- When did you start your career trajectory in business and management?
I've been extremely interested in how the world works for as long as I can remember. In terms of management, perhaps it was due in part to my environment at home since my father ran a design company. When I was in elementary school and started reading the newspaper, I couldn't help but wonder about the daily fluctuations in stock prices and interest rates at banks and other institutions. "Why did these things need to change?" I wondered. These were the questions that first sparked my interest in the world of money. Once, when I showed my parents how they could save money on our electricity bill at home, they gave me half of the amount they saved as a reward. Then, another time in elementary school, I suggested my parents refinance their mortgage. I had noticed that the mortgage rate on a poster at the bank in front of the station was lower than the loan repayment notice mailed to my house. It didn't take me long to calculate the benefits of refinancing, which I proudly presented to my parents. Eventually, they decided to refinance after my mother took me along to the bank for a consultation. I wanted to make my own decisions regarding my career path. For example, I didn't want to go through the entrance exam process more than once, so I asked my parents to let me study at a private cram school, so I could get into a private junior high school that was affiliated with a university.
- You ended up going to Keio Futsubu School (Boys Junior High School).
What impressed me most about Futsubu was the rosakuten, or "work exhibition," where students could show off whatever they were most proud of. During my tour of the school, I saw students present amazing works of art and full-length novels alongside things like research analysis on stocks. That's the moment I knew it was the place for me. As an avid soccer player, I also liked the school's philosophy of excellence in both academics and athletics, which focused on sports as varied as long-distance swimming. I really enjoyed my three years at Futsubu. But my grades weren't great. I liked math and science but had no interest in Japanese or social studies. At the time, I wondered if there was any point in studying ancient history and literature. I was always aiming to be second from the bottom because the worst grade would have to repeat the year. While I'm not proud of it, my goal was to graduate the same as everyone else with minimal effort.
- Why did you choose Keio Shonan Fujisawa (SFC) Senior High School instead of the usual Keio Senior High School in Hiyoshi?
My three years at Futsubu were fun and fulfilling—with the exception of my grades—but I began to wonder whether I should spend high school in the same place. At any rate, I craved change. In the end, I think only one other person besides me chose to go to SFC rather than Hiyoshi. While the school had many outstanding, studious female students, it didn't feel as free as Futsubu. That's why I wasn't initially interested in anything other than the tennis club, but eventually, I began to enjoy myself after learning to appreciate its diversity. Looking back, I wish I had worked harder at English since I ended up struggling when I went to study in the United States.
- You went on to study at Keio's Faculty of Business and Commerce.
My interest in how the world works led me to the Faculty of Business and Commerce, which appealed to me because it offered a wide range of study, both theoretical and hands-on, and featured a curriculum with a high degree of freedom. I wanted time not only to study but also to challenge myself to do the things I love. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to have gone to an interdisciplinary environment like SFC instead of Mita.
My parents gave me a lump sum of money when I entered university, which they let me manage on my own for the next four years. I tried my hand at the foreign exchange market to increase my savings but made some bad trades and quickly lost my money, about 3 million yen in total. So I started an internship at an IT venture company to pay for tuition. I went to work almost every day for about two years and eventually led the launch of a new welfare-related business. That, combined with my pay, gave me a sense that what I was doing was making a difference in the world. I believe that this experience proved beneficial when I later started my own business.
- You spent the second half of your university career abroad.
Yes, I was mostly overseas. First, I worked for two months in a metal processing plant in Shenzhen, China, which was the subject of research for a seminar on labor economics. I wanted to experience the labor environment of the factory workers for myself. It was a much harsher environment than I had imagined, but even there, I was able to propose ideas to eliminate waste in the plant. After that, I went to study in the United States for a year. My IT internship experience got me interested in studying computer science and engineering. While I had always been good at math and science, my English was terrible. But I told myself I could handle it and headed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, just outside Boston. That's when I really regretted that I hadn't studied more English. After six months of struggling with the language, I was finally able to communicate with the students around me and began to engage more in lectures and student events. What I found was that all of the students at MIT had a clear idea of what they wanted to do and a strong desire to contribute to society by solving the world's problems. They were so smart they put me to shame, and many of them are now working at hedge funds and companies like Google, Meta, and TESLA. Inspired by these exceptional peers, I became even more determined to work on my own business to solve social issues and make a difference in the world.
