Hoala Greevy


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2014


On this episode of LONG STORY SHORT, my guest is Hoala Greevy, founder of one of the earliest locally owned email spam and virus filtering companies, Pau Spam. The son of Hawaii community activists, Hoala is intent on his career and dedicated to his business, sometimes working so late he sleeps in his office. Later in life, he intends to be part of the solution in addressing social issues affecting Native Hawaiians. Many Native Hawaiians believe children grow into their name. Hoala’s Hawaiian name, which came to his mother in a dream, means “awakening” or “new beginning.”


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The earliest career I wanted was when I was in Kapahulu, and they had the trash day, and those garbage guys were pretty cool. So, taking out the trash, that was the first job I wanted to have. ‘Cause they’d be whistling and running, and the compactor’s coming down, and they’d be throwing stuff right at the right moment. I remember kids would come out, and I wouldn’t be the only kid watching them. So, I guess in a way, that’s what Pau Spam does, is take out people’s garbage.




Hoala Greevy discovered his passion for software development in college, and at age twenty – four created Pau Spam, one of the first locally – owned computer spam and virus filtering companies. Hoala Greevy stays on the forefront of the latest technology while saving some time to pursue other interests. Hoala Greevy, next on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Hoala Greevy is a successful entrepreneur and businessman. He’s a strong believer in public schools, and a proud graduate of McKinley High School in Honolulu. His young life was also shaped by his two parents, Ed Greevy and Haaheo Mansfield, who were community and political activists.


Your father was known for being this wonderful behind the scenes photographer who was the only person with a camera, using it well, at really just touching moments in community activism protests. Save Our Surf, for example.


Yeah. From what I understand, he made friends with Uncle John Kelly, and he noticed when he was at these meetings and rallies that he was doing all the talking, but no one was taking any pictures. So, that was their bond. He’d take the pictures, Uncle John would do the talking, and then … yeah, my dad just has this knack of disappearing in a crowd. Which I don’t know how he does it with five cameras. [CHUCKLE]


But he was always there. It was a labor of love, he was working; he wasn’t just attending a rally.


Right; yeah, hobby. He had a day job. A lot of it was Save Our Surf, protecting all these spots from development. And then, out of that, kinda spurring the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. And then, they started helping out these other groups of people. And then, yeah; so, in some circles, my dad is regarded as the documenter of the Hawaiian renaissance of the 70s and 80s.


Did your parents tell you much about meeting at the Stop H – 3 rally?


No. But there’s a picture in my dad’s book. They went into the Wilson Tunnel, I think in 1975, 76. And they were just cleaning the walls, but of course, there was letters behind it, and so that one of their clever marketing techniques about a rally they were gonna have at the Capitol. Stop H – 3 rally, Capitol, three o’clock; whatever.


Oh, they put it right in the tunnel.


Yeah; so they were just cleaning off the walls, and …


But they didn’t clean some parts of the walls.




I see. Did your parents explicitly give you life wisdom and rules for life?


My dad is an artist; he’s very much an artist. And my mom is very practical, Hawaiian, loving. And they’re both very supportive of whatever I chose to do. Except football; they wouldn’t let me play football.


You are one of those people who’ve done very well professionally, having gone to public school all the way.


Oh, yeah. I’m a big fan of public schools.


Starting with Hokulani School.


Yeah. Went to Hokulani, and then Washington, and then McKinley.


Washington Intermediate had some town tough guys, and so did McKinley.


Yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]. So, I learned in college, all you needed to do was ask: You know what is search take? And people who went to private school, for obvious reasons, don’t know what that means.


Search take; no.


Yeah. So, you’re in the cafeteria, and the bull walks up and he’s like, Eh, I like dollar. And of course, Oh, I no more. And then, the guy: Oh, what, search take? Oh, hold on a second. [CHUCKLE] But I thought that was just normal stuff.


How often did that happen to you?


Freshman year, quite a bit. And then, it was good to play baseball, I guess, and kinda keep out of that.


They didn’t bother athletes?


Yeah, ‘cause their friends would be on the football team, or whatever, and like, Eh, no bother that guy, he’s on the baseball team.


So, in that sense, athletics was an escape and a passion?


Yeah, yeah; I love baseball. So, that was my thing in high school.


Did you worry that you wouldn’t get to go to college?


No, I figured I was gonna go. My parents were pretty adamant about that. And I was lucky enough to get a scholarship, so that’s why I got away to Portland State in Oregon.


Hoala Greevy’s parents encouraged him to pursue his dreams. A gift from his father at a young age turned out to be an inspiration for his future career.


How did you begin your journey with computers? When did it start?


My dad got me a Commodore when I was kid.


How old were you?


Ten, I think. And then, so that was cool.


Big, hulky thing?


Yeah; yeah, yeah. Five and a quarter disc. And then, when I got to college, when I first logged in on that, what, ninety – six – hundred baud modem, and I was in some friend’s room, and just connecting on the Internet was just … I just knew it. I was like, Wow, all this information, all these people … wow.


So, in college, that’s when it really got sparked as far as what you could possibly do with it.


Yeah; I was sitting in a computer science class in Portland State, and they had a job posting board. And someone wanted a small utility app that was almost identical to the homework we just turned in. And I couldn’t believe no one else had called, or maybe they had. So, I followed up as soon as I could, and I don’t know, four or five days later, I met the guy in a Safeway parking lot with a three and a half inch disc. And my friend Andrew Lanning [PHONETIC], he says, You know, in business you can have it good, fast, or cheap. So, he got it good and fast, but it wasn’t cheap. [CHUCKLE] He wasn’t too happy about that, but that was fine.


Because you valued your work, and you charged big time?


I thought it was; for college, yeah, it was a pretty good crip. And he popped it in his laptop, it worked, he kinda mumbled about signing the check. And then, that was it. So, to me, it was solving a problem and being creative about it. So, that was kinda neat.


But that’s so interesting to know that meeting in a Safeway parking lot, you valued your work, and you said, This is what it’s gonna take to get you this.


I could tell he was motivated. So, I guess maybe the salesman in me came out.


Were you making it up as you went along?


Yeah, pretty much. [CHUCKLE]


You weren’t quite sure what you were gonna charge?


And then, I split it with my buddy back home, ‘cause he had a compiler that I needed. So, I had the code, he had the compiler, and we split the profits. So, it was fun.


