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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
They Did It Their Way

 

Long Story Short looks back on three previous guests who paved their own paths in life and followed their instincts, often against the grain of society’s expectations. Featured: Marion Higa, who spoke truth to power as Hawai‘i’s State Auditor; Kitty Lagareta (now Kitty Yannone), CEO of public relations firm Communications Pacific, whose career has been punctuated by a healthy dose of risk; and Kimi Werner, who gave up her success in competitive spearfishing to reconnect with the ocean in a more meaningful way as an environmental advocate.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, May 6 at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

They Did It Their Way Audio

 

They Did It Their Way Transcript

 

Transcript

 

MARION HIGA: At times, it felt almost personal.  But I didn’t take it that way, because it was my job.  And I always go back to the constitutional language; this is what the constitutional drafters expected of this office.  And as long as I’m doing that, then any governor can complain as much as they like.

 

KITTY YANNONE: I’ve had Democrats publicly won’t have anything to do with me. But late at night, when they need some advice, they call me, and they return my calls.  I’ve had media people.  I think when you’re a little more outspoken and they have a sense you’re authentic about it, they return your calls.  And you know what?  It never stopped me from doing what I do, with the utmost integrity and professionalism.

 

KIMI WERNER: All I just told myself is: I want diving to always give me that feeling that I had of bringing home those little fish, you know, on that first dive, and knowing in my heart that I was happy and proud of that, and that I felt satisfied with that.  And that’s the feeling that I wanted.  I didn’t quite know what type of path that would take me on, or how it would affect my career, but I just knew I wanted that back.

 

Marion Higa stood up to two governors to stop an auditing practice that she felt was inappropriate.  Kitty Yannone defied the local political system by supporting a Republican for governor.  And Kimi Werner was at the peak of her powers when she quit national spearfishing competitions.  They followed their instincts and their hearts, and they did it their way, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawai‘i’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Sometimes, it takes an enormous amount of courage to do what you know to be right, when others want you to do otherwise, when it would be much easier to simply to go with the flow.  On this episode of Long Story Short, we revisit three women who have previously been guests on this program.  Each followed her own path, respectively refusing to give in to political pressure, community disapproval, or turning away from a popular identity that did not reflect her core values.

 

We begin with Marion Higa.  For almost two decades, she was the Hawai‘i State Auditor, investigating the use of State resources and exposing inefficiencies. She as unflinching when agencies criticized her, knowing she had a job to do, and believing she was representing the best interests of the people of Hawai‘i.  One of the highest visibility audits she performed was on the Superferry. The State government wanted the Superferry to be up and running as soon as possible.  But the community was divided in its support for the ferry. The State Auditor was called in to analyze the administration’s environmental review.

 

The environmental groups had challenged the lack of the EIS early enough.  I think it wasn’t completed by the time they started sailing because you might remember that the first ship was delivered. And I think Superferry was trying to avoid the timetable, and so they had planned to start service to Nawiliwili, again, because they could do that most easily.  And people in Kaua‘i jumped in the water and kept them from docking, so they never docked.  They had to turn around and come back.  Now, in the course of all of this, then the State had put up forty-two million dollars’ worth of improvements.  But because of the way they designed or had to design these improvements, and the sourcing of these materials, it could not be used, because they were not U.S.-sourced. That was the other problem.

 

What did you hear from the administration about that?

 

Oh, they objected, of course, to our findings, and had their own responses. But I mean, we could support our findings.

 

What was your recommendation? 

 

I think our recommendation was … well, first of all, the EIS; I mean, there was no question that they had to follow the EIS.  But I think eventually, we softened the recommendation, because there was the other court case that was still proceeding and was going to the Supreme Court.  So, I think we predicted that nothing be hard and fast decided until that case was settled. Eventually, the court came down, one could say, on the side of the environmentalists, and required the EIS.

 

How did you feel about the stinging rebuke from the administration?

 

I didn’t take it personally.  I mean, I expected it, because there was so much at stake.  And I understood that even the legislators, some of the legislators who had been avid supporters would be disappointed, at best.

 

Especially since they had put through a bill that allowed … it seemed it was written for a particular company, but general language was used, except the timeframe was so short that it looked like it was written specifically for the Superferry.

 

Yes; it looked like special purpose legislation, which again, is not permitted by State law.

 

And so, that was people you worked for who were on the other end of criticism.

 

That’s right.  And so, you know, they’re party to that process.  But again, it’s like: Well, that’s my job, I have to say it the way it is.

 

Even if it’s your job, and you say you’re doing it on the straight and narrow, what’s it like riding that wave, where basically are taking shots at you as you take that position?

 

You know, like I said, it’s my job.  This is what the constitution was intended for us to do, and if we can defend the work.  And so, the process seems so laborious, and it’s so careful.  There’s a whole system; it’s all electronic now, the working papers are electronic.  But there’s a citation system involved in our work, so every fact can be traced back to a source document.  And so, working for the Auditor’s Office is not easy.  You have to be very meticulous, and be able to defend your work. But as long as the overall conclusions are supported by this mountain of evidence, it’s all defensible.

 

I always used to think it was so funny when you’d come walking into a legislative hearing room, hearing about an audit of the administration.  I mean, how tall are you?

 

Four-ten; barely four-ten, more like four-nine.

 

Four-ten; and it was as if a towering figure were coming in, this shadow was entering the room.  Did you get that feeling, that’s how people were reacting to you?

 

Sometimes; yes.  Uh-huh; uh-huh.

 

And you wouldn’t back down, either.

 

No, because that’s not my job.  My job is to support the report, because that stands for our work.

 

Any memorable exchanges between you and someone else?

 

A few times.  I guess I was at … Ways and Means once, and I had a minority member ask me … hunched over the table like this, he says: Ms. Higa … who do you work for?  Who do you work for?  Ms. Higa, who do you work for?  And I said: The people of Hawaii.  No; who do you really work for?  The people of Hawai‘i.  What he was trying to get me to say was, I work for the majority party.  And that’s not who I worked for.  I said: The constitution says I’m the auditor, I’m the State Auditor, I work for the people.  So, he gave up.

