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Pivot Pointe
August 9, 2023

Career Transition With Sayaka Wakita

Sponsorship Manager at Theater Dortmund

Sayaka Wakita graduated Cum Laude with Honors in Business from Harvard University. As a result of her high academic achievements, she was awarded the Dean’s List of Academic Achievement Award by Harvard twice consecutively. She also has an extensive career as an award-winning professional ballerina having danced in more than thirty countries. Her ballet photography projects in New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and St. Petersburg have gained worldwide success. Today, she is passionate about building the bridge between business and ballet; bringing innovation and new perspectives to both worlds. She also strives to contribute to the next generation by inspiring them with new perspectives through university guest lectures and speeches.

We asked Sayaka to reflect upon her career transition.

Photo by William Oh

Q: Congratulations on your remarkable success as a professional ballet dancer and graduating cum laude from Harvard University, a prestigious Ivy League institution! Can you share the intriguing journey that led you to explore higher education alongside your dance career, and how it has influenced your transition into new professional avenues?

Sayaka Wakita: It was never really my ambition to attend Harvard or any Ivy League institution. My main priority was to further my education and knowledge, which stemmed from my unconventional childhood. When I was about 15 years old, I wasn't even going to school. Instead, I was dancing in my tiny room and reading books, trying to learn as much as I could from whatever educational platforms I could find online.

Despite my passion for dance, I always felt the urge to nourish myself with knowledge and education since I was sacrificing school for dance. After graduating from an online high school, I started taking random courses at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), such as psychology and nutrition. I also became interested in marketing.

Eventually, I decided to pursue a degree and found out that UC Berkeley didn't offer undergraduate online degrees at the time, but Harvard did. Harvard was actually a pioneer in distance education, starting back in 1949 by educating people via radio. This hybrid program allowed me to be anywhere in the world dancing professionally while still gaining a great degree.

Attending Harvard has greatly influenced my transition into new professional avenues. It has allowed me to expand my knowledge and skills beyond dance, and pursue new opportunities in marketing and other fields.

Q: What was the mental and emotional process behind deciding to retire from dance? What prompted the decision?

Sayaka: I made the decision to retire from professional dancing at my current company in 2022 because I knew that a dancer's career is very short, typically ending around the age of 35. Although I had always planned to transition into another career, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to do so sooner than expected.

During the pandemic, all artistic work came to a halt, leaving me with little to do as a dancer. To stay busy, I began volunteering at my current company and working on the marketing and PR side. Through this experience, I gained valuable skills and was noticed by my theater.

They recognized my marketing skills on Instagram and offered me a job as a sponsoring manager overseeing six departments, including ballet, opera, orchestra, drama theater, children's theater, and the Digital Academy. I've been working in this role for six months now.

Photo by Dean Barucija

Q: It's incredibly inspirational to see a dancer thrive in formal education. Any advice for dancers who want to follow in similar footsteps?

Sayaka: My advice to younger dancers considering a career transition is to start the process early and have a long-term vision for the future. It's easy to get caught up in the small world of ballet and become hyper-focused on specific goals, but it's important to keep a broader perspective in mind, especially since a dance career can be quite short.

Thinking about what you'll be doing in 10 or 20 years can be a helpful exercise for dancers to do more regularly.

However, it's not just about having a plan B. Educating yourself can also nourish you as a dancer and make you a better artist. It's not just about preparing for injuries or the possibility of not being able to dance during a pandemic, but also about gaining knowledge that makes you a more well-rounded human being, which in turn can make you a better dancer.

Q: What are the enrollment criteria for an Ivy League degree?

Sayaka: It's not just about being a good dancer; getting into an Ivy League institution requires meeting certain criteria. While the specific requirements may differ between schools, for example at Harvard, you need to have a high school diploma. Additionally, it is important to submit a passionate personal essay explaining why you want to attend the institution, which is something anyone can do.

While SATs are optional, having a variety of extracurricular activities is important. This can include sports, arts, music, volunteering, and business ventures, among others. Being multilingual is also a plus, and these are skills that dancers can easily obtain.

Even if you were not a great student in school, it is possible to gain knowledge by being passionate about studying. 

Q: I understand that your passion for pursuing business started at the very young age of 17. You were invited by the Global Shapers Community’s “Regenerate Japan” program. Which aspect of the business world interests and intrigues you the most?

Sayaka: My initial interest in business came from my grandfather, who is a successful businessman and entrepreneur. I admired his curiosity and innovation, but what fascinated me most was his ability to identify opportunities in people, places, companies, and objects that were not reaching their full potential.

I am most interested in the possibility of recognizing the gap between where you are and where you could be. Business is about problem-solving, and I enjoy identifying problems, creating opportunities, and implementing solutions.

When I participated in the Coca-Cola-sponsored "Regenerate Japan" program organized by the World Economic Forum in Tokyo, my interest in business grew even more. The program aimed to bring leaders from local areas in Japan to Tokyo and then spread them back again to the local areas so that business is not only concentrated in the main city. I was excited about the opportunity to regenerate Japan through local cities, and that's what really interests me about the business world.

