More than 75 years ago, amid the hysteria of World War II, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in detention centers across the U.S. GuideSpark CEO Keith Kitani became intimately familiar with that history, as it affected his own parents and extended family. They were held against their will in one of the greatest constitutional failings of American history.
I can relate to this, as my own family faced similar circumstances in the wake of Pearl Harbor. I felt a certain kinship with Kitani, who was a sansei (third-generation American) from Pasadena, California. He is a serial entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and now runs a company that handles employee communications software in Menlo Park, California.
Kitani recently wrote a post about what the legacy of Japanese American internment means to him.
“If I were to fast-forward 75 years, how would history characterize this new immigration ban, which targets immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, regardless of background or status? When the chaos at airports ensued, applying the executive order to all entrants, including U.S. citizens, dual citizens, Green Card holders, valid visa holders, and refugees, it all sounded eerily familiar,” he wrote.
Given U.S. policies toward today’s immigrants, it’s hard to say if we’ve learned anything from our past. But it is worth studying this history, even if you’re not descended from Japanese Americans, because we have all inherited this legacy.
(I worked with Paul Kitagaki, a photographer for the Sacramento Bee whose images are included in this post, in a story on Japanese American photos for an upcoming issue of Alta magazine.)
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Kitani.
VentureBeat: Could you tell me about your background?
Keith Kitani: I’ll focus on my professional background. I was an electrical engineer. I got my MBA and have been pretty much in high tech since then. The more relevant part is I started a company in the late ’90s. We sold to Macromedia, which was bought by Adobe, and it’s now Adobe Connect. That was my first company. Then I started GuideSpark about 11 years ago. I’ve now spent more than 20 years in online learning and communication solutions. I don’t know how I got there. I certainly didn’t think about it when I was growing up. But I got there.
VentureBeat: That must have taken a long time to take off, Adobe Connect.
Kitani: We did it as a small company and then Macromedia bought it. It was Macromedia Breeze. That’s where it really started to grow. We didn’t get too far as a small company. Then Adobe bought it and turned it into Connect. That was probably an eight- or nine-year journey.
VentureBeat: Today that’s pretty big, right? It’s widely used now.
Kitani: Yeah, it is. I think they told me a little while ago that it had crossed $1 billion in lifetime sales. That was pretty cool.
VentureBeat: So you get $600 million of that?
Kitani: Could I go back to Adobe and ask for that? [laughs] I don’t think that’s how it works. I wish it did.
VentureBeat: What does GuideSpark do?
Kitani: GuideSpark is employee communication software that helps organizations communicate to employees around programs and information. One of the ways I think about it, it’s a marketing automation system for internal communications. The tie to diversity is that one of the big things around what we’re able to do is help organizations really personalize and target communications to different employee demographic segments. There’s been so much today that’s focused on one-size-fits-all. We’re trying to enable a much more personalized communication experience.
VentureBeat: Where are you based?
Kitani: In Redwood City.
VentureBeat: Have you been running this the whole time as CEO?
Kitani: I have, yes. It’s been a long — it’s now coming on 11 years. We probably have just under 150 people now.
VentureBeat: On the Japanese American subject, where did you grow up? Were you a nisei or sansei?
Kitani: I grew up in Pasadena. I’m a sansei.
VentureBeat: When did your grandparents come over, then?
Kitani: My grandfather on my mom’s side came over in the early 1900s. My dad was kind of a unique situation. They came over, his father passed away, and they moved back. Then they sent him and his brother back to the U.S. as the war was breaking out. Then he was interned. His mom and sister stayed in Japan. He had a very different upbringing. But they had come over in probably the 1920s.
VentureBeat: Where had they settled? Was it around Pasadena, or did your family migrate there?
Kitani: My mom was actually in Utah, Salt Lake City. That was where she grew up. They moved to L.A., and my dad had grown up in L.A.
VentureBeat: I grew up in Sacramento, but I know there were very big Japanese American communities in L.A. During World War II, what happened to them?
Kitani: My dad, as the war was breaking out, he and his brother came to the U.S. They were taken care of by guardians, and then they went into the internment camps. In Utah, they only took community leaders. My grandfather was interned, but my mom was not.
