Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For busting through project barriers with next-level collaboration and communication

Nikky Chen is no Luddite. Working at tech giant Rakuten, she’s fully aware of how AI and other bleeding-edge tools will change the workplace of the future. Yet she firmly believes people will always drive projects.

“No matter how advanced technology becomes, project management will always require a human touch and human judgment.”

And Chen is well prepared on that front, as a virtuoso in keeping virtual teams tethered to reality. From her home base in Japan, she’s worked with stakeholders not just in the Asia Pacific, but across Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the United States. And along the way, Chen has forged ways of working that stand up to divergent time zones, languages, cultures, and business and regulatory environments.

“Working on global projects has honed my ability to effectively collaborate with diverse teams,” she says. “I’ve learned the importance of effective communication—in terms of both clearly articulating and actively listening.”

In her current role, Chen leads projects driving open radio access network (RAN) technology, which promotes interoperability among cellular network equipment so operators no longer need to be locked into conventional methods.

When it came time to manage her most recent project, the RAN Commander, Chen established communication channels up and down the org chain—from leading frequent meetings with Rakuten execs to developing progress reports aimed at keeping stakeholders in the loop. Chen also leaned into agile to amplify a flex-first mindset.

The RAN Commander aims to address the needs of RAN planning teams, and Rakuten says it provides those teams faster, more accurate and efficient visualization, optimization and development of next-generation cellular networks. Not only does that benefit telecom organizations—it also benefits Rakuten itself, Chen says. “By using our own product, we avoid the need for costly third-party alternatives, saving the company a substantial amount of money.”

Managing buzzy tech projects like the RAN Commander has not only expanded Chen’s project management knowledge, but has also challenged her “to explore unconventional solutions and stay at the forefront of emerging trends and technologies.”

And she’s applying those same skills to make a social impact. Case in point: Chen worked on a project involving the MTN South Africa Foundation to establish an IT learning center for abused women and children.

“We empowered women in South Africa with knowledge and skills that can transform their lives,” she says. “This experience reinforced my belief in the power of project management to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Chen’s desire to deliver social impact runs deep. As a volunteer, she teaches English to primarily East Asian professionals, bolstering their communication abilities and career opportunities. “Through this work, I’ve witnessed the transformative power of language in breaking barriers and fostering connections,” she says.

In her free time, Chen also pursues another passion: offering career coaching to young women, which she sees as an especially meaningful pursuit in Japan, “where gender inequality in the workforce is still unfortunately common.”

Her advice for all rising project leaders? “Actively seek opportunities to broaden your understanding of the business context of your projects.”

Nikky Chen | Honoree

Photographer: Shoko Takayasu

Q&A: Nikky Chen on making connections, staying focused and Angela Merkel

What’s your project management superpower?

Connecting people through empathy, language and understanding.

How are young people changing the world of projects?

They’re embracing technology, they’re more agile and flexible, they’re fostering diversity, and they’re more concerned with social and environmental responsibility and work-life balance.

What book are you recommending right now?

The One Thing by Gary Keller. We’re all so distracted by information and news every day that we can feel burnt out. This book reminds us to focus on what has the most value for us.

What famous person would you want to recruit for your team?

Angela Merkel. She led so many important projects as German chancellor, such as stabilizing the Eurozone crisis, the open-door refugee plan, and energy and climate policies. She demonstrated strong diplomacy and leadership.

Why did you decide to become a project manager?

Project management is always evolving, and it’s not bound to any specific industry.

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