Q: I'm a big advocate for dancers in business; let's dive more into your entrepreneurial side and business mindset! Can you share more about your consulting business?

Sayaka: Sure. Between the ages of 20 and 24, I worked as a business consultant alongside my ballet career and Harvard studies.

Once a year, I went to Japan to hold seminars and lectures. From there, I gained clients who wanted long-term consulting from me. I worked with them for six or twelve months, depending on the program. My clients came from various industries, such as healthcare, small business ownership, publishing companies, and equity investors. They had specific problems they wanted to solve, such as expansion, internal communication, increasing sales, and company turnover.

My job was to listen to them, identify and analyze their problems, and implement a solution. One of my biggest clients was the Coca-Cola Company, through the Harvard Business School. I had the pleasure of developing the internal communication platform for them.

Q: You also founded an institution in Japan. What is the name of the institution and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Sayaka: The name of the institution is Worldwide Educational Corporation, which we abbreviate to WEC. It is an unconventional school for children from birth to adulthood. We offer programs in English, mathematics, finance, and ballet, which are not typically studied in schools. I founded this company in 2016 and I am still the CEO. We educate children in various fields and provide programming lessons, an area in Japan where there is a huge gap compared to China and other East Asian countries. Learning about these subjects is important for children, and my goal is to share my story with students and give them the possibility and courage to think outside the box.

In Japan, students have a strict lifestyle and they study very hard, but there is a lack of creativity. They typically memorize textbooks and that's the kind of study. In my English class, I remember getting bad marks for giving an answer that was slightly creative or different from the vocabulary that I was supposed to use. I hope to improve this educational system in the future.

Photo by Dean Barucija

Q: In addition to wearing multiple hats, you also work as a Sponsorship Manager at Theater Dortmund. How did this role come about and how does it feel to be on the business side of the company?

Sayaka: That's a very interesting question. As I mentioned earlier, I started working as a volunteer during the pandemic. I was very interested in PR and marketing, so I used my skills to complete various tasks. I created videos using video editing and Photoshop and even starred in a series of videos called "How to keep it like a Ballerina," which was a fitness program for people who were locked up at home and wanted to exercise in a more comical way. The goal was to expand the horizons of ballet and broaden the audience.

I was then offered a job in sponsoring last year. At first, I was hesitant because I didn't know how sponsoring related to what I had done with ballet and theater. However, I am now very happy with my career change. Although I was insecure and scared about my transition a year ago, I now enjoy my job immensely. I enjoy being able to make decisions and be creative. I create opportunities, develop events, and make partnerships with different institutions and companies.

As a sponsorship manager, my role is to create opportunities, whether it's funding, networking, or partnerships. This opportunity has opened up my life and my network in ways I couldn't have imagined. It has made me feel so free and independent in a way that I would never have felt as a dancer. Although I miss dancing and being on stage, it's also thrilling to be on the corporate side of theater and ballet.

It's essential to be extra keen on how we present ourselves and how we market ourselves. Our competitors are not other theaters, but other entertainment companies like Netflix and Amazon Prime. We are competing against them. For example, in a city like Dortmund, football is huge. We have a massive football team called Borussia Dortmund (BVB). One of our goals at Theater Dortmund is to partner with them to create a cultural school where young dancers and football players can be trained to become professionals. Through partnerships like this, we can achieve a broader audience because it's about what the city is interested in.

Q: As with every industry, there are pros and cons—and the dance industry is no exception. What do you hope to see change for future generations of dancers?

Sayaka: For future generations of dancers, I hope to see changes in the power dynamics of the ballet world. The concentration of power in a small group of people creates a hierarchical structure that makes those at the bottom vulnerable to various types of abuse. This is evident in the high prevalence of eating disorders among ballet dancers, with 80% developing some sort of eating disorder in their lifetime.

While some attribute this to the aesthetics of ballet, research suggests that it has more to do with the culture of ballet itself. Young dancers develop a sense of success being directly correlated with their physical bodies, leading to a need to obey rather than voice their own opinions. This lack of autonomy over their own schedules and the pressure to be a "product" of the ballet industry perpetuates this cycle of abuse.

As we move forward in the 21st century, it is imperative that the ballet industry changes its power dynamics in order to succeed and survive in our modern world.

Photo by Dean Barucija

Q: Any advice for dancers thinking about career transition or about to embark on the journey?

Sayaka: My advice would be to develop a life outside of dance, think about the future, be open-minded, and be inspired. When I was trying to transition a year ago, I realized that nothing in life is constant except for change. It's important to accept this fact, and the sooner we do, the greater things we can achieve in the future. There's no such thing as going back in time. We don't get younger, we just get older, and it's the same with ballet.

It's sad but true, and we need to accept it. Transitions can be a way to enrich ourselves and deepen our perspectives and personality. They're not necessarily a bad thing. They're inevitable and beautiful, and we should embrace and accept them.

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