 

Kitty Yannone, formerly known as Kitty Lagareta, started her professional journey as a volunteer fundraiser for the Ronald McDonald House.  This eventually led to her present career as the CEO of a successful company offering integrated communication services.  Kitty Yannone is known for following her instincts.  She’s bucked public opinion, and risked her business.  One of her biggest risks was in ardently supporting a Republican candidate for governor.

 

I’d met Linda Lingle when she was mayor of Maui through some volunteer work with high school students that we’d gone over there to do, and I didn’t know her very well at all.  And she called one day and wanted to meet with me.  And my husband answered the phone, and he said: The mayor of Maui wants to talk to you.  I’m like: Why does she want to talk to me?  It was like, a Sunday.  I go: What does she want?  And he goes: Why don’t you talk to her and find out.  She asked if she could meet, and she was thinking about running for governor in a couple years.  This was maybe a year or two.  And so, I went and met with her.  I think I spent five hours asking her questions, and I knew nothing about politics. And she said: That’s okay, we’ll figure it out; it’s a big race, I need a communications person, I think you’re kind of a smart person.  And I’d volunteered on a couple political things, but nobody ever wanted to use that part of me they wanted me to stuff envelopes, which was fine, or do stuff which was happy to do, and it’s important stuff.  But I was kind of intrigued by having somebody want me to be involved in the strategic side.  So, I started helping her in ’98, and I immediately got calls from a lot of people around town, friends, parents of kids.  You know, if you’re gonna do politics at this time, it’s really kinda stupid to get involved with the party that has no power.  And I said: Yeah, but I like this candidate, and I really want to do this.  And I didn’t lose any clients; no clients said: I’m gonna quit.  They just, I think, were kind of bemused.  And Linda came within five thousand votes, and it was a huge learning and a wonderful experience for me, except for the losing part. But we all took it harder than she did. And before we had even let the dust settle, she was saying: We’re gonna do this again in 2002.  And I remember thinking: Eee, I don’t know.  But of course, I was onboard for 2002.

 

Had you suffered business-wise, advocating for her?

 

You never know what you don’t get.  I think once people realized she was a serious candidate, I certainly did, you know, I think.  And I tend to vote for people, and like people more than parties.  I don’t really feel connected to parties.  I’m sort of a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. And particularly during that time, it was like somebody had branded a big R on my forehead; she’s a Republican. And all that they equate with anybody of any political party is interesting.  And so, that was a new experience for me.

 

But you weren’t following the playbook of most public relations executives.  You were following your mind and, to some extent, your heart.

 

Yeah. You know, I believe in that, because I think a lot of executives, if they can, they do that.  And I just feel even when it’s a learning experience, having the experience makes me better overall.  And that was a learning experience.  And by gosh, in 2002, we pulled it off, and that was interesting. And I thought we were done.  That was the other thing, kind of still had naïveté, not having been in politics.  It was like: Okay, we’re done, I can go back to my life.  And I remember Linda called and she said: You know, I think you would be one of the people I want to recommend for Board of Regents.  And I remember saying: Oh, why that?  I mean, I don’t know.

 

Talk about political.

 

She had to talk me into it.

 

What you got into was a mire with the president of the University, Evan Dobelle.

 

Yeah.

 

And a very slippery situation.  And your expertise is public relations, but it was very hard to manage it. 

 

Yeah; and it’s hard to be in it and manage something.  I know that.  Therapists will tell you: I can’t do therapy in my own family.  When you’re one of the players in something, and everybody’s got their own opinion, you’re not the PR managing something then, I think.

 

And as the chair of the Board of Regents.

 

Yeah.

 

I mean, I think there was a perception at some time that you were bungling it.

 

Yeah; yeah.  I actually thought I was.  I knew it was bungled, but I also had the perspective of there was a whole bunch of stuff.  You know, it was an employee-employer relationship between the Board and Evan. And there are certain laws you have to follow, confidentiality and things.  So, we were not in a position to say: Hey, we tried this, we did this. And I think the employee can say whatever they want pretty much, really.  And you see that over and over.  So, that was a disadvantage, and it was hard.  The other part was, you know, you will never know the effort we made to do it carefully.  And the sense, I think, that was there was that, I have this contract, no way you’re gonna get me out of it, and I’m not going anywhere.  And as time went on, I think it became clear the University was suffering, and we had to do something.  And in fact, our creditors told us that.  And it felt very bungled.  It felt like there were lots of pieces that you couldn’t control.  It was horrible watching the public perception of it, and knowing there was another story, but you can’t be the one to tell it. You’re the employer.  That was really rugged, I think for all of us. And yet, I found the decision we made to be the right one.  I’ve never regretted that decision.  How it unfolded and what it looked like on the outside; yeah, there was a lot of regret about that, but not the decision.  And I don’t think any of us did.

 

So, the right outcome.

 

The right outcome; and it really was.  You know, that’s the decision.  I mean, there were regents who quit because they didn’t want to go down.  They knew what needed to be done, but they didn’t want to be in the middle of all that.  And there were some amazing people who stuck around and said: This needs to be done for the good of our university.  And I think there is some vindication in what happened at Westfield College.  It’s pretty much what happened here.  That’s taken a different more public turn, I think.  But came many years later, but it was there, and we did make the right decision. And under David McClain’s leadership, we went on to have some finished capital campaign, move a lot of things forward at the University.  And I look at it that way and say: Yeah, there was some personal pain, and I could have avoided it, but maybe it wouldn’t have been the right people in the room to make the decisions that I think were good ones if all of us had done that.  I’ve never found discomfort to be an inhibiting factor.  I used to give a speech after—this was when they were saying: Fear is your friend.  I use it as like, rocket fuel.  When I feel that, it tells me to turn on all my senses and look at something carefully. But sometimes, it really energizes you. And maybe that’s what I get from my mom and dad.  ‘Cause my mom and dad, in their own way, overcame a lot of stuff in their lives, built a really nice life for them and their family, and still do.  And they had certain values, and it didn’t include being afraid, or being uncomfortable, being something that pulls you up.  Yeah.

