Bridging the Valley and the Island

New Board of Governors member, Mr. James Higa, brings two unique perspectives with him, having both worked through an exciting period of creativity and innovation in Silicon Valley, and grown up in Okinawa.

The Board of Governors oversees the implementation of business conducted by the OIST School Corporation. It consists of world-renowned scientists, including Nobel Laureates, and business leaders. Mr. James Higa became a member at the start of this year and brings with him a unique and diverse background.   

Mr. Higa was born in the United States and, as a child, moved a number of times between the USA and Okinawa, prior to completing his undergraduate degree at Stanford University. He then worked for several years as a freelance photographer before joining Apple and becoming embedded in the fabric of Silicon Valley.

At Apple, he reported directly to Steve Jobs to transform the face of technology and consumer industries. He was also a member of the original Macintosh team, and his role negotiating and launching iTunes changed music forever. He now works with numerous venture funds in Silicon Valley, as a mentor, coach, and board member to startups, and as a personal investor in early stage companies.

Mr. James Higa

“There’s no way I could have planned this career,” Mr. Higa said. “But I think it does say something about following your passion. I used photography to pay my way through School and, because I loved it, I went on to become a freelance photographer. Eventually, being in that creative field got me into Apple. I don’t think anyone can really plan their career. The jobs that are going to be prevalent in five to 10 years, just don’t exist today. All you can do is follow your passion.”

Although, Mr. Higa is still involved in Silicon Valley, he has also moved into philanthropy, as the Executive Director of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, a non-profit community foundation in Oakland known for its bold new approaches to philanthropy and its impact on the world. He hopes he can bring his experience in philanthropy to the Board of Governors at OIST.

“Science and philanthropy are not separate, and I hope that I contribute that perspective to the Board of Governors. In anything that is done, whether it’s part of the research that’s going on at OIST, part of the companies that are spun out, or part of the wider academic world, we need to think about what we can do for our communities, both the local and global.”

“Both my parents survived the battle of Okinawa, went to the States, and then came back,” said Mr. Higa. “The natural instinct, I think, is to hate and despise your enemy but in our house, we had Fulbright scholars, American exchange students, and people from the base coming through all the time. Seeing my parents turn what should have been hate and rage, into love and acceptance, probably had a big effect on me in terms of thinking about what I can do in the world.”

But, he explained, his connection with Okinawa runs deeper than that. Historically, the people of Okinawa were some of the first ‘knowledge workers’ in the world. “The notion that these tiny islands survived all the nations around them by the sheer power of the knowledge they were able to gain and use, has been an enormous source of inspiration and confidence for me. If I think back to the kingdom days, the Ryukyu islands existed because of their people’s immense knowledge of the Chinese courts and the ability to speak the language. This allowed the kingdom to develop trade with China. Okinawa was always outward-looking; their whole economy was based on information and knowledge.”

Whether it be in the tech industry, in non-profits, or on University boards, Mr. Higa emphasizes that what the world needs right now is to embrace the idea of radical collaboration. “We need diverse skillsets and diverse cognitive abilities,” he said. “Whilst I was at Apple, we never thought of ourselves as a tech company because technology is not enough. You must bring beauty into the world alongside the technology. Cognitive diversity, along with different experiences, backgrounds and ideas, is what drives innovation and creativity.”


Listen to the March 12, 2020 OIST Podcast “Radical Collaboration with James Higa”

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