Edward Senju, Regional CEO of Sansan Global Pte Ltd, clearly relishes that he was “born different”. Born to Japanese parents in Mexico — where the bank his father worked at supported Japanese car companies — he moved to the US and stayed in Los Angeles until he was 13 years old. Then he returned to Japan, attended university in Tokyo and got a job.
But instead of trying to get hired by a Japanese company, he cast his eye on MNCs. “The sense I got from the Japanese companies was that everyone was the same. Even during job hunting, everyone dresses up in a suit called the ‘recruiting suit’. I felt there was no reason to spoil my personality.”
Adds Senju: “So I shifted to working for global companies and that’s how I found Oracle. That’s where I really fell in love with technology, data and the way tech changes people’s work, as well as the start-up scene.”
In 2010, Senju quit to join Sansan. Only two years old, the start-up founded by Chikahiro Terada offers a platform that allows companies to scan business cards and organise these contacts in its cloud-based database. It also tracks updates in a contact’s details and notifies users of new contacts.
“The name Sansan is a play on the honorific for Mr or Ms, which in Japanese is ‘san’. It is a way to address people in a professional manner in the business environment, like ‘Hello Diana-san’,” says Senju.
“Our contact management solution helps to connect two ‘san’ (that is, two people) to better increase innovation across the business landscape and accelerate growth by better utilising connections companies make.”
As general manager of operations and its 20th staff member, he was instrumental in helping to steer Japan towards adopting virtual business cards and Sansan, its Tokyo Stock Exchange listing in 2019.
That same year, he was appointed to Sansan’s Singapore outpost, where he spearheads international expansion across Southeast Asia as well as markets outside of Japan such as the US and EU.
“Parallels between our 25-person international team and Sansan’s pioneer team of 20 when I joined are striking. In many ways, it feels like I am starting the journey all over again, but this time with a global goal in mind,” he says.
In fact, Senju now wishes he’d brought Sansan here earlier: Covid-19 has accelerated and made necessary the move to virtual business cards. As economies attempt to bounce back from the pandemic, businesses are seeking digital infrastructure across functions.
For starters, Sansan is working to integrate its virtual card solution into more online platforms, including Microsoft Teams and Google Calendar.
“While businesses have moved payments and meetings online, have they been as seamless or successful at moving the old-fashioned paper business card to new digital environments?” he questions. “This is a big part of the challenge we seek to help businesses in Southeast Asia address as we expand here.”
Behind his desire to keep himself unique, Senju has a deep respect for heritage. Odawara, his hometown in Japan, draws tourists to its eponymous 16th century castle.
Every year until Covid-19 hit, he would return to the city to partake in the traditional shrine-bearing procession. As he sums up: “I think you can say that there are two opposing forces inside me: innovation and tradition.”