So, that was the first business transaction.


I guess; yeah. And then, just kept doing stuff like that. Staying up late, sleeping at the office, all – nighters, things like that.


You’re in college, still, at this point; right?


Oh, even out of college, sleep at the office, for sure. I think it’s maybe a subconscious thing that if you’re sleeping at the office, then you must be doing something right. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] You’re ready anyway; right?


Yeah; yeah.


So, whatever it takes, you’re gonna do it. If it takes sleeping over, you’re gonna do it.

Yeah. I remember reading in the late 90s, this reporter was doing a profile on the two Yahoo cofounders. I think it was Jerry Yang. He would routinely sleep under his desk in a sleeping bag, and I just thought that was kinda neat. This was in the late 90s, so when Yahoo was on a tear.


How did you get the resources to start business? Did you go seat of the pants at first?


Yeah; just bootstrap. Yeah, I don’t know. Just make it happen.


You didn’t major in business.


No; geography. [CHUCKLE] Hard one; the hard major.


And why was that?


I just wanted to get out of school. I was a computer science major, and then I figured that was gonna take me about seven years to get out. I was on scholarship. I was like, Nah, let me just take something I like. And then, I just studied in the computer labs, and still pursued computer stuff, but just took something I liked, just to graduate.


What excited you about software? Were you trying to do any particular thing, or just go wherever it went?


Oh; I just thought it was a way to express yourself and be creative, and solve a problem, and help people. And I still feel like that. I mean, I think it’s just getting started. We’re in the midst of a huge mobile adoption that’s just getting started. And that’s really exciting.


What kind of a mind do you need to be a really successful software developer?


Naïve. [CHUCKLE]


Thinking it can be done, and then having to work.


Yeah; forcing it.


And sleeping overnight to make it happen.


Yeah, I guess so. Shoot; I mean, there’s a lot of different types, I think.


Well, what are the problems you wanted to solve, and did, with your development?


Well, I worked at an email company in the Bay Area. I moved back home in 2001. I was doing some Linux consulting, which at the time was really hard to explain to people. It still is. It’s an open source operating syste And then, the few clients I had were complaining about the same thing over, and over again, viruses and spam. So, I just sat down and pulled a few all – nighters, and came up with Pau Spam. And then, used that as a subscription – based model to help people out, and restore productivity to business.


And how rare was that contribution you made and that business that you created? I mean, because a lot of businesses have fallen by the wayside; but not yours.


Oh; yeah, I don’t know. I guess no one’s really put the stamp out on spam. It’s still a huge problem. Probably ninety – four, ninety – five percent of all email on the Internet is rubbish. So, I guess, just got lucky in that regard that it’s still a service that’s needed.


Well, you’ve had to keep upgrading and working on opposition, and competition.


Yeah; sure. It’s constant cat and mouse, upgrades, features. For sure.


Do you like that?


Yeah; it’s fun. I mean, it’s always changing, it’s never boring.


It sounds like you’ve found an area that will always require work, and so it’s great job security if you can keep up with demand.


Yeah. We’re seeing some changes on the landscape the last couple years, so definitely gotta think ahead and plan for what’s next on the horizon. And I see that as mobile. I mean, without a doubt.


I just read a stat, and this is 2013 as we’re speaking. But mobile video use exploded by thirty – seven percent last year.


Oh, yeah. And I think the amount of Smartphones on the market was one billion last November, projected to be one – point – eight billion this December. And then, five billion by 2015. Seventy – five percent of all mobile usage is a game or a social network. People check their phones every six minutes, or a hundred and fifty times a day. And you’ve got this wild adoption of Smartphones, with no end in sight. I mean, I just don’t see any stop to it. I think it’s super – exciting.


And people are saying, I don’t need a personal computer anymore; I can do this on my phone.




Do you like that, working in a field where it’s just changing all the time, and you’ve really got to be on your game all the time?


Yeah; it’s a lot of fun, for sure. I mean, we’re seeing now with apps that people use, it’s impossible to advertise your way to the top. So, what they do is, they create a habit for you. And so, the top apps have actually created habits out of people. So, when you ask someone, What do you when you’re bored?, a lot of Millennials, they’re not gonna say TV or call a friend, they’re gonna say, I’m checking an app on my phone, that’s what I do when I’m bored. What do you do when you need a laugh? There are some huge shifts in human behavior, all within the last four or five years. So, that’s pretty exciting, I think.


And are they going to the app store and just looking at whatever there is, or are they looking at some other means to find like the ten best apps? Or do they go word of mouth?


Facebook, word of mouth, the viral effect, stuff they see on You Tube. Yeah; it’s pretty interesting right now.


You’re very lucky to have found out in college what you wanted to do. It doesn’t happen to very many people. Some people go their whole lives, and don’t know what will really jazz them in terms of a career.


Yeah; I did get lucky, I guess. I mean, we have this app called DareShare that we released in June, which is a spinoff company. And it’s an app that gets people to do silly, funny things and share it. And that excites me to no end. I mean, we’re in forty – three countries right now, we’re trying to grow our user base. And to express yourself to all these people out there, and hopefully a lot, lot more. I mean, that’s really fun.


It must be hard to talk to non – tech people about what you do, because it is, quote, technical.


I think on the general level, people can relate. Especially for what we’re doing now with DareShare and being an app, and something silly and fun and new. I think it transcends boundaries and language, and culture.


That’s interesting, that you do one really practical and necessary thing, Pau Spam, and then this is silly. But you could argue it’s necessary to have a joke and to blow off stress.


Yeah. To me, mobile, ferality, silly things, photo sharing, those are really big macro trends. And I think DareShare is greatly affected by my interpretation of macro trends going on right now in the world. So, it’s a scientific approach to being funny and silly, is what we’re doing.


That sounds kind of just like you.




Scientific approach to being silly. [CHUCKLE]


In addition to his passion for developing computer software that will make people laugh and protect people from unwanted email, Hoala Greevy has another side to him, a hobby that probably would have pleased his great – great – grandfather, who was an expert fisherman.


Your middle name, I don’t know if there’s an okina, but it can either mean king or fish.




Is it fish?






Moi; fish.






And you have become a fisherman.


Yeah; I got into it. Yeah. I enjoy kayak fishing, for sure. Yeah.


