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Miyuki Zeniya, Head of Sustainable Finance, The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company Limited: Putting Things in Perspective

Miyuki Zeniya • 18 August 2021

Putting Things in Perspective

Miyuki Zeniya, who oversees sustainable finance at The Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company in Japan, is a long-term thinker. An avid reader, she has studied human behavior – particularly leadership – going back to ancient times in China and Rome, and she has sought to apply the perspective she acquired throughout her career, first in human relations in the 1990’s,  then in investor relations and private equity, and now asset management.

The Tokyo-based Dai-ichi Life Group, which dates back to 1902, has domestic and international life insurance businesses and is also involved in global asset management. To date, it’s Japan’s third-largest private insurer with $294.83 billion in assets under management; the portfolio is invested in national government bonds (45%), foreign securities (35%), and domestic stocks (11%), among others.

Here, Miyuki Zeniya, who assumed her current role in sustainability investing at Dai-Ichi Life in 2019,shares with Allocator Intel thoughts on her passage through the financial services industry and comments on lessons she’s learned, as well as the company’s role as an industry leader in sustainability.

MikuyiTell us about your organization
I have two positions. One is Deputy Head of Global Sustainability at the Corporate Planning Unit of Dai-ichi Life Holdings, Inc. (the parent company), and we are in a position to promote overall sustainability. The other one is Head of Sustainable Finance at Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co., Ltd., which is a subsidiary, and I am involved in the Investment Planning Department, where we are monitoring the assets under management and promoting sustainable finance as an institutional investor and asset owner.

The Corporate Planning Unit of Dai-Ichi Life Holdings is in charge of promoting the sustainability for the entire group, and we may collaborate with members of other departments. Since the Dai-ichi Life Insurance sets the management policy for all assets held, we are involved in ESG integration and promoting investment that contributes to solving sustainable development concerns, such as climate change. In addition, we play a role in widely communicating our efforts in Japan and overseas.

What was the impact of the pandemic, and what has been the response? 
Before Covid-19, most of my work was in the office, but in the pandemic, teleworking has increased rapidly. I think that it is becoming more efficient to use the convenience aspects of teleworking, but there are situations where it is better to meet and talk in person.

As a life insurance company, we set Quality of Life (QOL) improvement as one of the ESG priority themes, and we are focusing on supporting measures against new coronavirus infections. We also have supported investment in response to the growing momentum for issuing social bonds and also the creation of healthcare-related innovations through impact investment.

We manage funds entrusted to us by customers all over Japan with a wide range of assets, so we seek to obtain attractive medium- to long-term investment returns and also a sustainable society that is conscious of various stakeholders. We are managing assets with the aim of achieving both. In fiscal year 2020, we committed to further promoting ESG investment toward the realization of a sustainable society.

Are there any asset classes or kinds of investments that you are ramping up, or reducing?
Asset management at Dai-ichi Life is based on ALM (Asset Liability Management) and considers the characteristics of our insurance liabilities, so managing interest rate risk is mainly used to ensure financial soundness against fluctuations in financial markets and improve capital efficiency. We are working to improve our risk profile by reducing market-related risks. In addition, from the perspective of improving the profitability of the portfolio and diversifying risks, we are actively investing in the infrastructure field and investing in alternative and real assets.

In February, we received the Gold Award from the Minister of the Environment in the investment category at the ESG Finance Awards Japan, which was established to popularize and expand ESG finance. Going forward, we will continue to actively participate in international initiatives and quickly incorporate global trends to strengthen our posture.

What are the biggest barriers you have faced in your career? Has being a woman impacted your experience in your career?
When I was in my twenties in Japan, women commonly quit their jobs when they got married. It was a time when people did not accept women with children working. Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Law was enacted in 1985, there are major barriers for women working in the same way as men in Japanese society, and for me, as a single mother, returning to work while raising children was the biggest challenge. At work, it was common for me to have meetings with people who were surprised to meet a woman in charge.

Also, as a man, your male boss might take you to various business trips and you would get the chance to gain lots of experience, but for women, I see that there are still many cases in which women do not have such an opportunity and are not given any chance. I think it has changed a lot recently, but that unconscious bias and these old values ​​in society are still narrowing the choices for both men and women when they think about careers. Having experienced childbirth and child-rearing, I would say that parenting itself is not a disadvantage for career development. In fact, it can be an opportunity to acquire the skills required for management, such as time management, listening ability, coaching, and maintaining a long-term perspective.

What can be done and what should be done, to alter the role of women?
First of all, I think it is important to create a system that respects diverse values. In Japan, there is still a strong stereotype about the roles of men and women, and I think that this is a major obstacle for women at work. I would tell women who are having trouble working and raising children to have confidence and courage. I also believe that men should spend more time on various family tasks and parenting at home.

