Similar to when I arrived in Santa Barbara twenty-five years ago, Kauai’s two primary industries are agriculture and hospitality. However, a startup ecosystem is beginning to develop, as the community recognizes it must diversify Kauai’s economy to modulate the cyclical nature of tourism and ensure a sufficient number of jobs for Kauai’s youth, so that they are not forced to leave the island to make a living.
In Life, It’s Not What You Acquire, It’s Who You Inspire
To learn more about Kauai’s developing startup ecosystem, I reached out to Dirk Soma, a lifelong entrepreneur, community activist and Professor. Dirk founded successful businesses in the areas of hospitality, economic development, education and career planning.
Dirk has also graciously volunteered his time and expertise to a number of Kaui organizations, serving as the past President of the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce and the Hawaii Association for Career and Technical Education. He has also helped guide the Travel Industry Management Alumni Association, the Papakolea Community Development Corporation and the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club.
Dirk is of Native Hawaiian ancestry and lives by the motto, “In life it’s not what you acquire, it’s who you inspire.”
John Greathouse: “Hey Dirk, great to reconnect with you. I’m really impressed with the Entrepreneurial Program you’ve built at The University Of Hawaii’s Kauai campus. Your curriculum, along with the work Jennifer Ingersoll is doing at the Innovation Center, are inspiring young, and older, entrepreneurs to take the plunge. I’m really stoke with the positive energy you’ve injected into Kauai’s startup community.
From the outside looking in, it seems there are similarities between Kauai… and Hawaii in a broader sense… and Santa Barbara. Both are resort destinations with a heavy emphasis on agriculture. They are relatively isolated, blessed with a fantastic quality of life and churn out first-rate graduates. What are other attributes that give Kauai a competitive advantage in the global tech world?”
Dirk Soma: “To be honest John, I don’t really see any attribute that can be qualified or quantified as a competitive advantage in the global tech world. It is estimated that it’s 30-40% more expensive to operate any business in Hawaii and it’s around 10-15% more (expensive) to do business on Kauai compared to Oahu.
We do not have a critical mass that could support a Google or Amazon location. It used to be that the time zone was a competitive advantage, but businesses have found ways to stay connected 24/7. The quality of life is great when you already have a comfortable nest egg or business interest elsewhere, but we have the highest rate of teen suicide, high rate of teen pregnancy, (with) affordable housing starting at $450k, locals (are) getting priced out of their own homes, (and there’s) no funds to support infrastructure and upkeep of our public areas.”
Greathouse: “Truth! This is why I’m talking to you. You’re a straight shooter and not afraid to point me in the right direction. As an outsider, I’m giving too much weight to the obvious similarities of climate and lifestyle and overlooking the realities faced by local folks who grew up on the island. Thank you for your candor.
I was intrigued by something you said the first time we chatted. You noted that your students’ parents grew up on an island in which many employers provided for all (their) needs, healthcare, insurance, pensions, even company stores. However, those jobs are long gone. Your students are growing up in a very connected world in which they must be entrepreneurial to succeed.”
Soma: “Though the plantation jobs may be gone, the plantation mentality is still here and is perpetuated by businesses today. The commercial seed companies and coffee plantation somewhat depend on this model, but they too are seeking workers who are self-motivated and can think and act at a greater level of autonomy.
Because of the housing shortage, and lack of affordable rentals, young Kauaians are forced to live at home and are still under their parent’s and grandparent’s roofs. It is hard from them to break away from the mentality of, ‘just get a job with the County or Union because they will take care of you.’ We need to develop and instill in our youth, at a very early age, self-esteem, self-confidence, and the entrepreneurial mindset.
They are growing up in a very connected world and as they realize that they have access to a global market, they will be able to see and grasp opportunities.
There is a mindset here on Kauai, and to some extent in Hawaii, that we have to look outside, i.e. to the mainland, for best practices and new ideas. We have to shake that point of view and look to the great resources that we have here.”
Greathouse: “It seems that Kauai has the advantage to learn from the mistakes made on Maui and Oahu. If an East Coast company is doing significant business in Asia, Kauai would be an ideal location for a regional office. I know a lot of people like Honolulu, but it feels a lot like an East Coast city to me.
With remote working tools and great connectivity, an office in Kauai could cut off 10-hours of flight time to a flight to China, Japan, etc., for a company headquartered in California and 20-hours for an East Coast company. Do you think it’s possible to establish low-key work spaces in Kauai, while preserving the architectural requirement that no building be higher than a palm tree?”
Soma: “Every island has its unique traits and pros and cons. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we going to be an island exclusively for rich outsiders to create their own paradises and fence out locals or are we going to be an island that supports the needs of its people first?’ We can already see that we have lost any balance around this issue.