 

I’m sure you had some sleepless nights over the regents matter.

 

Many; I think I didn’t sleep for like a whole year.

 

And that was okay with you, ‘cause you felt like you were doing the right thing?

 

I felt like we were doing the right thing, and I felt like, you know, sometimes that’s what they call—that’s what I consider when I see people go through that, and I do with my clients sometimes, who are struggling with hard decisions and want to do the right decisions.  And I think I’m grateful I’ve had that experience a few times in my life, because I think that’s what you call political courage.  I call it that when I see it in other people.  And when you’re in it, it doesn’t feel like any kind of courage; it feels like a nightmare.  But in the end, if something good came out or a group of people were able to come together to make something happen that was right or needed to happen, or bigger than they could do on their own.

 

What if it fails?

 

Yeah; it does.  I failed in ’98.  Do you know how many people wouldn’t even talk to me after ’98?  She’s the one who went to the other side, you know.  I lived through it.  I don’t know; I feel like I have to live in this world and do things that I think are important.  I can’t always defer to, that might hurt my business, or that may not.  Then I’d just be kind of a shallow person, I feel.  You have gauge with life and with issues, and with people, and the world you live in.

 

Kimberly Maile Reiko Werner, known as Kimi, is a roving ambassador for the American Clothes Company Patagonia, as well as a trained chef and self-taught artist.  She grew up in rural Maui, tagging along on ocean dives with her father as he hunted for fish to feed the family.  Unsatisfied with her early career choices, she started thinking that maybe her childhood pastimes could still be part of her life.  She learned to spearfish, became an accomplished free diver, and a national spearfishing champion.  Yet, despite the success and recognition she was gaining through her awards, she realized that spearfishing competition wasn’t the right thing for her, either.

 

You know, my first tournament, that first national championships, that was really special.  And coming back home to Hawai‘i was just the best feeling in the world, because Hawaii is just the most supportive, loyal, wonderful hometown, I think, that anyone could ever ask for, in my opinion.  And the way that people supported me was something that I just was so grateful for.  But I think after that, it was never quite the same, because I almost just felt like I just always had a title to defend.  I did continue to win in competing, but it was just never as fulfilling to me.  And I noticed that even when I would go diving, you know, on my own just for food, all I was thinking about was competition, and you know, I started to think of fish as points, rather than even as food.  And once I realized that, I didn’t like it.  I just realized it’s changing me.  You know, it’s changing this thing that’s so sacred to me.  It’s something that my parents, you know, taught me these values through this.  And it’s not about these values anymore; it’s really about trophies and winning, and recognition.  And this was the thing that really made my life fulfilling again.  Am I really gonna do this to it?  Am I gonna take it to a level where it’s all about, you know, chasing titles?  Like, I didn’t like that.  And so, just for those own personal reasons of how I found it affecting me, I did walk away from competition.

 

I saw you do a TEDx talk, and you said that even though you knew it was the right thing to do, it didn’t mean that other people weren’t very disappointed in you, and that you felt really bad about it, too.

 

Oh, definitely.  I mean, it was one of the toughest things I’ve done, because it was right in the peak of what could have been my career.  You know, I had sponsors now, and you know, people that believed in me, people that looked up to me.  And all of a sudden, I was just gonna walk away from it.  And it let down a lot of people, and definitely disappointed people. And for myself too, I mean, I did feel a sense of, you know, confusion, because I felt so lost.  I didn’t really know who I was without that.  It had become so the tunnel vision of my life, and pretty much, you know, everything that was confident-building seemed to come from that department.  It was the first time where, you know, my art started to sell more, because my name was out there more.  And it just seemed like it was something that was causing so much personal gain that for me to turn and walk away from it, I definitely felt like a loser.  You know, I felt like a waste of talent, and I felt like I didn’t quite know if I would like … you know.  I didn’t know the effects it was gonna have.  I didn’t know how much it would bum people out, or if I would just never be really supported again, really.

 

What happened, then?

 

It took me a while, actually.  It was probably a year where a lot of times I would go out diving, and all of a sudden, it wasn’t the same happy place it used to be.  You know, when I say I’m totally present in the moment, and those voices in my head go quiet, it wasn’t happening; these voices were just telling me that I was a loser, and I was failure, and you know, what are you doing, like why are you quitting.  And it was still, you know, looking at the fish as points, and so then, I’d have to get out of the water with no fish.  And then, I really would beat myself up.  Like, I’m not even good at this anymore, I can’t even dive ‘cause my mind’s all messed up.  And I got pretty depressed.  But through that, you know, I just kinda took some breaks from diving and whatnot. And then this one day, couple friends of mine like said: You need to get back in the water.  Like, let’s go.  And so, we all went out on our kayaks, and again, my brain was just still fighting itself, and I just felt like I wasn’t diving the I way I dive; I didn’t have it anymore.  And so, I’m like: Let’s just pack it up and go, guys.  I know what you’re trying to do, and I know you’re trying to bring me back, but it’s just not fun for me anymore, and there’s nothing worse than the feeling of actually being out here and it not being fun anymore, so I just want to go home.  And they said: Okay, let’s go.  But then, I said: You know what, let me just take one last drop.  And I put my spear gun on my kayak, didn’t even take it down with me, and I just took a dive.  And I had my two buddies, you know, spotting me from the surface, so it was safe.  But I just took a dive, and just told them to watch me, you know, took a dive.  And I got down to the bottom, and I just laid in the sand.  I just crossed my arms and I put my face in the sand.  And I laid there, and I let every single critic come through my head, every single voice, every single thing that I had beat myself up about, like, I just let it come.  And I listened to every single put-down, worry, concern, fear.  And they all came, one after another, and I just waited, and I just still waited, held my breath.  Okay, what else you got; give it to me.  You know, I just waited, and waited, and waited until there was nothing left.  And when there was nothing left, there was not one more voice that could say anything, you know, hadn’t already heard.  Like, it just went quiet.  And as soon as it went quiet, I opened my eyes and I’m on the bottom of the ocean, and I was just back.  I think the competition, and just more than that even, just the expectations that I was putting on myself.  And I think that can happen a lot with anybody who tries to turn their passion into a career; it can get quite confusing.  I think a lot of times, we go into jobs because we’re so passionate about our craft, and then before we know it, you know, we’re not really enjoying it anymore, and we’re going through the motions because we’re trying to hit these certain marks of society, whether it’s financial success, or I need that house, or I need that car, and before you know it, your own beautiful passion that kinda becomes this vehicle for living unauthentically, and doing things based on expectations that were never really yours to begin with, maybe. Because before, to me, it was never truly about like, oh, that moment when you spear your fish.  But it was the feeling that I felt when I would take a drop, and just the serenity that would come over me, and just this feeling of welcome home.  And when everything just turned quiet, and I was still there holding my breath, and I looked up and I just saw my two friends, and I saw the sun just sparkling through the ocean surface, and I just looked at the beautiful ocean and hear the noise, you know, the sounds of the ocean, and that was it.  I was like, that’s the feeling; that’s the feeling that satisfies me.  And soon as I came up, I didn’t even have to say anything; they knew.  They knew exactly what had happened, they knew exactly. And I smiled at them, and they were just like: You’re back.  And I’m like: I’m back.  And that was that.  And after that, then I just started diving for food again, and just realizing like that’s something sacred to me, and I’m going to protect it with everything that I have.  I’m gonna do everything I can to keep this pure.  Even if it means no success comes from this, this is mine.

