Sushi Suzuki uses Design Thinking to craft riveting pitches

Rice alumnus coaches students and entrepreneurs to better convey ideas

Sushi Suzuki leads a workshop

“At Rice University, I double-majored in mechanical engineering and studio arts,” said ’04 alumnus Sushi Suzuki. “As a graduate student at Stanford, I was in the mechanical engineering design group when I realized I could be both analytical and creative – it would become known as Design Thinking.”

“I also discovered that when you make something new, chances are you will have to present it to convince other people to embrace your vision, to invest in you, write about you, work for you. Your presentation is how you take what is in your head and put it out there in a way that sticks.”

He joked that his professors did not want to read reports, so he also made a lot of presentations in class. Today, the associate professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology and founder of the Kyoto Startup Summer School works with students, corporations, and startups around the world, leading design thinking workshops and coaching people on how to pitch their ideas.

Pitching a new product

Suzuki’s ability to connect people and ideas led to a variety of opportunities in the U.S. and Europe. He was also familiar with launching a new company; he spent the summer after high school helping to build the first website for a new company in Kyoto selling kimonos online. 

“In 2014, I joined another new company a few months after it launched. That project did not ultimately succeed, but working as their concept developer was a great experience for me. Immersed in the startup environment, I quickly realized a lot of engineers get it wrong. If you build it, they will not come,” Suzuki said. 

“Just because you have a great product does not mean you’ll attract users or investors or reach the next growth stage. There are a lot of startup events where you pitch to an audience or set up a booth and talk to the people who come by. You must convince the people around you, which is difficult. And it is even harder to convince people online.”

The importance of the user experience was driven home for Suzuki, who realized the co-founders were capable engineers but had not designed an engaging website. The user interface was bland and did not effectively communicate what they offered.

“I see this a lot in my coaching,” he said. “Most people believe a presentation is the deliverance of facts. ‘I have information that you don’t. Now you have that information.’ But there is so much more to communication than that.”

“Try to build excitement. Most people who launch startups focus on making a better product, making something good. They forget to think about how to make it feel good or better to the consumer. And while you want to structure your pitch to be easily followed, you must also use your own voice --a new cancer treatment startup won’t incorporate the same pitch style as the next TikTok.”

Pushing past fear

Twenty-two years after leaving the land of his birth, Suzuki returned to Japan. He naturally gravitated to the familiar ecosystem of the startup world, and discovered one of his European colleagues was bringing a global startup event --fully conducted in English-- to Tokyo. 

“At this event, Japanese entrepreneurs would be pitching their product – probably for the first time in English, a language that is difficult for many people in this country,” Suzuki said. “I was invited to come and help the presenters with their pitches. 

“There was a line of entrepreneurs who would pitch for three or four minutes, then we’d give them feedback. I realized I had a lot of experience I could share, and startup event organizers  kept calling me until I was giving three or four sessions every year, all over Japan and around the world.” 

When the pandemic shut down the startup summer school he’d founded and his international workshops were postponed, Suzuki turned his hour-long workshop presentation into a short book. It is meant to be light and easy to read, giving presenters a sense of the goals for their pitch and some common points to include or avoid. 

“I’m glad I wrote it, but truthfully, you only improve when you are actually pitching. Reading about how to pitch or watching videos of great pitches can provide insights but they won’t make you great at pitching. Many engineers are introverts, and we have to push past our fear of the stage. Just get on with it and keep doing it.”

Rethinking student presentations

Students around the world are influenced by the biases and culture of their institution and their peers, so many of their presentations sound the same. Suzuki advocates looking beyond the classroom or the college for pitch and presentation ideas. 

“The way students have traditionally presented work in class is not how the rest of the world works,” he said. “In Japan, where I’ve spent the most time working with university students, traditional presentations go something like ‘this is what we did and how hard we worked, these are amazing results.’ The interesting part of the presentation – the amazing results – comes at the end and too much time was spent talking about the work that led to it.” 

He recommends opening with the context of the problem to frame the solution, following a popular presentation style known as starting with the why. This puts the focus on the problem the world needs to solve and how the team did that. Although there are many ways to present a problem, Suzuki recommends using real people and stories rather than statistics and abstractions. 

Communicating globally 

Because he has lived and worked all over the world, Suzuki has experienced a wide variety of communication styles. He said collaboration and discussion styles are very different from country to country, and sometimes within regions of a country.

 “When I began teaching design classes and workshops in France, I observed a very eye-opening student team meeting,” said Suzuki. “I had become comfortable with the American way of very collaborative conversations, how the participants would build on top of each other’s ideas.

“In that French discussion, it felt like the people around the table were combative, as if they each had to prove their worth against their teammates. I thought it would be hard to reach a solution, then the students stopped shouting at each other and one of them said, ‘Let’s go get a beer.’ That was when I realized it had been a friendly discussion.”

Being able to listen and ask questions is a good starting point in most situations, but Suzuki also realized the American way of asking a lot of questions can feel intrusive. He learned to adjust his conversational style to match his colleagues’ comfort level.

Suzuki said, “Americans are more likely to be forthcoming with information, but most people are willing to share an insight when asked, particularly if asked to share something about their culture. That does not feel as personal, and their answer is also informative for the discussion. The best advice I can give anyone is to be an active listener.”


Today, Rice engineers can gain valuable communication skills through the Activate Engineering Communication Program