Interview with Ms. Satoko Kono, President of ARUN Seed, a company that supports entrepreneurs in their “dawn”

In Part 29 of our series of interviews, we spoke with Satoko Kouno of ID 87, the president of ARUN Seed, an organization that supports entrepreneurs through social investment.

Are you familiar with the term “social investment”?

We asked her in depth about new ways of investment in the 21st century and support for entrepreneurship in developing countries.

Read the full article to find out!

Q1. Please tell us about your activism.

 There are two major activities: the first is to discover entrepreneurs trying to solve social issues through business and support them by investing in them, and the second is to spread and expand the new culture of social investment.


Q2. Could you explain the activism in detail?


We focus on two main activities: (1) social investment practices and (2) public awareness. As for (1), to discover entrepreneurs, we hold a business competition (CSI Challenge) and provide social investment to the business competition winners. Funds for the investment are raised through crowdfunding and support from sponsors. We monitor the business operations of the invested companies from both financial and social impact perspectives and provide consultation and necessary support to the management (companion support). In addition, since we are currently investing in companies in Asia (India, Indonesia, and Bangladesh), we also introduce their businesses in Japan and connect them with Japanese companies. We used to hold the CSI Challenge once every two years, but from now on, we plan to invest in companies yearly. As for (2), we cooperate with local governments, companies, and schools to hold courses, lectures, and training sessions to spread a new culture of social investment.

Q3. What are the characteristics of social investment?

 Conventional investment decisions are based on two axes: how much return and risk are associated with the investment. In contrast, social investment has introduced a third axis of “social impact.” We use the degree to which the business impacts solving social issues and the novelty of targeting areas not covered by other companies or businesses as criteria for decision-making.

Q4. What is the extent of your investment?

  The scope of social issues is extensive, and many different types, areas, and sizes of businesses exist. For example, if  we are interested in the environment, there are large companies seeking to decarbonize through large power generation projects or to create energy from waste. At the same time, there are some small companies and start-ups that are related to environmental issues close to home. In this context, ARUN Seed supports companies in the startup stage. In terms of business areas, ARUN Seed focuses primarily on companies involved in businesses related to the environment and poverty. This year, we are focusing on gender as a major theme. That’s because the new coronavirus infection has led to discrimination against women, such as female unemployment, cases of domestic violence among women, the worsening economic situation, and economic disparity between men and women.


Q5. Do you have any examples of actual investments?

 Two years ago, we invested in an Indonesian company started by three Indonesian women. It is located on Flores Island, an island far from the capital Jakarta, and they started the business to solve the problem of poverty among women. Originally, agriculture was the main industry in this area, and men began migrating to the area to earn cash income. Still, they needed more sources of income, and their lives were unstable. Women were producing traditional handicrafts using palm leaves as a sideline, but their income varied and there was no production or sales plan. Therefore, they started a business to stabilize the seeds of these industries and alleviate poverty among women. For example, they sell as BtoB products to companies (, selling them at IKEA (, a major furniture store, and creating an app that makes it easy for small businesses to manage their inventory and accounting. (


Q6. What is the age range of the people you support?

The ages of the entrepreneurs range widely, but most of them we are currently investing in are in their 30~40’s.

Q7. When did you start ARUNseed’s activism? How many members are involved?

 We started our pilot project (Social Investment Fund for Cambodia) in early 2009 and established ARUN LLC in December 2009. We had five founding members and more than 100 investors. In parallel, we established a separate organization (ARUN Lab), which later became ARUN Seed, and in 2014 we incorporated it as a non-profit organization. Currently, we have about 20 members at any given time, including two full-time paid staff members, volunteers, and students and working adults who are interns.

Q8. Why did you name “ARUN Seed” to your organization?

 “ARUN” means “dawn” in Cambodian. The name “ARUN” was chosen to express the hope and energy of building a new society, as well as the hope and energy felt at the beginning of the day.

Q9. What made you decide to start your activism?
 After graduating from university, I worked in Cambodia for 10 years in international cooperation before launching ARUN. Are you familiar with JICA? I also worked for the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), a Japanese agency that implements Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA), as a field representative for a Japanese NGO and the World Bank. All of these supported the reconstruction and development of Cambodia, which was amid a long civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, and I lived and worked in Cambodia. At first, I planned to stay in Cambodia for two years, but as a result, I ended up staying there for 10 years and witnessed the changes in Cambodian society. During that time, I met Cambodian social entrepreneurs, and that is when I decided to start social investment because I wanted to support the movement of new entrepreneurs.