- After graduating from the Faculty of Business and Commerce, you went on to graduate school at The University of Tokyo. But before that, you ran the Marathon des Sables, an ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert.
I had heard about a marathon in the Sahara Desert from a friend of mine and thought, "I've got to do this." I had never run a marathon before, but I figured I'd manage, so I jumped the gun and signed up. The 250-kilometer marathon lasts seven days and comes with the risk of death in the scorching desert sun. I started training by running from home to Mita Campus and back again in Tokyo's sweltering summer heat with a backpack filled with plastic bottles of water equivalent to 15kg, the same weight I would have to carry for the marathon. I must have looked suspicious because once I was stopped by the police for questioning. When I told them what I was doing and showed them the contents of my backpack, not only did they let me go, but they even cheered me on. [laughs] During the marathon, a lot of people ended up dropping out. I had a tough time, too, with seven of my toenails peeling off as I ran, but I managed to finish the race second from last—same as in junior high and high school. [laughs] This reignited my can-do attitude, so after returning to Japan, I casually took my exams to enter graduate school at The University of Tokyo, which I passed without any problem.
- What kind of research did you do in graduate school?
I worked on data analysis of moving objects. Things like analyzing the flow of people from security camera footage, for example. At that time, my friends from MIT were involved in self-driving cars and electric vehicles at Google and TESLA, and I noticed a business was emerging in the US to install devices in vehicles to collect data, which was used to prevent accidents and traffic jams and improve self-driving capabilities. In the US, business was mainly targeted at general consumers, but I saw the potential for a B2B business model in Japan. Building a platform that collects driving data from cars can open up possibilities in transportation and industries like insurance, urban planning, and marketing. I knew I had no choice but to start my own business, so I founded SmartDrive Inc. in 2013 while I was still a graduate student.
- What was it like when you started your business?
When I was studying in the US, I had a real sense that a revolution was about to happen in the world of mobility. I was convinced that my goal of creating a platform for mobile data analysis and driving data would accelerate the speed of that revolution. This allowed me to start my business with the joy that I could finally do what I wanted. Of course, it was tough in the beginning. Not only in terms of the platform, but we also had to develop our data collection devices from scratch, which required a lot of talented engineers and staff members. Fundraising was also a constant challenge because developing a device requires millions of dollars. I personally took on several hundred thousand dollars of debt and lent that money to the company. But I figured somehow I'd manage, just like I always had. I wasn't about to give up. I was proud that my business would have great social significance, and above all, I was pursuing my passion. Instead, I believed that unwavering perseverance would be my path to future success.
- Your company employs nearly 100 people and works with companies that include major automakers and span industries like logistics and insurance.
Yes, but there is still much work to be done. In 2019, we established offices in Thailand and Malaysia to develop a business presence in Southeast Asia, where traffic congestion, accidents, and other transportation issues are more frequent. Our goal is to be a global platform, so naturally, we must embrace a global perspective. Like Windows did for personal computers and iPhones did for the communications industry, I have my sights set on a future where SmartDrive is indispensable to the world of mobility. We've also recently begun sponsoring professional tennis and basketball players. Not only do we wish to contribute to society through sports, but we are also driven by a desire to learn from the mentality of the world's best athletes. Here at SmartDrive, we must continue to grow as a company.
- Could you say a few final words to current students?
I have a personality where I can only do the things I love, the things that genuinely interest me. Looking back, I realize that Keio University was the perfect environment for someone like me. I hope current and future students will be able to do what they love without having to worry too much. Keio was founded on the principles of "independence and self-respect," and it lives up to those ideals. It's a truly diverse place where unique people can come together and inspire each other. I encourage you to make the most of this environment and focus on whatever interests you the most. Trust me, somehow things always find a way of working out in the end.
- Thank you for your time.
CEO, SmartDrive Inc.
Retsu Kitagawa attended Keio Futsubu School and Shonan Fujisawa Senior High School and graduated from Keio University's Faculty of Business and Commerce in 2013. As an undergraduate, he launched several projects at an IT startup before traveling to Boston to study computer science and engineering during his junior year. After receiving his undergraduate degree, he worked on mobile object data analysis as a graduate student at The University of Tokyo. It was during that time, in 2013, when Kitagawa established SmartDrive, Inc. The company is engaged in developing businesses related to data platforms and services that drive the evolution of mobility, an issue of growing concern worldwide.
*This article originally appeared in the 2022 Summer edition (No. 315) of Juku.