Siberia is on fire. Europe is under water or in flames, oil spills lie in greasy films across parts of our oceans and we are all experiencing a very palpable realization that climate change is a legitimate threat to our future. There are wars, food shortages and water supply issues looming. And as the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated, the innate gluttonous and self-serving thirst of capitalism shows no sign of abating.

A meeting with Tokyo-based entrepreneur Priya Sultan, therefore, comes as a welcome surprise. It’s a breath of fresh air and one of the few positives when considering the pandemonium and anxiety we are experiencing as individuals, communities and nations.

With the charming and determined maxim of “you gotta hustle,” Sultan has managed to make sizable dents into raising awareness of social entrepreneurship. She’s also been finding methods and avenues to support startups and individuals who share her aims of changing the world in which we live. “Impact” and “disrupt” are two words which are repeated and recur frequently when speaking with Sultan.

Born in India and raised in New York, her work with the Hult Prize Foundation, United Nations and her own startup, Social Impact Lab Japan, hasn’t gone unnoticed. In just two years as a resident in Tokyo, she has been shaking and inspiring corporations as well as youngsters and networks. She has an insatiable thirst for change, disruption, sustainability and the creation of systems which mentor, guide and galvanize ideas and world-changing concepts and action.

Hult Prize Foundation & Social Impact Lab Japan

With a business degree, a master’s degree in International Relations and formative years spent in finance, the gregarious New Yorker acts as global projects director for Hult Prize Foundation. This was what Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus described as the “Nobel Prize for students.”

In addition to that, she’s also leading her own Social Impact Lab Japan of which she is founder and CEO. Never one to take it easy, she’s now involved in a new project named Social Mission Food Group and another which, although still in early planning stages, involves the revitalization of rural areas in Japan.

The global-reaching Hult Prize program was established as a $1 million prize startup more than a decade ago by Ahmad Ashkar. Supported by luminaries that include Bill Clinton, it has been transforming how young people can become impact leaders of change in both their local communities and on the international stage.

Both the foundation and Social Impact Lab Japan, according to Sultan in a recent interview with TW, “have a shared goal to impact communities and help lift people to a better quality of life with food, water and education. The reason they don’t have access (to these three essential things) is because we have done business the wrong way. The last generations have failed us. The next generation has to make things better. I think of ‘impact’ as improvement.”

Nurturing Startups

Her work in Japan has seen her collaborate with big businesses, startups, universities, high schools and technical colleges. Running regular accelerator programs, workshops and networking opportunities for young and ambitious students and burgeoning entrepreneurs, Sultan envisages a day when, for those interested, the lure of big business and a stifling corporate environment doesn’t need to be the only option available.

Sultan mentions the work that Fukuoka City has done encouraging and nurturing foreign startups through initiatives to establish the area as a “Global Hub city for the startup ecosystem and National Strategic Special Zone.” The driven New Yorker also cites Shibuya as a positive location for entrepreneurs due to Shibuya Startup Support (led by Shibuya City Office). This is an initiative that invites startups from Japan or abroad to base themselves in the central Tokyo neighborhood. They can then get assistance in connecting with local firms and receive valuable advice and resources.

Fostering Young Entrepreneurs

An example of Sultan’s work with Social Impact Japan can be seen in her mentorship of American School of Japan student Kyler Caldwell who, although just 16 years old, developed a game-changing nutrition bar in his school’s kitchen. The product, which will hopefully be released in Japan this year, was developed with the help of Michelin-star chef Hal Yamashita. Due to its nutritional value, the goal is to make it available in areas where malnutrition is a problem. This is currently being viewed as a potentially paradigm shifting and revolutionary project.

Support and mentorship are key to Social Impact Lab Japan’s ethos and strategy. “The incubation acceleration supports them,” says Sultan. “What happens with young entrepreneurs is they don’t say ‘I have all the skills inherently inside me.’ No, they must learn them. Not all of them understand marketing. Not all understand what it means to develop a product, how to take that product to market, to scale. So, they need certain skills. The incubation happens through these entrepreneurs attending these workshops and training sessions that will allow them to get the skills they don’t have or help them develop the network and support they need to move forward.”

In her beautifully blistering 2016 feminist publication Flâneuse, Laura Elkin writes, “We claim our right to disturb the peace, to observe (or not observe), to occupy (or not occupy) and to organize (or disorganize) space on our own terms.” I often think of Priya Sultan when reading this passage. I imagine her fight and determination as a foreign and female entrepreneur battling the patriarchy and bureaucracy of Japan with a wry smile on her face as she disrupts, motivates and carves out fresh opportunities, new social constructs and a life lived with purpose and a desire to embolden and support others.


Photos by Anna Petek