 

Kimi Werner, Kitty Yannone, and Marion Higa followed their instincts and listened to their own voices to do it their way. Mahalo to these three women of Hawai‘i for sharing their stories with us.  And mahalo to you, for joining us.  For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I still get approached by people, total strangers.  You know, I mean, it’s always complimentary.  I know it’s a curiosity.  I mean, I go into restaurants, and I know people recognize me. You can tell when you’re recognized.

 

And so, do they say: What did you really think?

 

Sometimes, people will say that.  But most of the time, people will come up and thank me for the work that we did.  So, I’d like to think that there were some good effects, for some folks, anyway.

 

Things that I have done that were much harder learning experiences than I anticipated. Ronald McDonald House was that way at times, and certainly Board of Regents, and getting involved politically. There are things in my company I don’t have a business background, and I’ve had to learn through trial and error, experience.  I wish I’d known more, but I came out the other side knowing it now, and I don’t regret much of anything.  I think, you know, I’ve had sad things and hard things, and it’s life.  And you know, as long as I keep getting up and experiencing it, I’m kinda happy.

 

I think by following that passion and really making the commitment to be true to my love for it, surprisingly, it did bring success, and just in so much more of a meaningful way.  Because now, it wasn’t just any sponsors that I was working with; it was sponsors and companies like Patagonia who truly hold the same values as me, who aren’t just, you know, trying to sell an image or, do what’s trendy, but really, really believe in trying to make this world better, trying to give back to these beautiful natural elements of our world.

 

 

 

The Power of the Hour: Insights on PBS Hawai‘i

 

CEO Message

The Power of the Hour: Insights on PBS Hawai‘i
The Power of the Hour: Insights on PBS Hawai‘i: Pictured, from left: Norm Baker - Aloha United Way Chief Operating Officer; Zi Jun - McKinley High School senior; Connie Mitchell - Institute for Human Services Executive Director; Nani Medeiros - single mother and nonprofit director

Pictured, from left: Norm Baker – Aloha United Way Chief Operating Officer; Zi Jun – McKinley High School senior; Connie Mitchell – Institute for Human Services Executive Director; Nani Medeiros – single mother and nonprofit director

Leslie Wilcox, PBS Hawai‘i President and CEOHow many times have you seen or heard something that makes you feel anxious about the future of Hawai‘i? And how many times have you shaken off the thought, as day-to-day life calls you back, with its challenges and pressures? You know that your passing thoughts will return. Your concerns persist.

 

Perhaps that’s one reason why the statewide viewership of Insights on PBS Hawai‘i has doubled in the last two years. For one hour, on Thursday evenings from 8 to 9 pm, we explore one of the quality-of-life issues that are tugging at all of us.

 

The power of the hour is the different perspectives presented. For example, on March 1, our subject was the Islands’ tens of thousands of “working poor.” The Aloha United Way had published a study showing that in 2015-2016, about a third of Hawai‘i’s working households struggled to make ends meet. (An additional 11 percent of Hawai‘i’s households were living in poverty.)

 

I was moved by Insights guest Nani Medeiros, matter-of-fact and thoughtful, as she spoke of being on the high end of the working-poor spectrum. The single mother of a young daughter runs a small nonprofit organization. Born and raised in Hawai‘i and of part-Hawaiian ancestry, Nani never expected to live anywhere else. However, she sees a changing Hawai‘i that she and her daughter may need to leave.

 

“We’re getting by just fine…but there’s never going to be any huge ‘getting ahead’ for us,” she said, “I’m almost 100 percent certain I’ll never be able to buy my own home. Saving for a [down payment] is completely out of grasp.” Last year, she said, her rent increased by $300 a month: “That’s huge.”

 

High school senior Zi Jun said that his immigrant parents live with the stress of debt, even though they work hard to support the family. For all they do to keep the family fed, clothed and housed, they derive precious little time to spend with Zi and his sister.

 

“I see my parents coming home every night, and they’re not happy,” he said.

 

Aloha United Way’s Chief Operating Officer Norm Baker and Connie Mitchell, who leads the Institute for Human Services, pointed out that there’s help available for homeless people who will accept it, but our society is missing a “preventative piece” to keep the working poor from falling into homelessness due to an illness or accident. A short-term subsidy could stabilize a highly vulnerable household and prevent society from incurring higher costs.

 

During Insights’ one hour of live television and live streaming, viewers gain reliable information, and they get an idea of what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin. Different perspectives can yield understanding. We believe a common understanding builds respect – which, in turn, can generate trust and positive action.

