The CEO of Hawai‘i Investment Ready (HIR) and two Native Hawaiian entrepreneur alumni of HIR’s business accelerator program shared their mana‘o (thoughts) and real-life lessons about starting a business with aspiring entrepreneurs and students during our second Kūlia Entrepreneur Virtual Workshop on April 27. HIR’s focus on social entrepreneurship—the process of developing, funding, and implementing solutions to solve social, environmental or cultural problems—equips entrepreneurs to succeed in their businesses and make a positive impact in our community.
During the two-hour webinar, more than 50 attendees joined the lively discussion moderated by Kanoe Pu‘uohau, Planning and Development Manager II, Kamehameha Schools, KSK’05, and the three guest speakers:
- Keoni Lee, CEO, Hawai‘i Investment Ready, KSK’96
- Rick Barboza, co-owner, Hui Kū Maoli Ola and cofounder, Papahana Kuaola, KSK’93
- Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz, executive director, Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi, KSK’96
Against the lush backdrop of Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi farmland in He‘eia, O‘ahu, these social entrepreneurs, who are also good friends, shared their stories, experiences, and a lot of laughs.
Keoni’s Journey from ʻŌiwi TV to Hawai‘i Investment Ready
Keoni Lee talked through his journey of co-founding ʻŌiwi TV. Though he and his partner Nāʻālehu Anthony faced many rejections initially, they persevered, knowing they just needed one backer to say yes and start the momentum. They succeeded and created a unique home on digital and cable platforms for locally produced, authentic Hawaiian cultural content that, at the time, wasn’t being shown on mainstream media. While ʻŌiwi TV was getting started, Keoni’s son was born, and he resolved to make Hawai‘i a better place for his keiki and future generations.
Before joining HIR, Keoni participated in its first business accelerator cohort with his social enterprise, ʻŌiwi TV. As with other purpose-driven cohort members, his first priority was not making money, but creating change that would address Hawai‘i’s challenges.
Keoni Lee at Hawai‘i Investment Ready. Courtesy of Hawai‘i Investment Ready.
Keoni shared about the emerging innovative model of “fourth sector” businesses that collaborate among the private, public, and nonprofit sectors and generate a mix of revenue streams that promote resilience and impact. He also reiterated HIR’s focus on helping diverse businesses grow through access to more funding and the right tools. Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi and Hui Kū Maoli Ola are two of many thriving businesses that have come through HIR’s accelerator program.
Some of the native plants cultivated and sold at Hui Kū Maoli Ola’s nursery in Heʻeia. Courtesy of Kamehameha Schools.
Rick’s Passion for Native Plants Fuels Company’s Growth and Impact
Rick Barboza and his partner started Hui Kū Maoli Ola almost by accident, following their passion for collecting native Hawaiian plants. “Like Pokémon—we had to get ‘em all!” They began to think about what to do with their stockpile of plants, which led to them taking small landscaping and restoration projects. The desire to cultivate and restore native plants to their homes across the islands took hold in like-minded people and businesses, fueling Hui Kū Maoli Ola’s expansion. According to Rick, reversing Hawai‘i’s status as “the extinction and endangered species capital of the world” continues to be a motivating factor in their work.
The loʻi kalo at Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi. Courtesy of Kamehameha Schools.
Kanekoa’s Mālama ‘Āina Impacts Food, Culture, and Next Generation
Kanekoa Kukea-Shultz said Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi was formed as a result of people getting together to “do right by the ʻāina (land).” The nonprofit seeks to restore Hawaiʻi’s agricultural and ecological productivity and the ʻāina to the way kūpuna (ancestors) remembered it, before it became overgrown with invasive species. They now farm kalo (taro), which is sold commercially and distributed to food banks; teach keiki through land-based outdoor educational experiences; and protect the ahupua‘a (traditional land division from the mountains to the sea) by preventing destructive runoff into the nearby fishponds and sea.
Kalo being washed, peeled, and cut up at Kākoʻo ʻŌiwi’s poi mill for kalo pa‘a. Courtesy of Kamehameha Schools.
Staying True to Hawaiian Values
When the conversation turned to social entrepreneurship, the speakers all expressed a sense of hope, purpose, and fulfillment. They feel pride in their community support, being able to help people, and proving that mission-driven businesses like theirs can be sustainable. “Social enterprises generate revenue in a way that doesn’t trade off being able to mālama ʻāina (care for the land), uplift the lāhui (Native Hawaiian people), and honor kūpuna,” said Keoni. “That’s what it means to be a Hawaiian entrepreneur—you cannot sacrifice your values for financial success.”
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
The speakers collectively shared advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
- Surround yourself with good people who uplift you, challenge you, and hold you accountable.
- Be assertive. If you want something, go get it and make it happen. And if you believe in your business idea, that it will create long-lasting value and solve a problem, and you’re willing to put in the work, go for it.
- Enjoy the ride through the ups and downs, and trust the process.
- Be pono (morally upright) in how you follow your path.
A huge mahalo to our speakers and moderator, and mahalo to our attentive audience for their great questions!
See the recorded webinar above, and please share it with your business-minded friends and family. To hear about future Our Kaka‘ako events, sign up for our email list and follow us on social media.