Shogo Okada is the co-founder of Progrit, a company that specializes in English learning. “We hope to turn Japan into a nation of bilinguals,” says the 31-year-old entrepreneur.
Okada is convinced grit and gumption is the way to go. “Some English schools tout that fluency can be achieved by studying 10 minutes a day. I just don’t believe that’s true. An hour a day is more effective than 10 minutes, and three hours is even better. Great language skills come from deep commitment and hard study.” In other words, there’s no magic pill.
As a boy, Okada says, he was only interested in baseball. The diehard Hanshin Tigers fan avidly followed the sport on TV. One day, while watching a post-game interview, Okada realized his father knew what the foreign players were saying before the interpreter translated their words. “My dad ran a textile trading company and having good English skills was part of his job. I thought that was cool, and wanted something similar in my life.”
To this end, Okada needed two things that later defined him: English fluency and his own company. He took a year off at Osaka University to study in Seattle. “I had just one purpose in mind: gaining solid English skills, especially speaking and listening.” So he promised himself to speak no Japanese. “I didn’t contact my family or call my girlfriend in Japan. I avoided other Japanese students. If one of them greeted me with an ‘Ohayo,’ I would reply ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ I became this weird Japanese guy who spoke English only.”
Okada’s efforts began to pay off after three months. “I could finally communicate in English like a normal person. In another three months, I could understand lectures and do my assignments.” He learned that American students took their education seriously and studied hard. “Reading the material before class was a prerequisite. Classes consisted of student participation and in-depth discussions.”
Okada’s time in Seattle paved the way to formal employment at McKinsey & Company, but he didn’t intend to stay for long. “I told my bosses about plans to start my own company and left after two years and three months.”
Away from the leading global consulting firm, Okada learned that going solo wasn’t easy. His first idea was to start an online housekeeping service, but “I couldn’t get funding. No one wanted to listen to my business pitch.” He changed course and, with his co-founder, decided on English learning.
“For me, English is more than a business, it’s a passion. It’s something I will never give up on.”
In Seattle, Okada was reluctant to waste a single minute doing anything that wasn’t related to his goal of becoming fluent. Though he found his classes challenging and was inspired by his fellow students, he didn’t want to be an outsider looking in.
“I wanted to become part of the native community and decided to get some work experience.”
Before summer break, he cold-called every hotel and hostel in San Francisco and went off to the city the moment he was hired.
“I worked at the reception desk by day and hung out at the club in the basement by night. In a couple of weeks my English skills soared and so did my confidence. By the time I got back to Seattle, I was able to tell myself: ‘I got this.’”
Okada says that Japanese adults pay about ￥200 billion in total each year to go to English conversation schools. Yet how many people can say to themselves, “I got this”?
Says Okada: “At Progrit we want to customize and calibrate the process of English learning so everyone can get the results they need. Increasingly, these results entail the ability to hold one’s own in the global business world.” This is crucial, says Okada, for Japanese businesspeople to stay competitive and relevant in the global community. (Kaori Shoji)
Words to live by
岡田祥吾 （おかだ しょうご）