 

Insights is currently the second most-watched locally produced program on PBS Hawai‘i (after Nā Mele: Traditions in Hawaiian Song). According to market research, Insights draws men and women viewers in equal numbers and attracts viewers evenly from every household income level from $35,000 to $150,000.

 

Aloha nui,

 

Leslie signature

 

 

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THE DAVID RUBENSTEIN SHOW: Bill Gates

 

This new series explores successful leadership through the personal and professional choices of some of the most influential people in business. Financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein travels the country talking to leaders to uncover their stories and their paths to success.

 

Bill Gates
Rubenstein interviews Microsoft co-founder Gates, who reflects on preaching “the gospel of software,” getting the largest gift in history, the decision to lease software to IBM and how meeting his wife Melinda changed his life.

 

THE DAVID RUBENSTEIN SHOW: PEER TO PEER CONVERSATIONS
Lloyd Blankfein

THE DAVID RUBENSTEIN SHOW: PEER TO PEER CONVERSATIONS Lloyd Blankfein

 

This new series explores successful leadership through the personal and professional choices of some of the most influential people in business. Financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein travels the country talking to leaders to uncover their stories and their path to success.

 

Lloyd Blankfein
Goldman Sachs CEO Blankfein discusses why Goldman provoked such ire after the financial crisis, and how he faced a serious cancer diagnosis.

 

THE DAVID RUBENSTEIN SHOW: PEER TO PEER CONVERSATIONS
Warren Buffet

 

This new series explores successful leadership through the personal and professional choices of some of the most influential people in business. Financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein travels the country talking to leaders to uncover their stories and their paths to success.

 

Warren Buffett
Rubenstein interviews Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, who addresses his work with his mentors, how Omaha became central to his success, and how his wife’s death led to a $30 billion phone call to his friend Bill Gates.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Livingston “Jack” Wong

 

Livingston “Jack” Wong is Chief Executive Officer of Kamehameha Schools, overseeing its significant endowment and educational mission. Kamehameha Schools serves more than 48,000 students across three K-12 campuses, 30 preschools and many community education and scholarship programs. Wong is a graduate of Punahou School – the Kamehameha CEO has said he sometimes gets teased about this. He goes by “Jack” to distinguish himself from his father, a pioneering transplant surgeon in the Islands. Though both of his parents were in medicine, Wong pursued law instead. He joined Kamehameha Schools as its senior legal counsel in 1997.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Nov. 19, at 4:00 pm.

 

Livingston “Jack” Wong Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

You know, I think we learn our best lessons from failure.

 

What have you failed at?

 

Well, organic chemistry, for sure.

 

You actually failed?

 

You know, I think I got a D, if I remember correctly. But I had to take it again. And so, the second time, I’m like: I don’t really want to take it again, I’m gonna try something different. There’s been a lot of little failures along the way, but that’s really the one that for me, turned direction and helped me see something different.

 

A son of two doctors, Livingston Jack Wong never questioned that he would be anything other than a doctor when he grew up. But barely making it through organic chemistry in college was life-changing. Today, he’s the chief executive officer of Kamehameha Schools. Livingston Jack Wong, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawai‘i’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Livingston See Mung Wong, Jr., who’s best known as Jack, was born into a family of medical doctors. His legendary father, Dr. Livingston Wong, is a retired pioneer in the field of organ transplantation in Hawai‘i. Jack Wong’s sister, Dr. Linda Wong, is blazing her own trail in transplant surgery. His later mother, Dr. Rose Wong, was an internist in private practice. Although Jack Wong grew up with the expectation that he would become a doctor, he ended up going in a different direction, but he stayed close to the values of his childhood. Family, education, and service to others remain precious to him. And these values help guide him in his job as chief executive officer of Kamehameha Schools.

 

Jack Wong was born in Boston, where his Hawai‘i parents had moved to do their medical residencies. He was named Livingston after his father, and no one could tell him for sure how he picked up the nickname Jack.

 

I’ve heard lots of stories, but the one that I think I really remember was my mom telling me that when they were living in Boston, it was probably about six months or so after the shooting of JFK that I was born. And since John F. Kennedy’s nickname was Jack, they named me Jack, after John F. Kennedy. And I was also Junior, so you can’t call me Junior all the time, so Jack kinda came from there, from Boston

 

It makes sense; Jack, Boston timeline.

 

Yeah. I think so. So, you know, we had a simple kinda childhood. But it’s interesting; you know, both my parents are doctors, and they worked.

 

How many kids?

 

So, we had five kids. And I have three older sisters, and they’re all very nice to me. And I have a younger brother.

 

He’s not nice to you? [CHUCKLE]

 

Well, he’s nice. I’m nice to him.

 

Oh; gotcha.

 

Yeah. There are five of us, and we, you know, had a great childhood. But we worked; you know, we did a lot of following our parents around in their careers, and supporting what they did.

 

What does that mean? Does that mean you spent a lot of time in their offices doing your homework?

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE] We spent a lot of time in their offices, we waited in the car. But we also spent time, you know, with my mom in her office, helping her with her medical practice. And so, we would answer phones, we would file. We would do all the support things around the side to make sure the practice was good. So, like a family business, and mostly for my mom.

 

What about food? Could you eat in the cafeteria?

 

So, you know, it was interesting, because you know, most of our childhood, we actually grew up at my grandma’s house. And so, my Popo, who was living in Nuuanu at the time, she used to own a Chinese restaurant long time ago. And so, she ran her house like a Chinese restaurant. So, we’d come there for dinner every night, come there for lunch, and all my cousins would come. There was probably like twenty of us would eat dinner together every night. And so, while my parents would work, we’d just go my grandma’s house and eat with our cousins, and our uncles and aunts. And so, she cooked for us every night, like we were at a Chinese restaurant.

 

That’s a very different vision of family.

 

Yeah.

 

A family that was close in many ways, but not conventionally. What about the personalities of your parents and how they influenced you?

 

You know, it was interesting. You know, I think my dad was—you know, he had a really visionary side to him, and he liked innovation, he liked taking chances. And I hope I got some of that from him. You know, his work in transplant surgery, his work with the emergency medical services, and understanding people and systems.