Oh, I’ve seen some crazy videos on You Tube with people hooking huge things, and being dragged in the kayak.




Real dangerous, especially getting it onboard.


Yeah, yeah, yeah.


With a gaff.


That’s the lure, man. That’s who’s hunting who? [CHUCKLE]


What kind of fish are you looking for?


Oh, well, on a kayak, you can almost catch anything the guys on a boat are catching. But, when I first started, I was like, Man, what’s the biggest, baddest fish in the water? It’s marlin, right? So, I’m like, Okay, I want to get that.




So, I kinda chased that fish for about three years, and I got lucky, and a couple years ago, I caught a couple, and that was exciting.


Don’t they have bills? I mean, you know —




That could just stab you, it could go right through you.


It’s the only fish with a weapon of its own, so that was a big, big lure for me to hunt one of ‘em.


And they go deep, they try to drag you under; right?


Yeah; aerials, turn you in circles, all kinds of stuff.


And you don’t have a lot of protection. I mean, you’re in a kayak.




Out far.


Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, it just feels kind of primal. I don’t know what you want to call it, but definitely you versus the fish. Yeah; there’s no boat to anchor you down or anything. If it wants to take you, it’s gonna take you.


Have you rolled over, or had a real close call?


Oh, that still happens. But when I caught those marlin, I got lucky, I didn’t huli. So, just stabilized the best I could. Yeah.


And they’re wiggling, they’re flopping around next to you in the kayak?




Oh! What other things have you caught? What other kind of fish have you caught?


I mean, the mahi, ono, the usual stuff.


And mahi are strong, too.


Yeah; they’re good fighters, and they give you the aerial display, and it’s kinda neat. And then, I got lucky this year. It’s an ugly fish, but I got the State record for the fine scale triggerfish, or hagi most fishermen call it.


What does a triggerfish look like?


Ugly, trigger, big gross thing. And I just got lucky and … I don’t know. State record, and I submitted it, and it became a world record.




For that particular fish.


And how big was it?


I think it was about fifteen or sixteen pounds. So, kinda big for that.


What was the challenge in getting it in?


[CHUCKLE] It was so ugly.




I didn’t know quite what to do with it. [CHUCKLE] Yeah; not a good – looking fish. But I figured, just bring it in and see what happens.


Was it good eating?


No; no, no. My friends ate it, and they got sick.


Oh! But you got a world record.


Yeah. So, yeah, I don’t know if it’s any consolation to their stomachs, but yeah, I got the world record.


So, it’s obviously dangerous, but nothing has happened to you that scared you out there?


No; I mean, it’s humbling, but I haven’t had any close calls yet. We carry radios, our phones, I have an EPIRB emergency locater. So, we try our best.


So, what happens to you if you go over?


Yeah; you gotta try your best to stay with the kayak and your paddle. But I don’t know; I guess that’s part of the mystique, I guess, is maybe harkening back to olden days, and guys paddling out on their canoes, and stuff.


Do you feel something Hawaiian from your Hawaiian side about that?


I do. I mean, we have more equipment, sonar, fish finder, bait well, things like that. But, a lot of the spots are the same, the techniques are very the same. A lot of it involves catching opelu, which is, kind of a family fish.


That’s really different from what you do for a living.


Yeah, I guess so. But to me, the water is an escape, and humbling, playground, vast, infinite. Kinda neat. You feel so small and nothing.


In addition to his affinity for fishing and the ocean, Hoala Greevy feels a deep connection to the Hawaiian culture in other ways as well. Many of his Hawa iian values come from his mother.


Why is your name Hoala?


Well, my mom had a dream, and I don’t know what was in the dream, but they said, Hey, name your kid Hoala.


And what does it mean?


Awaken, or new beginning. So, it’s either a family member, a dream, or something happening at the time of birth; those are usually the three ways people get their names.


Yours is a dream name.


Yeah; and I think what I do after business will be the realization of that name. Why would a person like my mom have that dream? And if you’ve ever met my mom, she’s a pretty interesting and special person. Why would she have that dream? How do I go about realizing the meaning of that?


But interesting; you don’t think it’s in the tech field, especially.


To some degree, but I want to create something that outlives me. So, yeah; I think that’s something special.


Let’s talk about being Hawaiian.




What does that mean to you?


A vibrant, beautiful past, a troubling present, and an uncertain future. That’s what it means.


Do you think tech could help, will help?


Yeah. I mean, I think it can help in a lot of ways. But I’m so focused on — yeah, I don’t know. I think that’s down the road.


That’s not where your passions run?


No; later. Later, I’d like to do stuff. But right now, it’s business and hit that homerun, and then go hit another one. I mean, for sure; business is definitely where it’s at right now, for me.


How many hours a week do you work? Do you have any idea?


No. Probably not as many as you. [CHUCKLE]


I don’t know about that. I’m not sleeping at the office.


[CHUCKLE] Yeah; I don’t if that’s a good thing, still. But, I think there’s a lot of good and a lot of troubling things about being Hawaiian now. And so, I’d like to help out with that. My mom’s a social worker, right? So, you see or you hear about stuff, and there’s a perpetual cycle of poverty, and how is that in Hawaiian culture. And it’s like, you got the self – medicating drug abuse, you got issues at home, not going to college, and it kinda spins upon itself and perpetuates through generations. And I don’t know if I know the answer to that, but you know, I’d like to help out with that at some point. For sure.


So many causes.


Yeah. I mean, incarceration, diabetes, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol. I mean, I don’t even have to look farther than my own family to see all of that. And I think ninety – eight percent of every Hawaiian out there, if they really think about it, it’s all right in front of them.


You have a passion that you’re deferring to better the condition of Hawaiians, if you can.




What are your thoughts about quality of life today? You keep your business here because of quality of life.


Yeah. I mean, I think, shoot, since maybe the recession in 2008, I think a lot of the middleclass has gone down to a notch below that, especially on the Hawaiian side. We see this a lot with other minorities on the mainland. It’s a larger class teetering on the poverty line. So, like the disappearance of the middleclass, I think is a definite reality in a lot of Hawaiian families. And then, we see the wealthy side getting exponentially richer. Which I don’t know if you can fault people for that, but within the last five years, there’s been a big vacuum, I think, in the middleclass.


And that’s a cause for concern; right? And also, not having a college degree really affects people’s ability to work in an era where it’s the knowledge era, it’s the information era. And that means tech.


