a Master’s in marine affairs, which is really focused on U.S. marine policy and how we should use science to inform decisions in the US and internationally as well. Then I worked up in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest for 2 years as a fisheries observer on fishing boats as a biologist collecting data on what they’re catching and what their bycatch, which is essentially unwanted marine species. I did that because I wanted to understand the fishermen’s culture, for if I was ever to be a fisheries manager, at least it will give me some background and experience out on fishing boats.
A: That’s such a great attribute to have to be able to connect with the people at the forefront of fisheries and then use that experience and knowledge to connect that back to the policy making.
T: I felt like sitting in a classroom and learning about fishing was helpful but that it was much more important to understand the mechanics and purpose of fishing a particular species because, only then can you consider modifications to the gear reduce whale entanglements for example. With crab/lobster fishermen, we are exploring the use of a gear retrieval system that reduces the use vertical lines, so fishermen can modify their gear without compromising the target species that they are after while protecting the species like whales or sea turtles.
A: Were these technologies that reduce bycatch produced from NOAA or collaboration with the fishermen?
T: Good question. Both, absolutely. You can’t offer solutions without the fishermen’s input and collaboration. They’re the ones who are out there and know exactly how their gear works and how any modifications might affect what they’re targeting. So absolutely collaboration with fishermen is essential, but we also work with environmental groups because their primary interest is reducing any interactions with endangered species like whales, so we want them to be part of the solution as well.
A: What was your most exciting project you’ve been involved with in your career?
T: I don’t know if it was exciting but the most rewarding project that I worked on was very early on in my career where I was analyzing the effect of a drift gill net fishery that was targeting swordfish. The fishery was entangling an unsustainable number of highly endangered leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles. Through my analysis, I was able to highlight the effect of the fishery on these turtles and provide a solution to reduce interactions by 70-80%. Interestingly, loggerheads migrate all the way from nesting beaches in Japan and leatherbacks are migrating from Indonesian nesting beaches and feeding off of California for a few months every year. I’m just proud to say that in 20 years there have been just a few turtles caught by that fishery and they've been released alive. That's my proudest achievement.
A: For that project, did you collaborate with Japan and Indonesia where the turtles come from?
T: We have since then because leatherbacks are born in Indonesia and then a portion of them travel to California so we have been working with their government and the World Wildlife Fund, to protect them on the nesting beaches. Loggerheads in Japan are only born on the mainland and offshore islands of Japan so we have been working with them to develop a recovery plan to help focus our countries reduce threats. We also share information on the status of the loggerhead nesting beaches and learn what Japan is doing to help preserve the habitat given the rising seas and coastal armament and construction because that is the only place North Pacific loggerheads are born..
A: A lot of international collaboration! When I visited Yakushima, it was turtle hatching season and they had an active community patrolling at night to protect the hatching beaches!
T: Yes, Yakushima is a very important nesting beach for loggerheads! Japan uses large pound nets that are as big as couple of football fields to catch fish. Turtles have been caught in the pound nets so we have been working on ways to get the sea turtles to the surface of the water so they can breathe.
A: What has been the most challenging part of your career in your personal experience?
T: We have very strong conservation-oriented organizations on the West coast so with that comes challenges when we may be sued to provide more protection to marine species than we already are providing. We have interest in protecting our US fishermen, allowing them to bring sustainably caught seafood to our US tables but sometimes environmentalists believe we should be doing more. The challenge NOAA Fisheries faces is to balance conflicting interests between different stakeholders.
A: That’s interesting. It’s hard to balance the demand for seafood to sustain our population and controlling its sustainability.
T: Many other regions in the U.S. have very strong fishing advocates that are supported by politicians, whereas on the West coast, our fishing industry is not so much promoted in that way. Thus, it is a challenge get the message across that we don't want to import seafood from other countries that are not using the same management and regulatory measures that we are in the US.
A: When you work with different countries, whom do you talk to? And does that entity disseminate this information?