VentureBeat: Do you know which directions they went, where they were interned?
Kitani: My father was at Manzanar. I think my grandfather was in Arizona. I’d have to look up exactly where. I could ask my mom, but I don’t remember exactly which one he went to.
VentureBeat: Did they end up losing property or other things, beyond the disruption in their lives?
Kitani: My dad was a weird situation. He came back as a young kid with his guardian. They didn’t really have anything. For my mom, it was tough. They had a small business, a grocery store, but without my grandfather, it was pretty tough times. With him gone it was hard for the family to keep up all the things they used to do. That’s what led to them eventually moving to L.A. a few years after he got out, after the war.
VentureBeat: For you, what was it like growing up? Did that history have any effect on you?
Kitani: It was interesting. I wrote a blog post with a little bit about some of this. I didn’t learn a lot about my dad’s history until later in life. He kind of just kept it all to himself. It wasn’t a story that he talked about a lot. It was just this piece of time in his life. When we were kids, we would go visit Manzanar, but it was only as I was getting older and he was getting older — really about 10 or 15 years ago — that we spent more time and I started to understand exactly what it was, the impact it had on him and his family.
I don’t know if that’s more generational, or — though his experiences, I think, through the internment and the challenges he had, he kept everything internal. He didn’t want to bring that on the rest of us. That’s kind of how he lived his life. I think a lot about that. You’re obviously of Japanese heritage too. Do you have anybody in your family who was interned?
VentureBeat: Yeah, my father and his whole family, and then about half of my mother’s family as well. My mother actually got stuck on a visit to Japan just before Pearl Harbor. She stayed there until she could come back after the war was over.
Kitani: Yeah, my dad’s story was, the last time he saw his mom — she passed away during the war in Japan — was him and his brother on a boat waving to her on the dock. That was the last he saw of her. All those things — you would think my brother and I would have heard more stories about them, but we really didn’t.
One thing that’s always stuck out to me, you don’t see very many Japanese American tech CEOs, or CEOs in general. You probably see and hear more, but have you seen very many?
VentureBeat: As far as CEOs — who’s the fellow that ran Solectron?
Kitani: Koichi Nishimura, yeah.
VentureBeat: Right. I knew Ko. He was pretty rare. That must be the biggest company that I’ve seen associated with a Japanese American. Do you know many yourselves?
Kitani: No, that’s the same one that comes to mind for me. It’s really interesting. There’s a pretty large Japanese American community. If I think about fellow CEOs, other people who went to Stanford business school with me, there were very few Japanese Americans. I’ve always wondered how our upbringings and these kinds of scenarios have impacted that.
Talking about diversity, I’ll add another one I thought was interesting. I found out recently that Ko Nishimura went to the same high school I did. There’s a few years difference, but we both grew up in Pasadena. He grew up in a different time period than me, but one of the things I thought was really interesting for me, I was in Pasadena when it was integrated.
I learned a lot about this recently because one of my classmates just wrote a documentary that he released this year on the history of that. It’s interesting, as you think about diversity — we were in Pasadena, but it was integrated. All the student populations were racially integrated. I had that throughout my whole educational experience, from elementary school through high school. I was watching that documentary, and it was interesting, because one of my friends was quoted in there. He talked a bit about how we didn’t know the difference. We just thought the diversity was normal.
That high school experience, my whole educational experience, around diversity has been interesting to me. It was just ingrained in me, as opposed to something that I’d consciously think about it. But it was interesting to hear him say, “We didn’t know anything different.” Diversity was the norm. Then you come up here and have other experiences that are so different. But back in those days in Pasadena, it was one of the first school districts west of the Mississippi to be integrated. I rode that through my whole career.
VentureBeat: What’s interesting about Japanese American history is that so many more people than Japanese Americans know about it. They look at the internment and see lessons in it — the constitutional issues, the diversity issues, the human rights issues. The legal history as well. In some ways it surprises me that it’s part of a liberal education about what it means to be an American.