Yeah. I’d really like to make an impact on people’s going to college, for sure, once I get some other stuff done. For sure. [CHUCKLE]


Competitive business and hardcore fishing now, activism and altruism later. Mahalo to Hoala Greevy, founder of the computer spam and virus filtering system Pau Spam, for sharing his story with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii 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 the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.


Are you still close to people you went to school with?


Yeah; more so my college friends, I guess. But, I still keep in touch. I’m still very, very into McKinley.


I know you’ve participated with the McKinley School Foundation, which is just an awesome supportive fundraising arm of McKinley.


Oh, yeah.


Or supportive of McKinley.


We created our own Class of 1994 Scholarship. We have a two – year and a four – year category. The amounts aren’t big, but it’s a good start. And I think that our society, college is the equalizer. It’s your ticket out, so the more people we can get in college, I think it just helps society as a whole.


Richard Ha


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 11, 2008


Richard Ha, Visionary Farmer


On this episode of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox sits down to share stories with Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha.


Never heard of him? Well, Richard Ha isn’t your average farmer. He’s been called a visionary farmer. An innovative small business owner, Ha offers his employees profit sharing, has found a way to generate electricity on his property outside of Hilo, initiated an adopt-a-class program at Keaukaha Elementary School, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website.


Interested in hearing more about him? Then tune in for an engaging conversation with Richard Ha, a visionary farmer, on Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.


Richard Ha Audio


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Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Welcome to another Long Story Short. Today we get to meet a man who wears many hats: visionary farmer, Vietnam veteran, college graduate, innovative small business owner who offers his employees profit sharing and who’s found a way to generate electricity on his property, community activist who initiated an adopt-a-class program at a local school, and Hawaii Island grower Richard Ha.


Farmers, in order to be successful, need to understand complex issues of diversification, sustainability, resource management, land use and planning, even global economic cycles, as well as farming. Hawaii Island farmer Richard Ha even follows the worldwide price of oil, advocates native Hawaiian practices of ahupua‘a and writes a blog on his website. Interested in meeting him? So was I. Let’s start our conversation on the farm. Richard Ha is a farmer partly because his father was. But his father only became a farmer when he received 40 acres of farmland outside of Hilo through the GI Bill.


What kind of farming did he do to start off with?


Well, I remember him growing tomatoes, and cucumbers; and small kid time, we would go pick the tomatoes and have tomato fights. [chuckle]


So much for that harvest.


Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.


And had he been trained in farming, or was he picking it up as he went?


No; he didn’t have any training in farming. It was pretty much, you know, back then I think a lot of people understood about farming and gardening, and it was kinda second nature. It wasn’t difficult to do.


They were closer to the elements, weren’t they? They noticed the cause and effect of the winds, and that kind of thing.


Oh, yeah. Tutu folks were taro farmers down at Maku on the ocean. But what I remembered about that time was that they had few pigs. But the big deal about it wasn’t that they had few pigs in the pen. There was a stone wall around the property, and they’d leave the gate open. And what would happen is, the wild pigs would come in. So they—


And they’d catch them?


Yeah. [chuckle] Yeah.


When you saw your dad farming, and you were playing with tomatoes, did you think, I want to grow up and be a farmer?


No. Actually, what happened was I ended up wanting to go into business or into having some kind of organization to be in charge of. And the reason that happened was because Dad used to tell stories when I was about ten years old. We had this kitchen table that was like a picnic table; bench and everything. And he would tell stories about impossible situations; you know, a business situation—he had all kinds of different situations. And it would come down to—he came up against a stone wall, there was no way to figure it out, and he’d pound the table, and the dishes would all fly, and he would say—boom! “Not, ‘No can.’ Can!” [chuckle] I remember that pretty clearly.


Not, ‘No can.’ Can!




It’s about problem solving and the will to overcome the problem.


Yeah; it was just a given that you just don’t come up to a problem, and look at it and say, Oh, that’s it. You know, there was always a way around it.


Was it hard working the farm in those days? Was that a tough way to make a living?


The chicken farm was really tough; yeah. And the reason for it is because he had too many chickens for the Big Island, and not enough volume to supply Oahu. So he was caught in between there. But yeah, it was kinda tough.


So would you say you were middle class, poor?


Oh, I thought we were—later on, I found out we were real poor. [chuckle] But at the time, you don’t have a concept of being poor, yeah? But yeah, later on, I found out we were actually pretty poor. I think you’re pretty poor if your mom is making pancakes, and then you can’t—I don’t know which is baking powder that would make it rise, and get fluffy. We didn’t have that. [chuckle]


Were you conscious that you didn’t have what you needed?


You know, not really, except for maybe Christmastime. And at Christmastime, my aunts from uh, Oahu would send us toys. And that was something you looked forward to all year long. You know, and it may be just little toy plastic soldiers. You know, so we didn’t have very many Christmas presents, but that was extremely, extremely valuable to us small kids.


Well, normally, what did you use as toys?


Make your own.


Like what?


Make sugarcane rockets. Cut the sugarcane leaf, and peel it back a little bit, fly ‘em as far as you can fly ‘em. [chuckle]


Make swords out of, you know, the hedge, and fight sword. All kinds of stuff like sling shot.


And that was good fun, right?


Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I don’t know if anybody was any happier having anything more than that, actually.


Richard Ha’s father didn’t teach him, “If can; can. If no can; no can.” He taught him, “Not ‘No can.’ Can!” – meaning that every problem, no matter how impossible it seems, can be solved. And Richard embraces that can do, make do with what you have attitude. Although he was raised on a farm, Richard didn’t go into farming until much later. Straight out of high school, he went to college to study business.


Well, actually, you know, I didn’t know what I was going to do, exactly. I knew kind of that I’d like to get into business, and so if I was going to college, it would be good to major in business. You know, so I went to college, and I spent two years, and I finally flunked out. Just too much things to do, people to see; stuff like that. [chuckle] And it was at the time when uh, if you flunked out of school, you would get drafted and go to Vietnam.


You flunked out?


Yeah; flunked out. And got drafted, went to Vietnam. But then, you know, I had the opportunity to apply for officers candidate school, which I took. And I eventually became an officer. Yeah. So then you have to really get serious, because you know, end up in Vietnam—you know, in the situation where it’s life and death. And what I learned in Vietnam was really important to me in later life. I was an artillery officer attached to a infantry unit. And the rule was—and it didn’t have to be spoken; leaving someone behind is not an option. Not even a consideration. It’s, we all come out, or nobody comes out. Kinda like that. And it’s a good lesson.


