Savvy Spotlight: Yuri “Yureeka” Yasuda of Wonderlily

Entrepreneur Interview

By Kelly Wetherille
July 19, 2016
Careers, Lifestyle

After growing up overseas, graduating from Sophia University, and then working in media as a television personality, Yuri “Yureeka” Yasuda started her company Wonderlily in her mid-twenties. By 26 she had landed her first deal as the exclusive Japan license owner of a major tea brand, Harney & Sons, which is now carried in over 300 retailers across Japan. Her success has been thanks to hard work, perseverance, and very trusted mentors—and despite what she calls her “weak” Japanese at the time.

Now, Yureeka employs 12 full-time staff and roughly as many part-timers, and she works with five luxury food and beverage brands (in addition to Harney & Sons, she distributes Pont des Arts wines and cognac, Ross Kopi coffee, Vosges Haute Chocolat, and Coconut Magic energy bars). With a passion for the arts, she also writes monthly columns for Common & Sense and Billionaire magazines. We caught up with the 33-year-old entrepreneur at her Aoyama apartment to talk about everything from starting a company to her favorite sushi joints in Tokyo. 

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Tell us a little about your background and where you grew up.
I was born here, but when I was two I moved to the U.S. along with my family for my father’s business. Our house was in New Jersey and his company is now in New York, so we would spend our weekends in New York, but literally my childhood was kind of like the typical Jersey kid, with deer, skunks and squirrels in the back yard. But it’s interesting because at the time my father was actually an aspiring architect working for a Japanese firm and he wasn’t actually in the arts yet. But I guess the sort of creative energy of New York really changed his viewpoint in terms of the life he wanted to lead. Rather than work in a big Japanese corporation, he wanted to do something on his own. He was always passionate about art, so somehow he managed to end up being an art dealer to major corporations and collectors. Thank god it worked out!

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And is that how your interest in art was sparked?
Naturally, I have a growing passion for the arts. Ever since I was a kid we would go to museums, auctions, exhibitions, and dinners and vacations with artists. So it’s always been a part of my life, but these days I’m starting to appreciate it more now that I do much more productive reading and research. I’m invited to art fairs and am exposed to a deeper level of the world, as well as a blooming network of amazing art collectors and so forth.

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You’ve dabbled in many things in the past, from modeling and being on TV to contributing to fashion magazines. How did you get into your current business?
Well, I have to admit, I didn’t really do things in the proper order because I didn’t actually have any brands or contents in terms of doing business. It’s almost the reverse order of things, because I did the media, entertainment and TV thing and then I realized that I do need to have a meaningful title or some kind of worthy status, or I would just be a sort of typical talento, which I knew I didn’t want to be. I felt the Japanese entertainment world is not necessarily respectable if you don’t have a real talent. So I thought, I have the luxury to travel often and am blessed with an international network, which is not so common in Japan, I should just start a company and figure things out as I go. There was no specific goal; it was a very general sort of thing. So I told my management company at the time, that I was going to take a year break, go to New York, and kind of find something that I could bring back. And then I was lucky enough to find Harney & Sons. But that just came out of the blue. I was staying at the Gramercy Park Hotel and the teas that were served in the suite room were Harney & Sons, and when I had the cinnamon spice tea, I was like, whoa! It was the first time I was blown away by a cup of tea. And then I found a way to get in touch directly with the founder the next day, and attended a seminar he was giving at the International Culinary Center. Luckily Mr. Harney was a very nice guy. I went back to Japan and brainstormed a marketing plan, and he gave me a shot. I think within a year he was happy with the progress and brand exposure I’ve made, so we signed a five-year contract, which was recently renewed.

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That must have been quite daunting to figure everything out from scratch. How did you go about it?
It was. It was seriously starting from zero. It was days and days of just endlessly researching online, making phone calls and actually meeting with various government agencies to help me with imports. Staffing and training, opening an office, financial planningthe “raw” worklife that you don’t see behind the glassy shelves of luxury brands in stores. Back then I just knew (or was so convinced that I knew) what needed to be done and I did it, but now when I think about it, I don’t have the energy or audacity for that. I’m more strategic and careful now. Nonetheless, I’m happy that I had an early start so I can relax a bit now.