Kitani: It’s interesting to see and think about that. I’ve often started to think about the impact it had, and the people who had to go through it, like my dad. How did it impact me? How did it impact you? It certainly did have an impact on our lives and how things have evolved. I’ve not seen anybody who’s done a study on it, but I know it has. I think about hearing these stories and seeing how my dad acted. It made it a bit clearer. We are the result of our upbringings and our experiences.
VentureBeat: You mentioned your dad didn’t really talk about it. How did you learn about it? Was that from someone else in your family, or did you eventually have conversations with him?
Kitani: I sat down with him and said, “Hey, dad, you’re getting old. It would be great to start writing about this, documenting the things you’ve done through your life.” That’s when he started to really share about it. I don’t know how your dad was, but my dad kept a lot of that stuff to himself. He wasn’t an emotional kind of guy. He kept it all to himself. It took a while to get it out. “Okay, now I understand you better. I wish I’d had this conversation 20 or 30 years earlier.”
VentureBeat: My dad was a little more open. He’d tell me some things that he didn’t mind talking about. There were other things where I got more out of him when I was an adult as well. He would talk about playing baseball in the camp. He was 10 to 15 years old at the time. He said that for a while he hated the U.S. government because they fed him macaroni 30 days in a row. He’d talk about some of the funnier stories.
I went to the National Archives and dug some records out. I asked about some of those things as well. It was an interesting historical exercise. It’s interesting that the Japanese Americans who have dug out some of this history can relate to each other. Among our parents, they always knew each other by what camp your family was in.
Kitani: It’s interesting how they — how different people handled it. For my mom it was a different experience than my dad. But it took a long time for me to get some of those things. He did talk about the sports that they played, some of those things. Only after a little while did he talk about how they weren’t living in the greatest conditions in the world, those kinds of things. That didn’t come out in the first conversation. It’s the stuff that comes out later.
VentureBeat: I don’t know about you, but for me it also helps me understand other people. If I probe a bit and I can learn something about them, I can place them, where they are in this history. If I talk to other people — say, a Vietnamese person, and they say their family came over in 1975 — if you know a bit of your history, you know that was a big year for them, that they probably came as refugees. Just a bit of someone’s history like that tells you a lot about them.
Kitani: Here, there are so many people who have come from other countries. I think everyone has — there are so many different stories that brought them here. Obviously, for us it was a bit different as far as the experiences we had here.
My dad passed away a few years ago, and that made me reflect on it a lot more. Obviously not the best time. It’s better to do it when they’re alive. But it did give me some things to think about. I don’t write a whole bunch of stuff around things like that, but I did write a post on LinkedIn that talked about it in relation to some of the immigration issues that have been happening recently.
VentureBeat: What is the lesson you draw as far as what’s relevant today about immigration?
Kitani: The way I want to think about it, I think a lot of people know about history, but how do you really think about and learn from history to apply it? It’s harder to draw straight lines from all these things, but if I think about some of the policies, it’s more a scenario of — it’s easy to go down a slippery slope of policy. Something happened 75 years ago, and it would be helpful for people to remember about that as policies are being made today. That’s more how I think about it, rather than having strong opinions about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. It’s important for us as we look at these things to look back at some of the scenarios that happened and try to learn from them.
People learn about history, but they don’t necessarily understand the impact it has on the people that were involved. Until my dad started telling me his stories, it was just visiting Manzanar, as opposed to understanding the impact it had on his life and the carry-over to me and my family’s lives. Those are things that, as you get older and learn more — that was what caused me to think about and comment on it.
VentureBeat: It seems like basic studies can lead you to some strong opinions, strong conclusions about what’s going on today.
Kitani: Yeah. The piece that can sometimes get lost — the people who were impacted, there aren’t as many of them around. We’re the people that need to carry on and think about the actual impact. It’s harder to truly understand that until you can get a few levels below, like you did with your dad and I was able to do with my dad.
VentureBeat: There are people with strong opinions about it who don’t have a grasp of what it means for the people who are directly affected. How you change the course of families for generations. Once they hear some real stories about what happens to people — you can understand where you stand on some things. What is an American? Who deserves these rights?