Did you ever have to take a lot of risk in order to make that happen?


Some. You know, more than you’d like to. But you know, it’s just something you have to do. It’s not—you don’t even weigh it. Yeah.


And when you were in Vietnam, were you concerned about what you were hearing from the U.S. about the objection to the war, and the protests against the war?


No; uh, actually, you know, I looked upon the thing as a patriotic thing to do and just assuming everybody was doing the right thing. And so my main concern was the people we were you know, responsible for, and we had to take care of each other. And beyond that, I didn’t go there.


In a sense, well, you were leading a group meant for business. You know, life and death business.


Kind of, you know, yeah, when you think about that. Yeah?


Did you have any close calls, personally?


Actually, yeah. And probably because of what Pop taught me. The situation was like this. We were in a rice paddy, and we were coming to this village. And then we got incoming sniper fire. So we all ran into depression. And I looked around; I said, Holy smokes, this is not a place to be. So I grabbed the radio operator; I said, Let’s go. So we jumped up and ran about fifty feet or so, and bullets flying and everything like that. And a few seconds after that, a grenade landed just where we left. But it was kinda like well, Pop taught us a lot of lessons, and it had to do with survival. Just do what you gotta do, and plan for the future, and if it—you know, make decisions. You gotta do it, do it now. Kinda thing like that.


And not no can; can.


[chuckle] Yeah; absolutely.


So you came back alive from Vietnam.


M-hm. Yeah; and then at that time, I had some time to grow up. There was six years in the military as an Army officer. You know, things are pretty serious. It gave me a lot of time to think about going back to school. And going back to school, I knew I wanted to go into business. But this time, I figured, I’m gonna major in accounting, because accounting will help me keep score.




And then, that’s what I did. And it worked out pretty good.


You liked it?


I like keeping score. I never did work in accounting.


You didn’t?




But you liked learning it.




But what were you gonna do with your accounting degree?


You know, actually, I didn’t really know. I just knew that I had an accounting degree, if there was anything came up, I was gonna do it. But it just so happened, Pop asked me to come back and run his chicken farm. I said, Okay, well, I don’t have anything planned; I’ll do that. So I came back, helped him run the poultry farm. And in the course of that, met the supermarket people, learned how marketing and that kind of stuff worked. And—


And you learned from the ground up on that end, right?


Yeah; yeah. Didn’t have—I mean, we raised chickens when we were little. But the business end of it, it was different. You know, and with accounting degree, it helped me to analyze stuff. And so what happened was, we had forty acres, and twenty-five of it was in the chicken farm. So we had some extra land. And so we needed to find out what could we do with no more money, ‘cause we—I only had a three hundred dollar credit card, back when it was hard to get a three hundred dollar credit card. [chuckle] So started doing some research, and found out that there was about six million pounds of Chiquita bananas being imported into Hawaii. So I said, Ho, man, if we could get into that, we should be able to do okay. So we started trading chicken manure for banana keiki, and started two acres. But you know, we didn’t have a tractor, we didn’t have anything; just had my Toyota Land Cruiser. So we’d make lines by driving down, knocking the California grass down, get a sickle, cut a hole, get a ‘o‘o and shovels, and planted bananas. That’s how we started. [chuckle]


Wow. Hoeing by land cruiser. [chuckle] Was that a success the first time out?


Well, you know when you only got two acres and you’re actually working in the chicken farm, there’s not that much risk. You know, it was all labor. You know, so it wasn’t too much risk. But what it did was, it helped me learn.


At what point did you have your own farm?


Well, yeah; that was my dad’s farm, and we made it into a four-way corporation with my brothers. And then from there, I went to Kapoho to lease some land over there. And that’s when it started; maybe two years after we started the first banana farm. And then when the sugar plantation started closing down, we were able to move closer into Hilo at Keaau. So we moved the farm there. So there was little bit more soil. And the time we got into big business was, I had an Opal station wagon. It’s a small, little thing; maybe you can hold five people. And as long as our employees were only five, that was fine. But as soon as we went to seven and eight, we went into big business. Because it was communication, people were thinking you know, that they weren’t getting the right information because they weren’t the car with me. [chuckle] And then we started realizing, you know, you want to be good to everybody, you want to be liked and all that; but the best you can do is be fair. And once I realized that, then that was pretty important. Yeah.


And then you got two vehicles. [chuckle]


We got two vehicles, and we got more workers—


More land?


And more land. At Keaau, we ended up with—expanded to three hundred acres. And by then, we became the largest banana farm in the State. Yeah, but you know, we were still basically local boys.


Local boy Richard Ha is more than just a farmer. He’s also a blogger, operating a website he updates several times a week. He recently gave the keynote speech at a local college graduation. And he orchestrated a community effort to help students at Keaukaha Elementary School. Located on Hawaiian Homelands with an underserved population, Keaukaha faced federal action under the No Child Left Behind Act – until a new principal, Lehua Veincent, stepped in – and invited in – community support.


Keaukaha Elementary School; a Hawaiian Homelands community, and a school that was in the academic basement for twenty years. You adopted a class there.


Yeah. What happened was, I volunteered to be on this thirty-meter telescope subcommittee on the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. And so when you talk about telescopes, you automatically talk about the culture; Mauna Kea. You need to talk about the culture. If you talk about the culture, and you end up at Keaukaha. It’s a seventy-five-year-old Hawaiian Homes community. And so that’s where I ended up. Yeah, so I went over there, talked to Kumu Lehua about telescopes, and had to learn a lot about the culture. I didn’t know as much as I do now. I was mostly worried about farming. But you know, the more I got into it, the more I needed to learn. But so talking to Kumu Lehua, I invited them to come to our farm to—you know, just an excursion. And in the course of the discussion, you know, I asked him, Where else you folks go on excursion? He says, We don’t go on excursion. And you don’t go; how come? Too much money; three hundred dollars for the bus, we cannot afford that. So what we do is we take walking excursions around the school in the neighborhood. I couldn’t believe it. I thought every kid went on excursions. But they didn’t. And then what was ironic was, here I am on the thirty- meter telescope subcommittee, and you’re standing in Keaukaha, you look at the mountain, there’s hundreds of millions of dollars of investment up there. You look back at the school and the community. So you know, there’s nothing here of tangible relationship to that. And but whatever the case; we decided, this no can. We had to do something. So the simplest thing that came to mind was adopt a child thing.