Q4. How did you feel when you first joined ARUN Seed?

I felt the excitement and hope of starting something new.

Q11. What has been the hardest thing while you started new business?

 It has always been challenging. Even now, it’s still a hard work (laughs). What do you think of social investment today? People would say that if it was an investment, we should make money on the acquisition, and if it was a support project, we should do it as a charitable project with the sole purpose of solving social issues. That is why I call social investment a “new culture.” It is not just an investment to make money but an investment in a business that improves society. Furthermore, time is as valuable as money in business, but it takes a long time for a social asset to become profitable. Getting people to understand the new culture of “patient capital” was difficult, in which investments are made with a long-term perspective.


Q12. Can you tell us the difference between aid and investment?

 ”Investment” is a two-way street where money is invested in a business and there is a financial return and social impact from that investment. “Aid” is used in such a way that there is a giver and a receiver, with developed countries giving support to developing countries. However, while working in the field, I felt the limits of a one-way relationship such as aid. The countries that are recovering and creating are ultimately aiming for self-reliance (a society in which the local people are empowered to stand up for themselves), but if the aid is in the form of “giving,” they will go back to their original state once the assistance is over. This was a dilemma that would not lead to self-reliance. This is why I was attracted to the dynamism of using the business (investment) method, which allows the local people involved in the project to not only receive what is given to them by others but also to take ownership of the project and run it themselves.

 Q13. In providing support to companies, is there any difference betweenJapanese  supporting a Japanese company and a company in a developing country?

 Some are different and some  are the same. There isn’t much difference in the relationship between the entrepreneur and the investor. It is the entrepreneur who runs the business. Even after investing, the entrepreneur is in the driver’s seat, not the investor who runs the business. We become a community of fate, taking on the risk by investing there and providing companionship and support. In that sense, it is no different in Japan or overseas. However, there are also many differences regarding the circumstances surrounding companies.

Q14. When do you feel motivated?

 As with any business, there are good times and bad times. One of the best parts of investing is being able to know the good times and the bad times. When it comes to mere support, the person being supported would like to see the good, and we (the supporters) would like to know the interest. In the case of investment, if you don’t have a good analysis of what is going on, you will lose all the money you invested if it doesn’t work out. It is more important to know the facts than to hear good stories. As an actual investor, I also receive financial data to understand or predict how the business is performing and whether the company will do well in the future. This is a feature of investment that allows us to know the actual situation. And the best part of investing is that we can then work with the entrepreneur to create a business that will push forward into the future, which is what we want to see happen.


Q15. Please tell us if there are anything you realized from your activism or  any messages to ICU students!

 I hope that you will be able to challenge anything in a relaxed and spontaneous manner. Here are some words from a New Year’s greeting card from my ICU senior thesis advisor (biology): “After you’ve done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully.

After doing something the same way for two years, look it over carefully. Alfred Edward Perlman (1902-1983), Railroad executive”.

He sends me a printout every year with words he are interested in. Below the words, he writes, 

“If I could, I would start something new and be well enough to do so ten years from now. I hope to be well enough to do so in ten years.” He is already in his late 80s! Isn’t it amazing that he is still challenging himself to do new things even at over 80 years of age and that he still has the ambition to do so 10 years from now? I hope today’s ICU students will be more spontaneous and take on various challenges.


Q16. What is your message or appeal to society?

  I had never been involved in the financial business when I started ARUN. Why was the company able to come out of that situation? One reason was that I had friends. Another reason was that I read about a case in Europe where a citizen who wanted to build a Steiner school started a bank, and I realized that any person could do something for society, even create a bank. There are many things anyone can do to improve the community. I want people to have hope that investment and finance can be put back in the hands of citizens, that they can create their future, and that they can create a new culture. Also, I mentioned earlier that many people had a dubious reaction to social investment.I wish more people dared to take the first step and not be afraid of what they don’t know, what they don’t know, or what they don’t know for the first time.


Q17. What are you interested in and want to challenge at the moment?

 Our operational structure still needs to be improved in some areas, and we would like to create a more sustainable operating foundation. I also want to put in place a sustainable mechanism for social investment in which anyone can participate. As for our business, we originally wanted to create a two-way relationship between Japan and developing countries, and we hope to make such a channel. And I would like to realize this together with students. If you are interested in social investment activities, please visit us at ARUN!


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           (ARUN Seed様)@arunseed

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