Vanderbilt’s Man in Japan

Heiki Miki, MBA’96, is on a mission to raise Vanderbilt’s international profile

From the Fall 2015 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Heiki Miki travels the globe as Shinagawa Refractories’ executive officer and general manager of overseas business for Americas, Europe/Middle East and Oceania—and as one of Vanderbilt’s most visible and appreciated international supporters.
Heiki Miki travels the globe as Shinagawa Refractories’ executive officer and general manager of overseas business for Americas, Europe/Middle East and Oceania—and as one of Vanderbilt’s most visible and appreciated international supporters.

Need someone to staff an MBA fair in Tokyo? Call Heiki. Want to meet with top Japanese executives about hiring (or sponsoring) Owen students? Call Heiki. Trying to connect with Japanese alumni from other Vanderbilt schools? Call Heiki.

Anyone who’s spent time around the Owen Graduate School of Management in recent years will know that Heiki Miki, MBA’96, is a globe-trotting force to be reckoned with, the type of uber-alumnus who steps off a 24-hour flight from Asia to Houston and instinctively starts organizing a gathering of local Vanderbilt graduates. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” says Dean Eric Johnson. “Heiki is better than the best networker, even one on steroids.”

Asked what fuels his enthusiasm for Vanderbilt, Miki, recipient of Owen’s 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award, replies with a mixture of gratitude for his business school experience and concern that Vanderbilt’s name is not as well-known as it should be outside the U.S., particularly in Asia.

“People in Japan know Harvard and they know schools that have their location as part of the name, like UCLA,” says Miki during an early morning (for him) Skype chat from his Tokyo apartment, decorated, naturally, with Vanderbilt pennants. “But Vanderbilt isn’t well-known here. People ask, what is Vanderbilt?”

Miki, who manages global business for Shinagawa Refractories, a leading refractory manufacturing company in Japan, says he’s on a mission to raise Vanderbilt’s profile abroad. That was one of his chief concerns while serving for more than 10 years on Owen’s Alumni Board. Recently, he organized and inaugurated Vanderbilt’s first Alumni Association chapter in Japan, bringing together graduates from across the university. Beyond his formal roles within the university, Miki looks for any opportunity to help his alma mater, whether it’s mentoring international students—he recently convinced an Indian friend’s daughter to attend Owen—or organizing sushi dinners for Vanderbilt faculty and staff as they pass through Tokyo.

Discovering Owen

Miki discovered Vanderbilt in 1994 when he was part of a wave of Japanese managers coming to top U.S. business schools to help fill a shortage of homegrown managerial talent. Miki, who was only the fifth Japanese student to graduate from Owen when he received his MBA in 1996, wanted to attend a small program but one that was ranked in the top 25. The school also needed to have a great marketing faculty. Vanderbilt matched his criteria perfectly.

“I didn’t want to go to a big city with a lot of other Japanese students,” says Miki, who had spent six years in Los Angeles as a child. “My wife and sons—who were 2 and 6 at the time—were coming with me, so I wanted a place that would be right for them.” (He didn’t realize Japanese automaker Nissan had such a significant presence in the Nashville area until after he arrived.)

The cultural shift may have been more dramatic than in more cosmopolitan cities, but Miki says everyone at Owen was very generous in welcoming his family and helping them get settled. Inside the classroom, Miki says the MBA curriculum helped him expand upon and connect the dots in areas where he’d already had some experience, like finance, marketing and operations.

His true education, however, came from interacting with classmates on teams carefully assembled by professors to expose students to a wide variety of people from different professional and cultural backgrounds. That tight-knit atmosphere—fostered by regular social events, including Thursday afternoons sipping beers together—also gave Miki and other international students a chance to practice their multilingual schmoozing skills, something that has been integral to his internationally focused sales career in the manufacturing sector.


Alumnus Aaron Fung, MBA’12 (left), congratulates Heiki Miki on receiving Owen’s 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award.
Alumnus Aaron Fung, MBA’12 (left), congratulates Heiki Miki on receiving Owen’s 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Once Miki left Nashville, staying connected to Vanderbilt became much harder, if for no other reason than the logistics of travel. Even following the Commodores in sports proved difficult given the time-zone difference. In 1999, however, an Owen representative contacted Miki about helping to arrange a Vanderbilt delegation’s visit to Japan. That experience, which turned out to be a great success, inspired him to reconnect with the school. A year later he joined Owen’s Alumni Board, the same year he and his family moved from Japan to Connecticut. Today, Miki splits his time between the U.S. and Japan.

“It’s one thing to attend Owen as a student,” Miki says. “But after working with the Alumni Board, you look at the school in a completely different way. How do we market the brand name Vanderbilt? What is our global reputation? You’re always looking for ways to convey what’s unique about Vanderbilt.”

His experience with the Alumni Board also gave him the opportunity to work alongside fellow alumni that he’d never known in school, people such as Nancy Abbott, EMBA’91, the global HR leader at GE Capital Real Estate; Smoke Wallin, MBA’93, founder and CEO of Taliera, which invests in new food and beverage brands; and Brent Turner, MBA’99, chief operating officer of Rover, an innovative provider of dog boarding, sitting and walking services. After rolling off the board for a term, Miki recently was asked—and agreed—to serve on it again.

He continues to stay in close contact with Owen alumni, faculty and staff. Kim Killingsworth, director of international recruiting and relations at Owen, says his work has been invaluable to her efforts in Japan to recruit students and open doors at companies. On one of her recent trips through Asia, Killingsworth traveled from Tokyo to Seoul for a recruiting event. Miki made the same trip. “As soon as he landed he came straight to the MBA fair and joined in, recruiting Korean candidates while he was there on a business trip,” says Killingsworth, noting that Miki often helps guide international students through the MBA admissions process. “He really goes above and beyond. I joke with him that he even beats us to the punch posting photos to Facebook, usually before an event is over.”

Most recently, Miki has focused on expanding the Vanderbilt network in Japan, which led to the June launch of the first official Japanese Alumni Association chapter. That first event drew about 50 people from nearly 200 who have been identified throughout that country as having a Vanderbilt affiliation. Plans are in the works for the chapter to host other events including a holiday party in December.

It was at the first gathering, however, that Miki knew his work was paying off. “I got to the venue a couple of hours early and saw an older gentleman sitting near the door,” Miki says. “He approached me and said ‘I graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School 40 years ago and have been waiting for something like this for a long time.’”
Miki looked at him and replied, “Me too.” ■