 

He did the very first kidney and bone marrow transplants in Hawai‘i. That’s a risk.

 

Yeah. So, I think he was a risk-taker, he could see innovation, he had a really good vision for the future. And I think he really brought that. Whereas my mom was very much, you know, in the background. She had a lot of humility to what she was doing. And I think hopefully, that part, I got from her, too. But I think the common thread—and maybe because they were doctors, the common thread was always the human element; being with the patient. You know, we talked about a lot of things, but it was always about patient care, and about how each patient really mattered, and not letting down a single patient. And I think, you know, as we approach our work, whether it’s education, or it’s medicine, or if you’re doing, you know, accounting, you know, each person matters. And I think that’s what we got from my mom; every single patient mattered. She didn’t have a lot of patients, but every patient. You know, we all knew her patients. You know, we talked to them on the phone when they called, we knew who they were, we knew their families.

 

Jack Wong remembers being a little awkward as a kid, accidentally breaking objects, and coming under the watchful eye of his older sisters, including one he considered scary.

 

You said you have three older sisters. So, did the sisters become the de facto mom when neither parent was present?

 

They all had their own mothering ways. But my second to the oldest sister, Linda, she was the boss. Right; she was the one who would crack down on the rules, make sure I studied. And you know, I remember at the end of every school year, you know, when everybody else, you know, runs off to summer and they would do things, she would head to the bookstore and she’d make us buy workbooks. Because we’d do math workbooks, and English workbooks. And all summer long, you know, she’d be testing us. She pushed us really hard.

 

And that was her decision to do that?

 

I think it was her decision. I think she enjoyed torturing me.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You know, she had a very high sense, you know, of achievement.

 

And you would listen.

 

And we would listen.

 

All the kids would listen?

 

All the kids would listen.

 

Was there pressure on your to become a medical doctor?

 

There was a lot of pressure. And so, you know, it was interesting, ‘cause you know, growing up, you know, a lot of times families would be asking the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? And in our family, it wasn’t: What do you want to be when you grow up? It was: What kind of doctor do you want to be, Jack? And you know, I remember when I was really young, I’m like, I want to be a surgeon, just like my dad. And you know, my dad was pushing me to be a surgeon, and then he realized, you know, like, I had no hand skills.

 

Well, you were breaking a lot of things.

 

I was breaking a lot of things.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I was a little clumsy, and I couldn’t tie my shoe. And I don’t know if this is a test for surgery, but apparently, I could not tie my shoe. And even now, you know, I joke around with my family that I use the bunny ears, ‘cause I don’t—

 

People with bunny ears. I barely remember; there was a rhyme, right, about how to tie your shoes.

 

I don’t know if there’s a rhyme. I just know, like, when you make two loops and you just tie it together, as opposed to the one loop and you tie it around. And it took me such a long time to tie my shoe. And I think that’s when my dad realized: Maybe surgery is not for you.

 

So, you headed off to UCLA after Punahou.

 

M-hm.

 

And you know, most undergraduates don’t start off knowing what they want to do. Did you?

 

Yeah. So, I spent two years doing a science background in chemistry. And then, I kinda got stuck on organic chemistry. And then, I switched, tried a number of different things, and landed in economics. And found a different path, and understood I like numbers, I like the the analysis that goes with, you know, finances and economics.

 

And you were an outstanding economics grad, I read.

 

Yeah; yeah. So, I liked the field, and law school seemed to come naturally. And you know, in our family, it was expected after you graduate from college, that you do more schooling. So, it was really like: What do I do next?

 

How did you break it to your father and mother that you weren’t going to medical school?

 

I think they found out. I don’t remember them finding out, but I remember when I graduated from law school, my dad was saying: Okay, good job, you know, but it’s not too late to go to medical school. I said: You know, let me just try being a lawyer for a little while, and just see how that works out.

 

And what about your sister Linda, who did become a doctor, and I know she was very influential with you and what you studied. What did she say?

 

You know, it’s interesting. I think she understood that she didn’t want to see me fail at it, or be miserable doing it. So, she was very supportive. I mean, she really understood, I think, that it’s better to succeed and be good at what you want to do than fail at something that, you know, you don’t really like.

 

Well, it sounds like you weren’t really accustomed to failure, anyway.

 

Failure is hard; failure is hard. But you know, I think we learn our best lessons from failure.

 

What have you failed at?

 

Well, organic chemistry, for sure.

 

You actually failed?

 

You know, I think I got a D, if I remember correctly. But I had to take it again. And so, the second time, I’m like: I don’t really want to take it again, I’m gonna try something different.

 

And you went into economics, and then … law isn’t exactly, you know, a logical next step.

 

I don’t know. You know, it was interesting. Maybe in our family, it might just be a little bit of, you can be a doctor or you can be a lawyer. So, if you’re not gonna be a doctor, I guess you’re gonna be a lawyer. And maybe there was a little bit of that.

 

After graduating from the UCLA School of Law, Jack Wong worked in corporate law in Los Angeles. When he decided it was time to move home with his wife, he joined a Honolulu law firm. In 1997, Jack Wong accepted a job at Bishop Estate as senior counsel, specializing in commercial real estate.

 

In 1997, a year of great tumult, tumultuous year at what was then the Bishop Estate, you joined the team at Bishop Estate. And just offhand, I can recall that was the year that the Broken Trust essay was published in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, written by respected community members saying the trust is misgoverning. At what point did you walk into this?

 

So, I walked in, I think, fairly early in that process. You know, I remember I started, and you know, it was like a snowball starting to roll down a hill. And I remember hearing, you know, a few stories, you know, before I started.

 

And what made you want to go to then Bishop Estate?

 

It’s interesting, you know. I came to do corporate work and real estate work. And to me, you know, in a lot of ways, you know, our landholdings at Kamehameha Schools and our corporate work and our investments, there’s so much to do. There’s so much to operate, so much to run. And that was my background. And so, I found it fascinating from a legal background, from a financial background, and knowing we had a mission behind us was amazing. You know, I didn’t think much, you know, going there about the governance issues, ‘cause it really was not in the area I was working. But then, as time went by after I got there, you could kind of feel the energy change in the place, and you knew that this was something, you know, more than just a press story.

