When asked where he grew up, Tomohiro “Tomo” Hamakawa draws a timeline to track his ping-pong-like movements between Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, and China, with stops in Africa in between. Born in 1980 in Yokohama, Japan, Tomo’s nomadic upbringing as the son of an international banker prepared him well for a career in international development. “I derive joy from living in foreign places and learning from people with different perspectives and experiences,” Tomo says. “While we in the rich world have the responsibility to serve the poor and rectify social injustices, we also have the opportunity to learn from those less fortunate about being more generous, caring, and warm.”
Whether he is studying how to reintegrate child soldiers into society in Côte d’Ivoire or raising funds to document disappearing Tibetan cultural traditions, Tomo uses the anthropology and public policy training he feels so fortunate to have received to help right the wrongs he sees in the world.
“I interned for an investment bank in Tokyo before graduating from college,” he says. “I felt guilty working for a company that essentially made rich people richer. Though I was given job offers, I immediately eliminated the option of working in sectors that I don’t feel passion for.” Instead, upon graduation from Harvard in 2002, he went to Beijing, where he studied Chinese and taught English classes while figuring out what to do with his life.
It was in China that Tomo stumbled upon the work that finally bridged his passion and opportunities.“My first full-time job was a transformative experience,” he says. “From 2004 to 2006, I worked for the Bridge Fund, an organization that promotes sustainable development of Tibetan communities in modern-day China.”
Tomo was the only non-Tibetan on the team, working part-time out of an office in Chengdu in China’s Sichuan Province, and spending the rest of his days in dusty villages and nomadic pasturelands on the Tibetan plateau. There, many of the basics that the rest of us take for granted—water, food, sanitation, electricity—are considered luxuries. His experiences helped Tomo see a bigger picture. “I realized it’s all about influencing change at the policy level,” he says. “So I returned to Harvard and got a master’s degree in public policy.”
Since then, Tomo has energetically devoted himself to helping others. He explains, “I feel compelled to serve the marginalized and vulnerable in developing countries, especially in Africa and Asia.” Tomo is a skilled multitasker in this regard; while spending four years in India and the United Kingdom with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, which supports low-cost, high-impact interventions to save children’s lives, he moonlighted in two volunteer positions.
“Since 2007,” he says, “I have been helping my friend and former colleague Tsering Perlo fundraise for and manage his organization Rabsal, dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture through documentary film and photography.” In addition to training high school students to use video and photography to document their culture, Rabsal co-produced Summer Pasture, a film on Tibetan nomads whose way of life is threatened by modernization and environmental changes.
Tomo is now a staff member at Kopernik, an Indonesian nonprofit that matches simple, life-changing technologies such as solar lanterns and water filters with remote communities in the developing world. Tomo says, “The answers are often out there, but they don’t always reach the people who need them most. We help make that happen.”
Tomo is also training the next generation of social innovators and global health professionals as an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo’s Global Leadership Program.
“In anything I do, I need to make a meaningful contribution, use the opportunity to become a better person, surround myself with people I respect and trust,” he says. “Many people make significant contributions to the world. I’m inspired by this human potential.”