Since getting your start with Harney & Sons, how do you now choose the brands that you work with?
Nowadays brands have started contacting me, so it’s a matter of selecting brands that I think I can provide a proper service for. It’s a matter of compatibility. When I see a good product, but I know I can’t brand it because it’s not really my image, then I might recommend them to someone else. I think my comfort zone is with the luxury food and beverage or lifestyle market. I’m opinionated in this field and trust my taste. It’s also kind of niche, which I prefer. I’m not sure I would be able to pull off the mass market thing.

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Your brands are now carried by some of the top department stores and retailers in Japan. Was that a difficult thing to achieve?
I remember going into my first meeting with Itochu Corporation, one of the biggest Japanese trading companies, with chipped black nail polish on. And to this day I’m such good friends with the buyer, but she still makes fun of me for it. But the product was good and the presentation file that I prepared was strong enough, so they gave me a shot and launched in all Dean & Deluca stores. And then that just sort of gave me my break; it was the ultimate stamp of approval. I approached department stores and buyers with the confidence of not expecting to be rejected. I knew the product was good enough, so if they rejected me once I would be more than happy to book another meeting and re-present with a different angle. So in the beginning, it was not about me, but it was really about the confidence I had in the product itself. 

You seem quite busy with running your company; why do you choose to contribute to art magazines as well?
I’m nowhere near a professional journalist or columnist, but because I’m interviewing my friends I tend to ask the most natural questions, which ends up being quite interesting since the person starts talking quite openly. So, I think I’ve written maybe five or six articles now on art collecting or art collectors, but in the future I would want to pick up artists that I think should be exposed more to the international market, especially Japanese artists. Whether it’s the language barrier or their very sort of domestic mindset, there are artists that I really think would do so well overseas but haven’t had the window of opportunity. So that’s one of the things that I would want to do to help, in a sense.

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What kind of advice would you give to a young person looking to start their own business?
I think it’s about focus and pushing yourself. I don’t mean to say neglect your health, but I think really, really pushing yourself is important. It takes so much to build a company from zero, and it’s not going to be easy. But you need to be ready for the challenge, because it will always be there. Do what you can to improve communication and efficiency. Be motivated and active. Fail forward. As one gets older, we realize that time is of utter value and priorities become important. And also, always remember to have fun and make friends along the way. It’s important to know that you’re working with nice people and for them to know that you’re a nice person as well. At the end of the day, it’s really the human relationships that make the difference.

Where do you see yourself and your business in five years?
I have been saying this for the past year, and now that I have my Harney & Sons flagship store up and running in Takashimaya Nagoya, I do want to start focusing on export. There are just so many products already in the Japanese market, and yet at the same time not much focus is placed on exporting Japanese authentic products. I think many people have tried, but maybe the angle they’re taking is too domestic or too catered. Or maybe the products they’re choosing are not relevant to the foreign market. I think especially in the luxury food and beverage industry where there is an appreciation for gastronomy and the finer things in life, there is much opportunity overseas with products like sake, matcha, etc.

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You live and work in Aoyama. What are your favorite things about the neighborhood?
This is my favorite neighborhood in Japan. The area within Omotesando, Harajuku, and Aoyama are my stomping grounds. It has the perfect balance between the sophisticated, refined, high-fashion world of Omotesando and the funky, edgy world of Harajuku youthfulness. Aoyama has no-fuss, laid-back vibes and is pleasantly discreet. So it’s in the middle of this triangle and it’s super convenient. My office is literally seven minutes’ walking distance from where I live. Not that I’m lazy, but I do want to be efficient in terms of how I use my time and energy, logistically as well. So this neighborhood is probably where most of my friends are and where most of my clients would be, so it naturally works out.

How would you describe your personal style and how has it evolved over the years?
You know it’s funny, I think I’ve been dressing the same since I was 13. I don’t wear too much color, I don’t wear many prints. I’ve always liked earth tones, like black, white and beige. But I do like to accessorize with a nice handbag, funky shoes or statement jewelry. I don’t do too many risky things in terms of clothing.