Kitani: Exactly. There’s reading about it, and then there’s personally experiencing, or feeling like you personally experienced through the people that you know. That’s often the disconnect. We all read about history. But the impact on people is hard to measure on an emotional level, unless you get it from a specific point of view.
VentureBeat: As far as communicating that, I don’t know if there are things you tell your employees, or somehow you carry this on in the management of the company, or your work style?
Kitani: As I’ve thought more about my background and the impact that I had with my family, through my educational background, growing up in a very diverse environment — I only started thinking about it more recently, and I reflected about the company we’ve built. As I prepare for these things — the next thing I do is I look at a set of stats to make sure of where we’re at in terms of a lot of these things. For us, on almost every scale we’re a pretty diverse organization. Our numbers, whether it’s gender or race, match close to the U.S. workforce. Whereas, as you probably know, a lot of Silicon Valley companies and technology companies don’t match that well.
I was trying to reflect on how my upbringing and my philosophies around it — one of our things around here is a value about being yourself. It’s really about appreciating the individual and the diversity of the experience that they bring to the company. That was something we created a number of year ago, when we weren’t really thinking about diversity and inclusion, but really just about individual.
One thing that’s happened, and it’s tied to communication — our team here started to create a program called Humans of GuideSpark. There’s that blog called Humans of New York. Twice a month they come up with a little profile with a personal story of different employees. For one, her parents came over from Vietnam around 1975, like you were talking about. You heard that story about her parents.
What we realized is that with communications and stories, you can really share and appreciate the diversity. It goes deeper than just looking at numbers or a set of people. It’s not just the specific gender or race. It’s also the stories that go behind it. Maybe that’s tied to the discussion we had about the impact of the internment on Japanese Americans, but it’s more than that. It’s the stories behind that and the impact they have.
I certainly feel, as I think about the cultural values we’ve built — we’re pretty diverse. We like to share stories about individuals and where they come from. That’s just happened organically. At our size of company, we don’t have programs. We don’t have any of that stuff. But it happens organically. I think that has a lot to do with who I am, how I was brought up, and the experience I had that shaped that.
That obviously leads into what I talked about earlier. One of the core things we’re trying to do is help organizations communicate better. Whether it’s a program around performance management, or diversity and inclusion, or any number of communications that companies do, the premise is that one-size-fits-all is just not going to work. Companies need to think about how they interact and connect with their employees in a way that starts to appreciate the diversity of that work force.
Again, none of these things were thought of 10 years ago when I started the company, as far as the culture and the products, but they’ve evolved as part of who we are and what we’re trying to do as an organization. It feels a little like it’s come all together somehow, without it being intentional, from what I was thinking. That’s why I think these things have had an impact on who I am and the kind of company and solutions I’m building.
VentureBeat: I think if you understand your people and your history, you’re able to work with them better.
Kitani: Yeah. And we’re obviously — one of the things I think are really powerful as the stories. You do that every day, so you know that. For us, so much of it is business communications, and then the team — we do a lot around sharing stories and their backgrounds. We have something called Our Values, Our Voices, which is a podcast the internal team has created where they tell stories about how people interpret the values of the company. It’s a lot of interesting organic stuff, but you can really see the power of it when it comes to life.
VentureBeat: When Japanese American history comes up, do you find that there’s some division of opinion about it? Is your interpretation different from some people growing up today? Do you find that there are different kinds of opinions about it?
Kitani: I wouldn’t say there are different kinds of opinions? I think I see the differences in the same way that I saw the differences 10 or 15 years ago, when I talked to my dad. I think the difference is, when most people that I know read about it, they don’t talk about it as a positive thing that this country did. Certainly some people understand why it was, and there are slight differences of opinion.
But the difference for me is understanding what it was and how it impacted those people and their families. When my mom’s family had a grocery store and then went through their struggles and ended up moving to California, that’s a pretty big impact on a family. People don’t think about that when they just read about this.
Or my dad, who essentially had to start over, he and his guardian. It shaped how we interacted and what he valued. He would tell me stories of family and the noise of family, how that was something that he treasured in our house, because he didn’t have that. Those are the things that, for me — I wouldn’t say it’s a difference of opinion, but it’s a different perspective that even I didn’t really have.
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