It’s amazing. This is a Homelands community that really is right in Hilo, right a walk away from Ken’s House of Pancakes. But um, they had been kinda shut out, and they felt like they didn’t have anything going for them, and the school was in disarray for many years.


Yeah. But you know, Kumu Lehua is a special guy. What he did was, he brought the community together, and tied the community and the school together, and then the relationship with the business community made the community and the kids see the bigger world. They’re part of a bigger thing now.


We’ve talked with Kumu Lehua at PBS Hawaii, and uh, we know he looks at everything through a prism of pono. You know, what’s—




— not who’s right, but what is the right thing to do at this time.


Yeah. Yeah; and he’s real consistent that way. And it’s a wonderful thing.


Do you hear young people say, I want to be a farmer?


More and more nowadays, because I think a lot of people are starting to see that this is a serious business. We’re about feeding people. Yeah.


Yeah; and they can really identify with hunger, and with the need for food. You’re a Hawaiian who knows the issues. The community has been split over the use of the mountain, which is a considered a sacred mountain for astronomy purposes. What do you think; what are your thoughts on that?


Well, you know, I think with the oil crisis coming up now, the world has changed. You know, several years ago, when the oil—our supply prices started going up, and we didn’t really know what was going on. But after researching it a little bit, we found out it was related to oil prices. As the oil prices went up, fertilizer, chemical, everything else went up. And so we started looking around; gee, now—and I went to the Peak Oil Conference in Houston, and we found out that the world oil supply is not gonna be able to keep up with the world demand. And if you think about that a while, then you realize all these different things will follow. You know. Planes are gonna have a hard time flying, people gonna have less discretionary income, fertilizer costs are going up, and all these different things. So we needed to kinda change the way we’re doing business. So as soon as we came back, as soon as I came back, we actually had thought about making our own electricity, but when I came back, it was like, Boy, we gotta get going soon.


We have to.


No more choice; we have to.


How are you gonna make your own electricity?


Well, we have a flume that runs through our property, and it was for the plantation. Yeah; and for those who weren’t around during the plantation days, it’s a water line. It’s a waterway, Yeah. And what they do is, they take water from the stream, and just divert it to where they want it to go. And in lot of cases, it was to throw the sugarcane in and run it down to the mill. So it was one of those kinda flumes that we have; and it just was sitting there. So we got a consultant, and sure enough, we could put in an eighteen-inch pipe about this big. And we could generate enough electricity to power fifteen forty-foot reefer Matson containers. So that’s quite a bit. Which turns out to be about twenty-five percent more than we use. And our electricity bill now is fifteen thousand dollars a month. So we’re gonna be able to pay for all that electricity, and still have twenty-five percent extra.


What are you gonna do with that?


Well, we’ve got all kinds of plans. We’re thinking that with the excess electricity, we can do a plug-in thing so that our workers could plug in their hybrid cars in the future, as a benefit for working for the company. That was the first thing we thought of. Another thing is, because fertilizer prices are going up, we want to take the waste bananas, feed it to fish, use the fish waste, run it through a biofilter, convert it into fertilizer, fertilize the plants, and pump it back up with free electricity. And then even, you could fool the plants into thinking it’s winter, when it’s summer. [chuckle]


Wow. And so pretty soon, you won’t have a fifteen thousand dollar a month electricity bill?


Yeah; that—



That’s on the way?


That’s true. Now, all the farmers and everywhere on the island in the State face the same situation, rising fuel and fertilizer costs. And everybody’s talking about food security. Now, how do we do that? And uh, the answer is, if the farmer can make money, the farmer will farm. So it doesn’t get much more complex than that. So in an effort to figure out ways to help farmers make money, we went—you know, with the help of the Department of Ag, and the legislators, and a bunch of people, we pushed through legislation so that farmers could get cheap loans, low interest, long term loans for renewable energy projects.


And does that mean your problems are over?


Oh, no.


Your challenges are pau?


No; no, no, no. We know that one day, the boat not going come. Like, you know, you talk to a lot of the Hawaiian people; it’s a given that sooner or later, there will be supply disruptions.


What is the stat I heard, that because we depend so much on imported food, if we don’t get a barge in for ten days, we’ll be virtually out.


Oh, yeah. Yeah. We’re talking about probably seven days worth of food supplies. But if there was a hint of something disrupting the supply, people would just go down and clean the stores out in two days. My thought. So it’s a tough place to be. So what we need to do is we need to have more farmers. We need to support farmers more, we need to have more food security. So that’s really what we’re reaching for. Now, the objective is to feed people. So now we have to have a calorie— we have to have the concern about what is the mix of calories. So that’s why we’re thinking of doing aquaculture for protein, and leasing land to other farmers so they can do what they’re good at, and we do what we’re good at. We all bring everything down to the farmers market, and people won’t have to travel as far.


Are you confident that local people will buy local produce, even if it’s more expensive?


Well, you know, it’s really what we need to do, to support our local farmers. Because to be food secure, farmers gotta make money. And come the time when we feel like this is really a serious situation, it’ll happen. I’m confident it will.


Do you think we’ll be motivated to do the right thing, go in this direction, without first a disaster? Usually, we learn from disaster. Usually, we’re not really good about looking ahead and saying, Let’s prevent a disaster.


You know, actually, I’m pretty optimistic that it’ll start happening. As a matter of fact, I see it happening already. You know, so it’s just gonna be a matter of time. Yeah; I’m pretty optimistic.


Farmers, by their very nature, plan. They plant and plan. And then plant again. So it’s only natural that Richard Ha would consider the future as much as he does. And it’s refreshing to see his optimism and activism looking toward Hawaii’s future.


Sustainability means basically surviving for the long run. And how we look it at is how it affects our workers, our community, and the environment. So our workers, I just mentioned a little bit about, you know, every Thursday, our workers can come and just pick up all the different things we grow; bananas and tomatoes, and whatever. You know, as much as they need for their family. And we have profit sharing, although it’s been tough the last few years. We have profit sharing, and we want to look, you know, toward—whatever we can do to help them with the food side of it end. Because it’s hard for us to raise our workers’ salaries, because we can’t raise the price; everybody’s having a hard time. So we have to figure out other ways to help our workers.


