Visions from Hawaii — Sector Strengths
By Tiffany Hill
Each year, more than 9 million people visit Hawaii.1 The Islands have long garnered a reputation as a tourist destination for its white sand beaches, pleasant weather and rich culture. But Hawaii offers something just as enticing for entrepreneurs and business people looking to grow and start their company.
“When you think of Hawaii, you think of the brand of Hawaii,” said Corey Blake, the CEO of MWI,2 a digital marketing agency. “You think of the shakas and the waves. But there’s unbelievable talent here, too.”
Blake was one of five panelists who spoke during an afternoon session discussing Hawaii’s business strengths at the fifth annual East Meets West.3 Hosted by Honolulu accelerator, Blue Startups,4 East Meets West is Hawaii’s premier startup event and is geared toward entrepreneurs and investors who do business in the U.S. and Asia. The conference was most recently held this January 31 and February 1. The second day was held at the Sheraton Waikiki where attendees went to 12 informative panels and sessions on sustainability, women investing in women, entrepreneur boot camps, indigenous innovation and trends and influencers.
One popular topic for attendees was Hawaii’s strengths and challenges, when it comes to starting and growing businesses in the Islands. The panel included Hawaii entrepreneurs like Blake, Meli James, a cofounder at Mana Up,5 a Hawaii-based initiative designed to build the state’s next generation of CEOs in the retail and food product industry, Dawn Lippert, the CEO of impact accelerator, Elemental Excelerator,6 Tina Fitch, CEO and co-founder of the Hobnob7 e-vite app and Vassilis Syrmos, the vice president for research and innovation at University of Hawaii.
All panelists agreed that there is home-grown talent across the Islands, whether it’s in the developing environmental tech fields, marketing or creating made-only-in-Hawaii products. Plus, Hawaii is naturally diverse and can offer investors from places such as Silicon Valley, a different viewpoint.
“Our cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds give a better world perspective,” said Tina Fitch. “It can influence the tech the world consumes.” Fitch was also the founder of the Switchfly app and has been a lead mentor for Blue Startups.
Dawn Lippert added it’s important to begin by recruiting locally first. “It starts with those relationships.” Her Hawaii-based company, Elemental Excelerator has a portfolio of 43 companies in energy, water, transportation, agriculture and cybersecurity.
But while there might be skilled people available in the Islands, Hawaii’s high cost of living is a deterrent for many, causing many locals to leave and start their career and business elsewhere.
“(The lack of affordable) housing for us is one of the most difficult challenges we have,” said Syrmos. “Even for people that used to live here and are thinking of coming home.”
Meli James added that along with Hawaii’s high cost of living and doing business, there isn’t an abundance of job opportunities, especially for college graduates and younger people seeking to build their careers. In fact, Hawaiʻi has an unemployment rate of around 2 percent.8
“We need to figure out ways to maintain the talent here,” added Fitch.