 

I mean, the headlines didn’t go away after. It was front page every day. And there was a lot of just feelings of betrayal, and anger, and you just wondered if the whole place was gonna implode sometimes.

 

Right; right, right. I think we all had a feeling, all of us who were there at the time had a feeling, had that exact feeling. You know, it seemed like you were on such shaky ground. Yet, you know, for all the things that were going on at the governance level, a lot of our work on the staff level was, you know, how do we maintain our operations, how do we maintain the lands, how do we make sure we keep doing good work. Because that work needed to continue. And I think our teachers and our class felt the same way; we still gotta serve, you know, our kids every single day.

 

Once Bishop Estate became Kamehameha Schools, and there were new decisions to be made, and you know, speaking of broken trust … they say when something’s broken, at least it lets the light in, you know. What changes had to be made, and were made?

 

I think, you know, what’s amazing is that we had some amazing leaders who really understood the changes we had to make. And so, I give so much credit to Dee Jay Mailer, you know, who came before me. She really understood, you know, that you first have to heal the organization and people. And she did a great job of making sure we healed, and then we came together. And we understood, you know, our relationships with our alumni, our teachers, our community, our lands. And so, her bringing all that together had allowed us to kinda launch from where she left us at a great place. But it took time, took time to heal the organization.

 

How many years later were you appointed interim CEO?

 

So, it wasn’t until 2014, I think, that I was appointed. And it had been a long journey.

 

And this year marks twenty years. You’ve been CEO for more than three.

 

More than three; yes. But it has been an interesting journey, and I think along the way, I had to progressively understand a lot. I got to progressively understand the organization at a deeper level. And I think that’s really what made, you know, my appointment as interim CEO really special. ‘Cause I think at that time, I understood the organization a lot better. I came in understanding the real estate, our investments, and our finances, but I had an opportunity along the way to work on our John Doe case in 2003.

 

Admission case.

 

Admissions case; and I think that was meaningful for the organization. We got to understand kind of our mission and purpose.

 

That’s right. So, you brought economics and law, and a love of education. I think I remember when you were appointed interim CEO, the endowment was at 10.1 billion, or at least that’s what was reported. What is it now in 2017?

 

You know, right now, it’s about 11.7. But you know, it changes every day. And one thing, you know, we work hard in the organization is to understand that, you know, the size of our endowment and how we manage it has to be long-term. And you know, the markets change so frequently, and if you kinda react to it every day, and you react to it every year, we have to take the long view of how our endowment grows over long periods of time. So, it is something we look at carefully.

 

Is that the first thing you look at when you walk in? Ping.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

How much is it today?

 

I try not to.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

But I do watch the markets, so I understand what’s happening. But it’s interesting. As you watch the markets, you have to watch the political landscape and the global landscape, because those things impact the markets. But you know, for us, it’s great because, you know, that’s what impacts education, too. You know, understanding the global impacts of what’s going on politically impacts our markets, impacts our lands, and it’s what our kids should be thinking about, ‘cause that’s world they’re walking into. So, we spend a lot of time thinking about what are the global events, and what’s going on.

 

I know Kamehameha has worked, with your leadership, on a strategic plan, and I don’t know how you can see that far ahead, but it goes way far. How far ahead?

 

So, we have a strategic vision that’s a twenty-five-year vision. So, it’s supposed to be one generation. Our strategic plan is five years. And so, we do it in chunks. And our first five-year plan is ‘til 2020, and our long-term vision goes out to 2040. And I think an organization like ours has the benefit of seeing long-term, but you also need a sense of urgency. And so, the long-term vision is really to give us that long-term vision of where we’re going, and how do we see in one generation change in our community. The five-year plan gives it a sense of urgency so that your work every day is towards shorter goals. And so for us, you have to have a combination of both.

 

Because the Princess left such a large legacy to Kamehameha, I know people are always saying: Well, let Kamehameha do it, they got all the money. Is that true? I mean, should you be doing more?

 

Well, it’s interesting. What we’re really learning in our strategic planning process is, you know, our vision is really to have every Native Hawaiian succeeding in education.

 

Every Native Hawaiian?

 

Every Native Hawaiian succeed in education. And by every Native Hawaiian, we also mean every child in the State should be succeeding in education. But this is not something even we can do alone. And the realization that you have a long-term vision that you can’t do alone really requires you to reexamine how you approach your strategies. And for us, it’s about partnering, it’s about working with other organizations that are already doing great work, and really supporting them.

 

Managing partnerships is difficult, I mean, as we see in marriage. Has it been difficult to find good partners, or you know, how do you pick a partner?

 

So, I think, you know, there are so many people doing wonderful work in education that we’ve not had any problem at all finding great partners doing great work. I think, you know, my question is: How do we support them best, and how do we make sure they succeed? And I think that’s always a great conversation to have, but you know, everything we do, whether it’s partnerships or by ourselves, is always about choices; right? Because there are so many great things we can do. How do we choose as a community, what’s the right path for education. And that’s not something we can do alone. You know, we at Kamehameha Schools can’t do it alone; we need partners, and partners need to work together.

 

So, these are education partners.

 

There’s not only partners in education, there’s partners in social service. We certainly have our alii trusts that we need to be working together better, and making sure we can all move the lahui together successfully. So, you know, we absolutely have to work together with all those partners. And I think we’re not the only organization; I think a lot of organizations are looking on how to better partner in this community.

 

There are some things that have been really difficult to get a handle on. I mean, somebody was here the other day and saying, you know, one of the big elephants in any room is Hawaiian sovereignty. And also, what’s happening on Maunakea. You know, is it really a clash between Western science and Hawaiian culture? I mean, is that how it should be posited, and what can Kamehameha do to bring some light here?

