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This entrepreneur is bridging the gap between LGBTQ jobseekers and employers

Kento Hoshi, 28, is the founder of JobRainbow, Japan’s first employment search platform catered to LGBTQ individuals.
NBC News

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Kento Hoshi had dreamed of changing society through entrepreneurship since he was a kid growing up in Japan, before he ever knew he was gay. But as he began navigating his identity and witnessed how the world treated people like him, that ambition grew into a mission of necessity.

Hoshi, 28, is the founder of JobRainbow, Japan’s first employment search platform catered to LGBTQ individuals. Six years after its launch, the website now serves 650,000 active users per month and is partnered with 400 companies, including global corporations such as Salesforce, Microsoft and Morgan Stanley.

“When diverse people cannot reach their full potential, it is a big loss for our society,” Hoshi said. “So I thought that it would be a win-win for both LGBTQ people and for society if I could be a bridge between them.”

For university students in Japan, the job hunt typically starts around the third year of school. Applicants must circle their gender on their resume — with only the options of male and female — as well as attach a photo of themselves, both of which could leave some LGBTQ job seekers vulnerable to hiring discrimination.

Hoshi recalled one of his closest friends in college expressing how happy she was in life for the first time, now that she had finally come out as transgender. Yet when her job search started, she found herself struggling to apply to companies because she did not know which gender was safe to circle.

“There was a company that she thought it would be OK to come out to during the interview,” Hoshi said. “However, the interviewer told her, ‘We do not have anyone like you at our company, so we cannot accept you.’”

His friend left the interview and, ultimately, withdrew from the university as well, Hoshi said. Pained by his inability to help when such situations arose, he said, he began thinking about how to create a startup that could confront this challenge.

JobRainbow connects its users to suitable employers by asking questions such as who, if anyone, they’d like to come out to at work and what bathroom they would feel comfortable using.

Companies hoping to hire through the platform can also request consultations on how to create a more accepting work environment, along with trainings aimed at promoting job retention.

In Japan, Hoshi said, 40 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual workers and 70 percent of transgender workers report facing hardships in their employment search. Meanwhile, the country faces declining birth rates and a shrinking labor force.

That’s why Hoshi believes fostering inclusivity in the workplace not only helps job seekers feel comfortable being their authentic selves, but will inevitably benefit society at large. Aside from pushing employers to invest in more talent, he hopes to do his part in building a world free of the stigma he grew up contending with.

As he was discovering his sexuality in middle school, LGBTQ comedians were gaining popularity on television. Hoshi said that although he genuinely enjoyed watching them, he could tell others viewed them as strange figures — as people to laugh at, not with. He said his classmates bullied him for his interest in these shows, calling him slurs.

He was, at the time, also involved in a kendo martial arts club. When he confided in the older students there about his experiences with bullying, Hoshi said, he was told it was because he acted too feminine. So, to “retrain” him, they struck him daily with bamboo sticks until one day, he ran out of class — still in his kendo gear — and stopped showing up at school.

“But the most painful thing was being at home. When we were watching TV, LGBT talent came on the screen. When my parents saw that, they said, ‘I hope Kento doesn’t become like that,’” he recalled. “When I heard that, I was really hurt and thought, ‘I cannot tell even my own family that I’m gay.’”

Devoid of a safe haven at both school and home, Hoshi found refuge in an internet cafe in Tokyo. He would head there every day instead of attending school, making friends through online gaming.

When he eventually gathered the courage to come out to one of his best friends online, he said that friend simply responded, “You are you.” They continued to play games together and, to Hoshi’s surprise, it seemed nothing had changed.

“That’s how I first realized that even though you feel there is no place for you in a [kendo] class of 40 people, there are people out there in the world who are searching for you,” Hoshi said. “This was a big turning point in how I gained resilience.”

Fast-forward about a decade, and Hoshi, who now had a boyfriend, came out to his parents at 22 years old. He said they didn’t say much more than, "OK." But a couple of years later, his father opened up about how much he regretted the comments he used to make about being gay. His father cried as they hugged, Hoshi remembered.

Now Hoshi, who’s living out his childhood dream of being an entrepreneur, aims to expand JobRainbow’s services beyond Japan. Discrimination against LGBTQ job candidates continues to pervade workplaces around the globe, he said, and he hopes JobRainbow can help change conservative Asian culture when it comes to furthering diversity and inclusion.

But there’s a lot of work yet to be done at home, Hoshi said. JobRainbow works to help not just LGBTQ job seekers, but people of other marginalized backgrounds such as those with disabilities. Though Japan is known for its innovation, its exclusionary work culture — like that of many other countries — can be harmful to many job seekers, he said.

“Japanese companies have been stunted for maybe 30 years because we don’t really have D&I,” Hoshi said. “I believe instilling values of diversity and inclusion into Japanese companies is a key driver to improving our economy and, also, we can make a lot of people happy.”

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