Do these look like particularly bad times for you? I know that tourism is down, and I mean, everybody’s talking about soft economy. How is it affecting you? Flowers have had it rough lately, anyway.


Yeah. It is pretty tricky. But you know, we always plan five, ten years out. We’re always looking for where we need to be in the future. And we already know that this is happening, it’s gonna get worse; so we’re already moving in that direction. So I think we’re gonna be okay.


What do you see yourself doing in ten years?


You know, it’s hard to say what it’ll be; but I’m pretty sure it’ll be something. What, I can’t imagine now. Because we always end up doing something that’s new and different. Yeah; so I expect that it’ll be something new and different, but it’ll be something, for sure.


And it’ll be in farming?


I can’t even say that. [chuckle] Yeah; I don’t want to just say one particular thing. But it really has to do with where our society is going, what our circumstance will be. And it has a lot to do with alternate energy, I think.


How that’s gonna shape our future?


Yeah. Yeah.



Well, like it or not, the future’s on its way! And the best we can do is prepare for it. Mahalo to Richard Ha for growing our awareness of what the future holds and showing us what one farmer is doing to prepare for it. Mahalo to you for joining me for this Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii, looking forward to seeing you in the future. A hui hou kakou!



I read a review of your fruit that said that, if you’ve gotten used to these cardboard tasting tomatoes that you buy at some places, you gotta taste Richard Ha’s tomatoes ‘cause they’re just full and juicy, and …




Is that true?


Yeah; it is.


[chuckle] I suspected you—




–you were gonna say that.


And there is a reason for it. We actually test the fruit every week for sweetness. Because it’s about value to the customers. And so what we try to do, if you think about value, really, it’s about taste for tomatoes. So that’s what we do. We spend a lot of time monitoring that. So; yeah. [chuckle]


Rachel and Lorraine Haili


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 26, 2013


Leslie Wilcox talks with Rachel Haili and Lorraine Haili Alo, the second generation of the family behind Haili’s Hawaiian Foods. Growing up, their mother encouraged her six children to take pride in their Hawaiian and Chinese heritage. Rachel and Lorraine recall childhood memories of gathering and preparing food with their parents. The sisters say their family’s teamwork, along with business savvy and determination, have contributed to the success of Haili’s Hawaiian Foods, now in the hands of younger sister Lorraine.

Download the Transcript




I know that there’s other native Hawaiian business owners out there, but our claim to fame is that we’ve been in business for over sixty years. And my mom and dad always stressed that you’re Hawaiian, you and your sisters are Hawaiian, and you need to make us proud.


Food keeps us connected with our cultural traditions, and an enduring example is the culinary legacy of Haili’s Hawaiian Foods. Rachel Haili and Lorraine Haili Alo, next on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha mai kakou, and welcome to Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Since the 1950s, Haili’s Hawaiian Foods has made mouths water for steaming laulau, chicken long rice, poi, and delicious poke. Founded by the late Rachel Ching Haili and husband, Peter Davis Haili, the family-run enterprise continues to offer authentic and hard to find traditional Native Hawaiian dishes. Growing up in this Hawaiian-Chinese family meant that every family member was expected to contribute their time to help with the family business, located at the Ala Moana Farmer’s Market across from where Ward Center stands today. The second generation of Haili’s to take over the business are Rachel Haili and her sister, Lorraine Haili Alo. They’re Daughters Number 4 and 5 from a family of six girls. They credit the continuing success of the business to family teamwork, determination, and the business savvy inherited from their mother.


Yeah; my father was the silent partner. Whatever my mother said, it was, Oh, okay, honey.


My mother was pure Chinese, and my father was pure Hawaiian. So, you had these opposite personalities. My father was happy-go-lucky, and very outgoing. My mother was outgoing too, but in a different way. And my mother was very task-oriented. But they were both very family-oriented. Like, even though they were busy working, they always made time for us on Sundays. We’d all get into our station wagon. We had one of those green banana station wagons.


It was a Woody.


A Woody; yeah. [CHUCKLE]


With the wood panels.


Green, with wood panels. So, our job was, while they were working in the morning, we had to get baskets of clothes ready, baskets of food ready, so by the time they came home, we loaded everything up and we went to our auntie’s house in Kaaawa. And we’d spend the day there with our cousins. We’d go on a boat to catch squid.


Was the squid for the restaurant, or for fun?


For the store. [CHUCKLE]


Oh, so you were gathering supplies.


We were just talking about that. I remember being in the boat with my dad, my younger sister and I, and he’d have the squid box. And we’d be sitting in the boat watching him dive down there. And we were like five, six years old, we don’t really know how to swim, but we’re in the boat with our dad, and we’re just kinda looking over, watching him go down for squid and come back up with it. And you know, it was these long tentacles moving around. Yeah.


To make squid luau.


And raw squid.


Raw squid.


Back then, yeah, it was a lot of raw squid. And then, we’d have to learn how to dry it too, so we’d have to learn to pound it. So, even though we enjoyed the beach a lot, we also had to learn to go pick limu. Because that was another thing we needed for the store.


The store went seven days a week, so we never really had family vacations, how people would pack up and fly, and go somewhere, go to the outer islands. It was always a Sunday outing with our parents, so we never really felt like we were being deprived. Because my mom and dad always had time for us. I remember my mother and father taking us to, like, roller derby and wrestling on Wednesday nights. We did a lot of fun things. My mom would just close the business down at five o’clock in the afternoon, be home in time. She’d call us and say, Okay, we’re going to wrestling tonight, or we’re going to the roller derby.


Oh, how fun.


If you want to go, have the rice cooked.


Live action.


Yeah; yeah.


At the Civic Auditorium?


Civic Auditorium.


They used to have the football games at the stadium over on Isenberg. Back then, we had to make our laulau’s at home. So it was the same thing. My mother said, You folks have to get everything ready, because before we can go to the football game, we have to make all the laulau’s. So, after school, we’d come home like on a Friday night. Okay, you set the tables up, you start washing the luau leaves, you start cutting the pork.


How many did you have to make?


Five bags of taro leaves every —


That’s a lot.