 

It’s interesting. You know, I think, you know, for us, our role is education, and our role is to make sure our keiki, you know, are well-educated, make good choices, understand their community, understand how to lead their community. And from that, I believe great things will happen. And whether they are on the left side of an issue, or the right side of an issue, or right in the middle of an issue, I want our keiki to engage. Because when our community is engaged, we will move forward; right? Our fear should be a lack of engagement, when we’re not hearing noise, when we don’t hear from our communities, and our keiki, and our youth. That’s when we should worry. When we hear noise and we hear people engaging, we should smile.

 

So, Kamehameha doesn’t want to be in the position of making decisions; it wants to promote education and—

 

That’s where we start.

 

–engagement, and … go for it with training.

 

Our start is, we put our keiki in the center. We start with that premise. And we’re saying: What do our keiki need to succeed as adults? You know, if they need to know how to engage civilly with their community, they know how to articulate an issue and participate in the process, and if they know how to have their voice be heard, then we’re doing our work. And that’s the vision for our future.

 

Would you lay out in numbers the breadth of Kamehameha? You know, the real estate and students.

 

So, let’s see if I can get the numbers. Right now, we have about fifty-four hundred kids in our K through 12. We have three campuses. We have about five thousand four hundred students, and we graduate about seven hundred every year on our Maui campus, our Hilo campus, and our Hawaiiana campus. We have thirty preschools, and we have about sixteen hundred keiki in our preschools. And we have scholarships that educate another eighteen hundred in our preschools, and another five hundred in K through 12, and another two thousand in post-high. And then, we have community education programs that if you count how they reach our keiki and our families, probably have another fifteen thousand Native Hawaiians. And so, kinda by the numbers, that’s our reach. We also have about three hundred sixty-three thousand acres of land that we manage, about half in agriculture, and we have commercial lands in about fifteen different areas that we focus on.

 

It’s a tremendous kuleana.

 

It is.

 

So, could you maybe share some leadership tips about how you maintain every day? It’s just huge.

 

I try to draw from my parents. And you know, I think if I draw from my dad, I understand that we have to understand how systems work, we have to know how to innovate and how to lead, and have it work from a vision. And so, I think that’s always important in what we do. But I also know from, you know, my mom, we have to make sure, and I have to make sure we have a sense of humility and know how to help others succeed.

 

Is it always possible to just know what is in the best interest of the keiki?

 

No. You know, I think that’s why we have to work with partners, and we need a lot of voices, we have a great board, we have executives, we have teachers and administrators. All the voices have to help understand that, ‘cause it cannot just be my voice, it cannot just be the voice of a few. And you know, that’s the challenge in education, is that everybody’s working, and everybody has great ideas, yet we all have to figure out how to best serve each child.

 

And you have to be an optimist too; right?

 

You have to be an optimist. You have to see the positive and the growth. And so, a lot of times, you know, our biggest thing is, we have to see the good things in what we’re going. And that’s our encouragement, understanding the really, really good things we do.

 

You know, I’m trying to imagine sitting at your desk, and you have so many constituencies to address. I mean not, quote, just the financials and the legalities. I mean, there are so many people affected in so many different ways by the school and the investments. And you know, some have felt betrayed, some have very different ideas than others. How do you manage that?

 

There’s many ways to manage. My dad or my mom would look to something, where you know, when we talked about their work, and things were stressful, you know, it was always the patient was in the center of everything they did; patient care, taking care of their families. And I think the same for us.

 

So, you’re saying put the keiki in the middle.

 

We put the keiki in the center of everything we do, and we make better decisions. And I pause, and I think about that a lot. That, and we think about, you know, our roots and our history, and our ancestry, and Princess Pauahi. And you know, we make decisions based on our history and our values.

 

It used to be that people felt like they had to choose between their culture and a, quote, good education. Now, I think you’re addressing that; right?

 

Absolutely.

 

How have you addressed it?

 

You don’t have to choose between culture and academics; you can have both. And when we’re really strong in what we do, understand our culture, and our kids understand their identity and their background and their ancestry, they will find academic success, because of that strength. And so, how do we treat our culture as a competitive advantage, and how do you grow from that strength. And absolutely, what you’re saying is true.

 

That if you’re grounded in the Hawaiian culture, it can make you much better in anything you do.

 

Right. And that will become your competitive advantage in the classroom, in the workplace, out in our community. And that’s something we believe as an organization; we’ve always believed that. But we have to feel like we can say it out loud.

 

You know, you talked about your family growing up. What’s your family like?

 

Oh, my family’s wonderful. It’s interesting. You know, I have my wife. We met at UCLA, and we have three wonderful kids.

 

And do you expect them to be lawyers, like you were expected to be a doctor?

 

Yeah. You know, it’s funny; it’s funny. We had a discussion when our kids were young. You know, and I’m very careful not to tell my kids what they should be doing. And I think one thing I just don’t know is, I don’t know what great areas go to into now. I mean, I think kids have to figure that out and see what the future’s gonna bring to them. And so, I have one daughter who lives in Los Angeles, and she’s in finance. I have a second daughter who’s in New York, and she’s doing communications. I heard that’s a good field.

 

[CHUCKLE] Well, you’ve gotta communicate.

 

And I have a son who’s in ninth grade. So, we have a wonderful family. And you know, I think kinda like, you know, my own family, I think we try to stay, you know, quiet and do our work, and everybody tries to work hard. And try to stay in the background when we can.

 

And is the family business Kamehameha?

 

Right now, yeah. [CHUCKLE]

 

Our conversation took place in the Fall of 2017. Mahalo to Livingston Jack Wong of Honolulu, the CEO of Kamehameha Schools, for sharing his story with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

 

You are a lifer at Punahou.

 

M-hm.

 

You’re of Chinese ancestry, and you are sitting in the CEO spot at Kamehameha Schools, primarily for the Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture. Does that get difficult for you at some points?

 

I don’t think so. You know, it’s never about me; it’s always about those we serve. And I’ll let the rest fall as it falls. So, I don’t think about that. I know what I’m here to do, and I’m gonna do my best, and I’m gonna put a hundred and ten percent into it. And I believe in our mission, and I believe in what we’re doing. And I think it’s a calling, and you know, I’ll do my best every single day. And then at some point, somebody will say: Okay, you’re done. And maybe that’s okay, too.

 

[END]

 

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