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Growing up, Atsuko Tamura never thought she belonged in this country. “Every year, we talked about plans to go back to Japan,” she says. Always thinking of herself as the child of Japanese expatriates who go overseas for temporary assignments, Tamura had imagined herself perhaps finishing grade school in Seattle before eventually moving back to Japan. Grade school turned into college. College turned into first job. And that job turned into various senior leadership roles in the outdoor industry in a country where Asian Americans are the least likely to be promoted to management. Now the president of Oiselle, a women-run and focused athletic apparel, Tamura is still here.
Her best-kept secret to leading and thriving in the outdoors and running industry as a woman of color for all these years? It’s running that she credits.
Moving Through Space
Tamura grew up in an immigrant family where Japanese was spoken at home and English outside of home. She never felt she fit in completely in both the public space of school, nor a somewhat private space of her Japanese American community.
“I used to go to Japanese school on the weekend,” says Tamura. “But it was an unpleasant experience because other kids rejected me. I am a Nisei. I’m not the child of an expat. I live here.” Nisei refers to second-generation Japanese Americans born to Japanese immigrant parents in the U.S. and educated by “western” ways.
The family lived in a white-dominant neighborhood of Seattle, and they were one of the very few non-white families. “My brother and I used to ride our bicycles around the neighborhood, and we’d encounter a couple of neighbors who always yelled at us or gave us mean, cold glares. We didn’t know why at the time,” Tamura says. Years later, the family found out that they weren’t legally allowed to own property in View Ridge. Seattle’s restrictive property covenants had excluded people of color from home ownership.
That’s when Tamura first discovered swimming and where she first found her love of movement. The water was calming and welcoming. She learned how to swim quickly at age seven and grew very competitive through high school. Until just recently, she held several swimming pool records, including the 50-yard butterfly and the medley relay. One record even stood for 37 years.
Little did she know as a young child that her neighborhood pool was built as a protest pool against racial segregation, because the nearby Sand Point pool, in keeping with the covenants laws, did not allow anyone who was Asian, Black, or Jewish. The young Tamura only knew that in water she found her freedom. She worked hard and proved that she belonged because of her athletic abilities and as a supportive, dependable teammate.
So there Tamura was: in a Japanese-American community that didn’t accept her, a neighborhood she wasn’t supposed to live in, at a swimming pool built deliberately to protest racial segregation. She didn’t know that her intention to move through all these spaces that weren’t built for her would lay a solid foundation for what was to come.
Navigating the Workplace as an Athlete
Tamura always believed that the workplace would be fair and equitable. If she worked hard, built authentic work relationships, and was a trusted teammate, she would fit in. Just like in swimming. But that sometimes proved otherwise.
It was early in her career that she was on a team with only two Asian American women. Someone suggested she start using her middle name if she wanted to advance her career. During another occasion, a senior leader at the company, at the suggestion that Tamura would be a great addition to a project, asked “Which one? The cute one or the pretty one?”
Tamura started working at the outdoor retailer REI in 1994, when she wrote her own job description and proved how the company would save money by hiring her. She rose from a tax specialist to building up an entire finance and accounting department, and eventually became the senior vice president of strategy, marketing, and PR. Under her leadership, with her team and cross-functional partners, they were part of the force that took REI from a catalogue-focused, traditional brick and mortar retailer to a brand that stands for an active outdoors life, with e-commerce growing strong.
Leading in a fast-growing retail environment wasn’t easy. Tamura often found herself enjoying the challenge that comes with on-the-job learning but that also came with levels of stress.
Swimming seemed like an inaccessible time commitment while in that role. However, two treadmills were installed in the office and that’s when she decided to give running a try.
Tamura jumped on one treadmill with a friend on the other. Together they decided to train for a half marathon. Tamura bought a book for beginners and would watch movies to pass the time on long runs.
In 2002, she ran her first half marathon at the Seattle Half. It was a cold and rainy day, she recalls. At the finish line, Tamura smiled with pride and joy, her mind replaying her competitive swimming days. With the sense of freedom returning, she felt like she could do anything again.
Running has done that for Tamura repeatedly throughout her life, when she is often typecast as the “fix-it” woman. Running helps her with a confidence and commitment to draw boundaries to prioritize her own wellbeing. In 2006, when the imbalance of hours reached a crossroads for Tamura, she stepped away from “an opportunity of a lifetime.” She was senior vice president at the time, in an industry dominated by white men. She decided her own mental health and well-being was worth stepping away from all of her professional achievements and accolades.
Years later, we would finally have languages such as “self-care” to describe Tamura’s thinking back then. But at the time, many colleagues expressed disbelief and even disappointment.
Leading with Empathy and Inclusion
Running has helped Tamura understand why her presence in the industry is critical to many others, especially women of color. During her first half marathon training period, she was surprised to find out how hard it is to buy great-fitting and comfortable running clothes. Running gear wasn’t as accessible as other gear, let alone for people of various sizes.
Perhaps the unique mix of her childhood experience living in a neighborhood that wasn’t meant for her family, and the early career experience experiencing micro-aggression often without having the language, and the backlash she faced when she stepped away from a big job has all created the perfect recipe for her own unique leadership style: with love, compassion for her team’s full lived experiences, and inclusion.
“Atsuko has done a great job reconciling aspects of ourselves (AAPI women in the workplace). She’s always empathetic to herself and others… and in the meantime, push for more inclusion,” says Tamura’s mentor and friend Betti Fujikado, co-founder of Copacino Fujikado, one of Seattle’s leading advertising agencies. “In both the outdoors and running industries, Atsuko has helped redefine what the community is by making the sports relevant to a broader group of people… like making more generous sizes of clothing, like communicating a different type of joy from running and outdoors activities.”
In 2014, Tamura met Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle, through a mutual friend. They immediately hit it off with their shared passion of running and shared identity as women in leadership. Before long, Tamura joined as president, taking leadership of the purpose-driven brand aspiring to make running a more inclusive and equitable sport for all women.
At Oiselle, Tamura found people who love running not only for the competitive side, but as an act of self-expression and of freedom.
With the support of the Oiselle community, Tamura signed up for a full marathon. In 2019, she completed the Bellingham Bay marathon, with a large support team of colleagues and friends cheering her on in their cars and at several mile markers along the route. This accomplishment made Tamura experience first-hand the power of the brand-built community, and all running communities around the world. No matter how talented you are at a certain sport, your success and enjoyment of it depends heavily on the people around you.
“[Atsuko Tamura] has a knack of seeing the potential in every person and nurturing their talent,” says Bergesen. “Everyone wants to know his/her/their career path, and [she] is the one who helps people figure that out.”
In March 2021, after the Atlanta spa shooting, Tamura wrote a letter to her fellow AAPI associates at Oiselle. “She’s always actively mentoring our younger AAPI staff,” says Bergesen. “She’s also been a mentor to me. I’ve learned so much from her over the years.”
Today, Tamura is frank about the effects the pandemic has had on her and is looking to build a more consistent running routine.
In her career, she is excited to see the running space embrace diversity and inclusion with more openness. “It’s getting better because people are talking about it more,” she says. “I’ve been lucky to work in companies that put people first, not at the expense of people. I want to be able to use all my professional and personal experiences to help develop young women of color… to help them find their leadership voice. Not from a higher-up authoritative place, but to be part of their journeys… and to walk alongside them.”
With the expansion of Oiselle’s running community, you might just find this inspirational leader jogging alongside you one day.