To improve the role of women in Japan at this early stage, I think we should consider introducing a quota system. Among the companies that have diversity and inclusion (D&I), those companies that have clear numerical targets and the commitment of the top management, have already achieved results. I hope that it will become common in the Japanese society to be open and fair about everyone’s career choices because I would like young people to consider diverse careers, not only in Japan, but also overseas.

How important is female leadership?
Having multiple women in responsible positions around us will lead more women to think about their careers. It has long been said that female role models are absent. Since a large number of men have responsible positions, there are many male role models, and I think that the same environment is necessary for women.

Furthermore, I think that mentors are also effective. I hope that as senior management recognizes the values of the next generation of young people, the perception of women will change. In the future, I would like to spend more time with people in their twenties and thirties, to help them think about what they can do so that they can play an active role early to pursue change and growth in order to improve the future.

What advice do you have for women aiming for leadership positions?
If your boss tells you to take a leadership position, please do not hesitate to accept it. Before you take the position, it is sometimes hard to imagine the things you will do for the first time and the various experiences you can have in that position. When being offered a leadership position, women often think about their abilities at that point, but I think you can think about it after you’ve taken the position.

Also, I would like to encourage women to do things that can be done, every day, little by little, such as gaining necessary experience, as well as studying or listening to role models inside and outside your company. Opportunities do not come to those who did not prepare for them.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
At that time, due to the social environment around me, I think that I almost had given up because of the social limits I saw. But since then, I think that I have taken on a lot of challenges. In this era, I would say, "Do not put yourself in a small box. Try to break through the social limits more!"

Tell us about your background and how did you get interested in finance and investing?
I was born and raised in Tokyo. I graduated from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where I majored in the theory of international relations. Afterwards, I completed information system-related courses at Keio University Business School and HR-related courses at Cornell University Graduate School.

When I was a university student, I became interested in the significance and impact of finance as a social infrastructure and entered the financial industry as soon as I graduated. Afterward, I joined Nomura Research Institute, Ltd. Since I had been in the Chinese language department at university, I provided consulting support services to Japanese companies expanding into China.

What else did you do after university?
After university, I studied abroad for a year, I returned to Japan and worked at Jardine Fleming Investment Advisors (currently JP Morgan Asset Management) and learned how to invest based on corporate fundamentals. I left the workforce for marriage and childcare, but after several years I returned and joined a human resources-related venture company, Hu-Management, which was founded by an acquaintance of mine and offered outplacement consulting services. I served as a corporate planning and finance officer, and I was involved in management strategy, HR, and general affairs, until the company went public five years later. When I joined the organization, there were only four people, but soon it opened offices nationwide. After the listing, I became Managing Director, in charge of investor relations.

In 2005, I was headhunted by Saikyo Bank, a regional bank in Yamaguchi Prefecture in the West region of Japan, and I became the first female deputy bank president in Japan. I then returned to Tokyo and worked on business revitalization as an outside director for a number of portfolio companies on behalf of a private equity fund, which was at that time was one of the Mizuho Financial group companies. In 2013 I first joined the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company as General Manager for four different groups through 2019: DSR (Dai-ichi's Social Responsibility) Promotion Group, Human Resources, the Stewardship Promotion Group in the Equity Department, and the Responsible Investment Center.

Tell us about your family life
I have one son and one daughter, who are both adults. The difficult time as a single parent was the balance between work and private time. After giving birth, it was difficult to get a new job because I was away from work, but after returning to work, I was blessed with the support of my parents and friends around me.

What do you do in your free time? 
I donate to non-profit organisations (NPOs) that protect women from sexual abuse and domestic violence in Southeast Asia and NPOs that protect children with disabilities from the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

I often use the left side of the brain at work, so I try to increase the chances of using the right side of the brain. Since I was a student, I have liked the arts and often go to museums, concerts, and plays; I also do calligraphy and tea ceremonies. With my children, I have been watching movies since they were little, and I also like movies by Disney and Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation film studio, best known for the cat-like character Totoro.

Any books you’re recommending?
I think the books you need will change depending on the stage of your career and your area of ​​interest. You can also read the same book differently depending on your position. One of the most interesting books I've read recently is from Audrey Tang, the Digital Minister of Taiwan.

I have read a wide range of books by famous politicians, thinkers, and philosophers, including several from ancient China and ancient Rome. We can see that human behavior and thinking have not changed much over time. However, I learned that leadership changes over time. Recently, empathic leadership that listens to their subordinates is becoming more important. I think it is necessary to identify the elements of leadership and management that should be changed and the parts that should not be changed, according to changes in the external environment. You may lose confidence by comparing your leadership methods with other people, but actually you may have strengths that other people do not have, even if you do not notice it yourself, so look at yourself carefully.

This has been edited for length and clarity.

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