01 Dec 2004

Japanese Connection

Classroom bound after a career in marketing
by Margie Kelley


It all started with a Japanese language class. Steven Williams (MBA ’84) was a senior marketing director at San Francisco’s Genentech when he took Saturday classes at Soko Gakuen Japanese language school four years ago “just to keep the neurons firing.”

“It was a hobby at first,” says Williams, whose father had been stationed in Tokyo after World War II and brought back objects and stories about Japan. “But I also wanted to learn a non-Western language because, in the back of my mind, I thought I might eventually teach English as a Second Language ESL.”

Teaching is not such a far-fetched notion for Williams, who stopped work on his Ph.D. in English literature at Princeton in the late 1970s when an IBM executive recruited him for a sales position.

“There were no teaching jobs at the time,” explains Williams, who worked at IBM for three years before heading to HBS to hone his marketing skills. After working as a consultant at PA Consulting Services, Ltd., and APM, he joined Genentech in 1992, where he worked for nine years before leaving to launch his own marketing consulting firm, helping biotech start-ups get established.

But with Silicon Valley in a deep recession, exacerbated by the attacks of September 11, 2001, Williams walked away from business altogether. “That was a horrible year, both personally, with the death of my sister, and geopolitically,” he says. “I decided to throw myself into traveling and the study of Japanese language and culture.”

Williams joined the Japan Society of Northern California, based in San Francisco, and made friends with many recent Japanese immigrants. Before long, he found himself helping them get a foothold in their adopted country by revising their résumés, or advising them on academic studies.

“That’s how I got into career counseling,” says Williams, whose new consulting firm, Williams & Associates, is located in Mountain View. His Japanese clients tap him for assistance with the complexities of business English, obtaining work visas, and getting job interviews.

Williams acknowledges that career counseling for Asian clients presents a whole new set of challenges. “What they do is dictated by visa requirements and language skills,” he explains. “They stay away from things that require a depth of facility with the language, such as law or marketing.”

Just as he never set out to have a career in business, Williams says he never planned to find himself at the center of a niche market in career counseling for Japanese immigrants.

“I really fell into it. But the more I do it, the more I think I’m on to something,” he says. “One thing I have going for me is 25 years of work experience. I know what people are looking for when hiring and what skill sets you need to have.”

While Williams is enjoying his new role, which has brought him lasting friendships and allows him to travel often to Japan, he still views the work as transitional. His ultimate goal remains teaching, and he has his sights on being an instructor in one of the several ESL or humanities programs offered at local community colleges.

“Teaching was an original goal for me,” he says. “This fall, I’m taking a class that will require me to give four or five lectures on the history and culture of Japan. It’s a way of getting some experience. I hope it will lead to a teaching position.”

After a quarter-century in business, Williams sees that he has come full circle in his career, and he’s excited. “I’m 50 years old and in good health, and I’ve got another career in me. While this feels different, it also feels right.”


Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1984, Section A

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