T: When we work internationally, we’ll typically work with fisheries agencies at the federal level to eventually work with states or provinces, or fishing cooperatives, depending on the country. Generally the strategy is to work first at a higher level of government, but we also work at the grassroots level, working with non-profits that could travel into coastal communities and convince them to try gear modifications such as using light-sticks or modified hooks. I think some of our non-profit groups have been way more effective than we have because we don't have the influence in another country but a non-profit will be able to go locally and talk to the coastal communities and understand their cultures. You may think it’s not so important but in some cases the wives of fishermen are more influential in the community than the fishermen so reaching the wives and convincing them, they'll convince their husbands and change will happen. At the government-to-government level, we have been successful in putting resolutions forward to reduce sea turtle, shark, and seabird bycatch , within regional fishery management commissions which are organizations formed to manage tuna stocks. Back in the 70’s, purse seine fishing were harvesting tuna and killing hundreds of thousands of dolphins so the cou came together to look at that problem and help solve it mechanically with the purse seines to allow the dolphins to escape. In light of that, they are also managing the tuna resource. Thus, these regional fishery management commissions represent international mechanisms that can collectively manage tuna stocks outside of a country’s waters, while still considering collateral effects of fisheries on whales, dolphins, sea turtles, etc.
A: I learned so much through all your projects! Are you enjoying what you’re doing now?
T: Yes, very much. Everyday is different and challenging intellectually. I am lucky to work with different groups of people every day including the fishing industry, environmental groups, state, partners, and other agencies that are interested in conducting activities off the West coast such as oil and gas exploration, wind farms, aquaculture, fisheries.
A: It sounds very rewarding to be in a position where you can make a difference in something you are passionate about. Lastly, what would you like to say to NIS alum and current students?
T: I would tell them to take advantage of all the opportunities and education that you’re given in school and don’t focus solely on your grades but really focus on what you’re learning because your education at NIS is going to give you the foundation for your future. It’s so different from when I was there, I don't know if there are volunteer opportunities but when I look at the NIS magazine, it looks like a lot of students are making differences in their communities. Take advantage of learning about the culture of Japan because depending on where you go in your career, it may serve you well when you’re communicating and working with colleagues from other nations. From what I recall, there were many foreign students from all over the world that went to NIS and you never know how those relationships with your classmates, experiences, and understanding their cultures will serve you in your future endeavors.
You don't have to decide what you want to focus on after you graduate. You have a whole world open to you and many opportunities so just take advantage of them as best you can. Network with other alumni if you see something that might be of interest to you.
A: I especially love the message that you don’t have to know what you want to do when you leave NIS.
T: Relax, enjoy your time, and don't feel pressured from your elders that are pushing you in one direction because if you’re not happy in a job, then you’ll burn out or be dissatisfied with your career and you don't want that. If you enjoy art, make that a career, if you enjoy music, anything, take advantage of your skill set and love for a particular subject and hopefully you’ll find a career in that.
A: What a heartfelt message. Thank you Tina!
Thank you too Aya!!
CEO and co-founder of Chiki Tea, Holly, Class of '82, spent four years at NIS (1969-73) and this time had a very positive and long lasting influence on her success as an entrepreneur.
I think deep down, the reason I am so determined to make Chiki Tea a success is to pay homage to Japan for the amazing childhood I had there and for all of the wonderful friends we made.
After working for 20 years in international commercial property marketing in London and Paris, Holly quit to work in a field that she really loves—Japanese tea. Holly’s love for sencha started while attending NIS. Interestingly, her uncle invented Kool-Aid, but since that was unavailable at the time in Japan, her mother told her that sencha was "Japanese Kool-Aid," and while believing it was the same beverage her cousins in Nebraska were drinking, the love affair began.
This love and passion for Japanese green tea are what fuels her company, Chiki Tea, today. Celebrating its 10th birthday in 2022, Holly’s company ships Japanese tea to customers in over 32 countries. “When you start a company, you never can predict where it will go,” Holly muses.
