• Laura Hay, Leadership |

When I speak with successful women in financial services, I’m always amazed by the obstacles they overcame, including self-doubts they faced due to cultural norms and peer expectations when they bravely stepped out of the mold cast for them.

That’s certainly the case with Keiko Fukuda, who tailored a colorful career path, from art school to the luxury fashion industry, to a Japanese bank, before joining global insurer AXA. As I chatted with Keiko shortly after she relocated to New York, I learned how this marketing pioneer found creative ways to earn colleagues’ trust, by firmly believing in her goals, and finding common ground with her critics.

Creative instincts transform bank marketing

Keiko speaks modestly about her rise from an aspiring art student to a female executive in the Japanese banking sector and beyond. She admits that she withdrew from a top art institute because, “I miserably had to recognize that I did not have the talent to lift myself in the art world.”

Fortunately, Keiko realized that she could apply both her love of art and her communication skills to help her “more-talented classmates” translate their hard-to-articulate ideas into concept presentations and project proposals: “I saw that I could work as a team with very creative people and help them make connections with the business world, to help share their value with society.”

Keiko began her career collaborating on advertising and publishing campaigns at a prominent Japanese developer, but she realized that her prospects at that time were limited in that male-dominated workplace.  When Keiko confided to an American colleague that she was discouraged by the cultural constraints, her friend suggested she seek work with an international company that may be more open-minded about gender roles.

Taking this advice to heart, Keiko joined a renowned, French multinational luxury goods corporation and enjoyed the merit-based work culture where she was recognized for her successes, including building a new cosmetics retail chain in the Asia Pacific region.

Despite the glamour - and comfort of working in a largely female-led organization - Keiko made another bold move, to a traditional Japanese bank, when she eyed a senior role that matched her marketing, customer relationship management (CRM) sales and communication skills.  Reflecting on this risky maneuver, Keiko recalls that, “Many friends thought I was crazy going into financial services, but I saw this as a chance to use my knowledge in customer experience to transform a very traditional industry with creative solutions. Just as I had done at university, I would help very smart people sell something in a way that would appeal more to their customers.”

Keiko acknowledges that the move was not easy. Even with the support of the CEO to “make banking marketing more customer centric,” she was one of the youngest general managers in a male-run bank where financial numbers overshadowed untested marketing ideas.

“With no background in financial services, I wasn’t trusted by my colleagues,” says Keiko, whose instincts told her that fresh creativity was required to make banking products more understandable and appealing to the public.  “Essentially, I just had to believe in myself and that my viewpoint was the right thing for the company and customers. If I truly believed in that, and if I performed with passion, backed up with factual data, I could get results and earn others’ trust.”

Keiko’s perseverance paid off, when, in the face of opposition from conservative sales and operations teams, she launched a splashy bank program that allowed clients to customize their cash cards with an artistic color palette tied to easy-to-understand product features. The campaign garnered unimaginable publicity and exceeded sales expectations, earning Keiko the trust of her peers, recognition through the Nikkei Woman of the Year award, and later, the attention of AXA Life Insurance Japan.

Listen to understand, and find common ground

While Keiko naturally builds connections with other creative types, she also has a flair for earning the trust - and working effectively with ‘right-brained thinkers’ - from financial-statement focused bankers to colleagues with contrasting cultural or gender-role mindsets.  “The key for me is really listening to understand them and think of things from others’ point of view. Then, you can find common ground or offer a solution that satisfies their needs and yours.” She adds that women may have an advantage at doing so: “We are often very passionate about our work, and doing the right thing, rather than immersing ourselves in power and politics. We can prove ourselves through our convictions and our work results.”

There’s definitely something to be learned from Keiko’s approach, since she’s made her way with grace and humility in highly competitive industries, despite unyielding cultures, hierarchies, and ever-larger challenges. “It definitely can be difficult, but you can do it if you believe in yourself and the work,” concludes Keiko. “Believe strongly that what you are doing is right, and demonstrate your own deep skills, so you can earn others’ trust, and make it all happen.”

For more inspiring stories from women leaders in financial services visit home.kpmg/mindthegap.

More about Keiko Fukuda

Based in New York City, Keiko is a Board Director with AXA Direct Life Co, where she applies her over 20 years of experience in customer relationship management, strategic business development, marketing, and communications. Prior to her appointment to the Board in October 2021, Keiko dedicated seven years to AXA Life Insurance Japan, in senior marketing roles, most recently as the Executive Officer/Head of Inforce, the insurer’s customer development and management division. Keiko also held the post of Head of Marketing and General Manager at a large Japanese bank in Tokyo, following a six-year tenure in marketing and communication roles at a large French multinational luxury goods corporation. She began her career in advertising and publishing at a well-known developer in Japan, after graduating from Musashino Art University, majoring in space produce design. Keiko also competed her Executive MBA at Waseda University and today contributes her time as a speaker and leader of various diversity initiatives at AXA.