The technological infrastructure on Kauai is not at the level of Oahu. Unless you are working at PMRF (Pacific Missile Range Facility, on Kauai’s western coast), you are operating on a power grid and hardware infrastructure that lacks serious last mile connectivity. Business relationships in Asia are built upon face-to-face interactions. In order to facilitate these connections, there is a need for direct flights to and from Asia.
Kauaians realizes that business is not primarily transactional, but relational so there may be advantages to establishing remote working spaces. If you can develop a business model that can beat or at least match costs of operation, materials, supplies and access to skilled labor, you may have a chance on Kauai. Also, Oahu provides access to State government and the political decision makers needed to push things forward.”
Greathouse: “You define Cultural Entrepreneurship as a venture that, ‘preserves and perpetuates a set of values, norms, and practices of a distinct people and place.’ What are some of the values, norms and practices which are exemplified by a startup that is true the Hawaiian cultural?
I especially like that you also include in your definition of Cultural Entrepreneurship companies that pursue of a Four-Win Business Model. Please explain what you mean by a four way win and why it’s especially important for Hawaiian ventures.”
Soma: “Four-win model: People (customers & community), Planet (environment & natural resources), Profit (short & long term), Pono (honors the values of the people and place). The ancient land management system of the Hawaiians was the Ahupua`a system. This exemplifies the 4-win model.
It has not only relevance in Hawaiian ventures, but has application in every entity (i.e. rural community, technology community, etc.) It needs to be embedded into the company’s culture and practiced by all levels at all times.”
Greathouse: “I’ve heard you say that three most important questions Hawaiians ask each other relate to someone’s Inoa, Mauka, & Wai. For the uninitiated, what does this mean and why are these questions so important?”
Soma: “It establishes your connectivity to the sense of place. Your Inoa or name identifies your ‘ohana (family). Your family lineage connects you to others and the deeds of your ancestors (either good or bad) set a course for future interaction. You also carry your family name and must honor it by doing things that would honor your name.
Your Mauka (mountain) and Wai (water source – river, stream, ocean) connect you to the place you either grew up or currently reside.
The three most important questions that I think we ask today when first meeting someone in Hawaii are: ‘Where you were born, what high school did you graduate from and do you know my uncle?’ We are connected through the land, our educations and our ‘ohana.’”
Greathouse: “Are there specific companies, in Kauai or elsewhere, that you feel embody the 4-Ps and exemplify Cultural Entrepreneurship?”
Soma: “Yea, there are several that come to mind. Konane World – John Kaohelaulii sole proprietor, perpetuating culture through the game of Konane. He takes the game to schools, cultural events, and business workshops and shares the history of the game and its applications to develop critical and strategic thinking – just as the Hawaiian chiefs used it for battle field preparation.
Waipa Foudation is a non-profit which reclaims land to revitalize an ahupua`a and create food resources and preserve cultural practices. They run educational programs tied around land and culture. Every Thursday, the community comes together to clean, peel, cut, process taro which is given to the community and sold to sustain the operations. Kupuna, locals and guests share stories and connect while doing the work. This event is open to the public and I have taken visitors to this so that they can experience the cultural exchange.
And one more, Native Hawaiian Veterans, LLC (it) is a corporation operating in the Federal government contracting arena.”
Greathouse: “I know you’re passionate about Cultural Entrepreneurship being included in academic programs globally. What are some concrete things entrepreneurs can do to introduce Cultural Entrepreneurship into their organizations?”
Soma: “Imbed into their mission statements to practice awareness for where they do business. Imbed in corp culture through community service projects. Sit under a tree for three months, listen, observe…”
Greathouse: “You’ve developed an impressive Entrepreneurial Program at the University of Hawaii’s Kauai campus – more comprehensive and practical than many schools on the mainland. What plans do you have for the future? What will the Program look like five years from now?”
Soma: “You are very kind with your assessment. Small steps: think globally, act locally. International entrepreneurship – collaborative student projects with partner institutes in New Zealand and Japan. Student and faculty exchanges to explore cultural entrepreneurship with other first nations peoples. It would be cool to have an international CE summit on Kauai each year.”
Greathouse: “Tell us a bit more about the relationship (you developed) with Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand ). How did this arise and what do you anticipate this cross-pollination of ideas will lead to?”
Soma: “A colleague visited there in 2016. Our Business program was just getting off the ground, so no real traction yet. Once we had our first AS Degree students, I reconnected in Fall of 2017. In March 2018, KCC Chancellor and I made a sight visit and signed a MOU. In May, OP reps came to Kauai and we signed an Articulation Agreement for our Business Program. In June, we sent two students to participate in their Summer Studies Program. In March 2019, we are planning an Education and Trade mission to Dunedin.”