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Where are your favorite places to shop in Tokyo?
My basic wardrobe is mostly Ralph Lauren and Zara. I’m all about the basic, minimal look. It might be a bit ennuyeux, but you could never go wrong. I like to be able to recycle or chuck things and not be too fixated about it. I travel so much and I suck at packing, so I like things that I can just throw into a suitcase and not stress about it.

What are your beauty secrets?
I don’t use too many cosmetics. I think in Japan there’s this overemphasis on skincare, and there are like 10 steps that most women here take before they sleep. I might be exaggerating, but you get my point. Personally, I just wash my whole face with eye makeup remover, and then I moisturize with a mixture of coconut oil and Vaseline. And that’s all I do. It’s just two steps and I’ve been doing it for about the past 10 years now.

Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve become more conscious of my health. I’ve started going to the gym and I have a personal trainer, and if I could find the time I do want to do yoga. I am aware that your twenties and your thirties are a completely different story. I don’t think there’s a need to change something so drastically, but it’s good to try new things and see what works for you.

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What are your favorite places to get pampered in Tokyo?
I sometimes cut my own bangs when I don’t have the time to go to a salon. I do my own nails as well most of the time, because I like to change the color often. I get a sports massage after every workout, which eases the muscles and feels amazing. It’s secretly part of the reason why I go to the gym. I like to go to the Nagomi Spa at the Grand Hyatt, and if it’s a really special treat for myself I would go to the spa in the Ritz Carlton. And for something more approachable I like Olive Spa. 

What would be a perfect weekend for you in Tokyo?
I am finally making the effort to take weekends off, because I realized that this was productive — you need to have a work mode and a play mode. On a typical weekend I would stay home, read a magazine or some art reviews online, and then just have friends over, open a nice wine, and cook. I do like to cook and entertain. I definitely party harder when I’m overseas, so when I’m in Tokyo I’m quite “normal”.

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What are some of your favorite restaurants and bars in Tokyo?
I love Cicada for lunch, Two Rooms for a nice glass of champagne on the terrace on a Sunday. A nice but casual, kind of grungy dinner would be Narukiyo in Shibuya. And I go to a lot of sushi places. At the end of the day, sushi is all about personal preference; it’s really not about which is “best.” For me, it’s all about the shari, the rice.  I like Sushi Shin because it’s open on Sundays and it’s really near my flat. Also Sushi Otani, in Nishi Azabu, is amazing not only for the sushi, but also for its chic and spacious counter and the ceramics they use. Sushi Masuda, which opened about a year ago in Aoyama seats only seven at the counter, so it’s a very intimate place. Last but not least, Sushi Yoshitake, which is an amazing, three-star Michelin place owned by a lovely couple. It’s located in the heart of Ginza, where you would expect rigid, unspoken rules of conduct, but Yoshitake-san is super friendly, yet keeps that perfect professionalism. The sushi is foodgasmic! It’s my perfect sushi place that I keep returning to.

It’s very commercial and typical, but my favorite bar is the Oak Door at the Grand Hyatt. For a bit more privacy, there’s a secret little bar near my flat with a fireplace that I go to, but it’s really tiny and dark. 

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And finally, what’s the secret to a perfect cup of tea?
I think for beginners, buy whole leaf tea that is packaged in sachets, as Harney & Sons is. Because using too much tea or too little tea kind of makes a disappointing tea. So buy a brand in sachets because the amount is already pre-measured. Some people will say it’s only proper if you make it with loose leaf, but we’re living in a modern day and age and we don’t have time to complicate things! Just buy a good quality tea in sachets and enjoy the precious moment of relaxation.

For more information on Wonderlily, visit the company’s official website.

All photos by Celia Humphries

Kelly is a freelance journalist, editor, copywriter and translator who has lived in Tokyo for over 10 years. She was Savvy's founding editor, and her work has appeared in Women's Wear Daily (WWD), The New York Times and CNN Travel. When she's not at her desk or working from a café, she can usually be found zipping through the streets of Tokyo on her black Cannondale or enjoying a cocktail with friends on the balcony of her apartment. On weekends she teaches stand up paddle boarding and paddle board yoga from the beaches near Tokyo.

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