Holly co-founded the company in London in 2012, thinking they would open green tea cafes around the UK, but after a 21-day trip from Kanazawa in the north to Kagoshima in the south, she realized the need to move the company to Japan. Kyushu, where Holly says the best artisanal teas come from, is where she chose for the move.
Artisanal teas are teas made by tea masters using leaves cultivated on small farms or purchased at auction. They are then blended in small batches while the masters add their signature styles through the drying and heating methods. A master will select the best leaves from the crop and use his skills in blending different cultivars to achieve the flavor note, color of brew, fragrance, and so forth. Holly works with some of the masters and blends some of Chiki Tea's own signature teas.
Holly points out that most of the tea produced in Japan, especially in Shizuoka Prefecture, ends up as bottled tea and that the artisanal producers aren't exporting for various reasons, including the language barrier. So when she appeared on the tea scene, with a long history of living in Japan as a child, many of the tea producers saw Chiki Tea as some kind of Marco Polo. Holly and her company were passionately doing all that they could to help the tea industry in Japan. Even so, it is still a small business, and Holly believes it has to be. Almost all of her business is selling directly to passionate tea lovers. By keeping it small she can share their comments with the masters, and this, in turn, builds a very strong loyalty: the masters rely on her, customers depend on her, and the masters create for the customers. “We are in a very privileged position to be able to export these masters' teas to customers in 28 countries and counting,” she says.
In 2013 Chiki Tea moved to Buzen in Fukuoka Prefecture. Holly came on a cultural visa to study Yabunouchi school of tea ceremony, following several years of study with the Urasenke school of Sado. The immigration office actually suggested this path because they simply could not figure out what type of visa to give her, but they had a hunch she was going to be good for the tea industry's survival.
During that year of study, she completed her book Green is the New Black - the glorious rise of Japanese tea as well as establishing Chiki Tea Japan K.K., their Japanese subsidiary. The following year, after renovating a 150-year old building in Nakatsu, Oita Prefecture, she opened the Chiki Tea Cafe & Bakery.
The cafe was built not only as a test to see if they could gain traction in Japan, but also because she really wanted to export the very best matcha from Yame. However, to qualify, the producers wanted Chiki Tea to operate in Japan for at least a year, using their matcha. On January 2, 2014, she opened Chiki Tea in Nakatsu and operated it for two years using their matcha under their watchful eye.
After closing the test cafe to move to a more vibrant and bustling city, Holly headed to Kobe where she was asked to open a matcha bar in the heart of Sannomiya, which was destined to be torn down in about a year. She agreed, renovated a small unit, and operated that for about a year.
These two cafe experiences helped Chiki Tea validate their assumptions: foreigners were their market, not the Japanese! Most of our customers in Kobe were foreigners. As Holly put it, “ the Japanese were not interested in our sublime sencha and kabusecha teas - they had no clue what hon gyokuro was… they just wanted the homemade American cheesecake, British scones, and all the homemade sweet treats.”
Again, Holly adapted her business model to fully focus on the foreign market by shipping the best artisanal loose leaf teas and matcha from Japan. But as an entrepreneur, one company is never enough. After closing the cafe in Nakatsu, she co-founded an organic skincare company in England. 11:11 Limited, which uses the matcha from Yame as one of the key ingredients.
Holly also had some advice for today's Dolphins: When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way that it is….that your life is just to live inside of this structured world and not make too many waves. And to play it safe and not take too many risks, but that is a very limited life!
Steve Jobs told me that life can be much broader when you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that are no smarter than you! You can change this life, and you can influence it, and you can build your own things that others can enjoy. Shake off this erroneous notion that life is there for you to just live in, versus embrace it, and improve it, and make your mark on it. Once you discover this, you will never be the same again.
Links to Chiki Tea and 11:11 Angel Organics
For the full Holly Helt interview Connections click here.