You know, that’s like twenty-pound bags. So, that’s a hundred pounds —




— of taro leaves that we’d have to —


And back then, you had to peel all the taro leaves too. So, it was like, Okay, we gotta get organized or we can’t go to the game.


Your reward was the game. Did you resent doing all that work?


No, ‘cause we had to do it.


It was just part of — that was us, that was part of what we needed to do.


And it was fun too, because we’d have friends come over and help us. We’d have our cousins come over and help us.


And aunties, and everybody knew their —


And we had cake afterwards.


— position at the table.


And so, what happened on school days? I mean, you went to Kamehameha, and you went to Punahou and Kamehameha, right?


On school days, my sister Carol and I, it was after school, we got on the bus and we went straight down to Ala Moana Farmer’s Market. And we needed to be there — when we were teenagers. When we were little, we went to school right across the street from our house. We grew up on Gulick in Kalihi. And we’d come home, and we’d have to do our chores at home. Take care of the dog, sweep up the yard, get the garage ready because everybody’s gonna come home and make laulau’s tonight, and we’d have to have the rice cooked. We had chores to do.


And then later, you would go to the store.


Later, yeah. Later, when we were teenagers, we didn’t have time to participate in club sports, or do things after school on campus. We just needed to get down to the store to help our mom and dad close up, clean up.


It was very clear that it was a family enterprise.


Oh, yeah.


And everybody got counted in.




And Saturday and Sundays, there wasn’t any beach time or hanging out time with your friends. I needed to be at work.


And that was life? You didn’t say, Just one time, I want to go hang out at —


Oh, we tried. [CHUCKLE]


Didn’t work?


It didn’t work. [CHUCKLE]


Well, when I was boarder at Kamehameha Schools, so I lived on campus. And then Saturdays, I got to come out for the day. And I went to the market and worked, because that was what I was supposed to do. And I didn’t resent it. It was good. And then, plus, I was like, really popular because I got to go out and bring all the food in to my friends who didn’t go out from the outer islands. So, it was no resentment. It was fun.


The Haili family’s first business venture was a bar and grill called Family Inn. As the matriarch watched her family grow, she decided a liquor business was not an appropriate setting for her daughters. In the late 1940s, she started a fish market that evolved into something else. Established in the 1950s, Haili’s Hawaiian Foods became a kind of second home for the Haili family, and a fixture at Ward Farmer’s Market. Among the many vendors offering an array of food items, Haili’s specialized in traditionally prepared Hawaiian cuisine, and it was one of the first places to offer poke to go.


My father’s specialty was aku, because he was Hawaiian. Way back when, aku was like a rubbish fish. People didn’t eat that; that was like the lowest thing, and it was very cheap. So, he specialized in that, because he learned to do all the different things, like dry it, make it raw, or they could fry it. So, before, you couldn’t go to the store and buy one pound of poke; you had to buy the whole fish. And then, the vendor would clean it for you, and they’d prepare it how you wanted. So we’d have this lady come in from Waimanalo every week. She’d buy three twenty-pound aku’s, and that was for her family for the whole week. And she’d say, Okay, cut one aku for me for frying. So he’d cut it all into steaks. And then the other aku, I want you to cut for drying. So he’d have to cut it. And then she said, And then make me poke on the last aku. Well, my father got to where he was so busy, we couldn’t keep up, and so we had to learn how to clean fish. Then, he figured out, well, let’s just pre-make some of these things. So, he’d have a batch of fish already cut in chunks, so people could come in and say, Okay, I just want poke, I don’t want fish for drying this week. That’s how it kind of evolved. And then, people would say, Oh, I want my poke made with shoyu.


And so, that wasn’t available other places at that time? ‘Cause now, we see it in —


It’s so common.


In every supermarket, grocery store, anyplace.


We’d buy all these different other kinds of fish, and he’d say, Okay, make some of that for poke. And we’re like, Oh, you can eat this for poke too? And he’d say, Oh, yeah, the old Hawaiians, this is how they ate it. You put a certain kind of limu. The combinations with the fish were different. So we had to learn how to do all of that. But nowadays, most people just eat the aku and the ahi and the swordfish. But back then, you did the oio, the awa, you know, the uhu. And so then, he’d have to learn how to do all these different things. Like save the liver from the uhu to mix in with your poke.


When I was little, I would watch my dad clean the aku. And then, he’d save the head for aku palu. And back then, people would use the eyeballs of the fish, and the stomach and the intestines, and the heart of the aku, and the liver. And I would be like, How can anybody eat that? [CHUCKLE] But anyway, all along the intestines, there would be like, little … pockets of the fat of the fish. And that was a delicacy. And my dad would take the time to clean it, and just slide all of that out. And he would keep it in a jar in the refrigerator, and he’d only bring it out when his good really, really good friends came, which was Pops Pahinui, and all of the guys from, Refuse. They would be off of work early in the morning, and they’d come over and they’d talk story with my dad, and he’d bring out this jar of fish guts.


And they would love it.


Yeah, they would love it. And they’d be playing music out in the back, and my father would be sneaking out in the back. And my mom is like, Where’s your father? [CHUCKLE]


And at the time, was Gabby Pahinui a renowned …






— slack key guitar guy?


No, not yet.


And singer.


He was already, a known —


With the locals and his friends, he was like the person they all paina’d with, and stuff.


But he hadn’t gone viral yet.


He didn’t go viral yet.

Wow. Who else came to the shop, that other folks would know?


Auntie Lena Machado. Well, my father’s grandaunt is Clara Inter Haili, also known as Hilo Hattie. And she was always there at the store, coming by to say hello.


What did she like to eat?




Ake was her favorite.


What is ake?


It’s raw liver; raw beef liver. And we’d have to flush all of the blood out, and then you de-vein it. Then you salt it, and you mix it with kukui nut and some limu, and chili pepper, and you ate it like that. So somebody’s really Hawaiian if they can eat ake.


That’s a lot of work, too.


Yeah, it is.


It’s very time consuming.


De-veining it.


Yes, it’s all done by hand, so … my mother was an expert at that.


Do you still do that?






You still do that at the shop?


We still do that; yes.


Wow …


There’s no machine that does that. [CHUCKLE]


And how many people ask for it?


A lot. There’s a lot of people that come in and ask for it. That’s one of our specialties that we still do.


Because a lot of people don’t serve it anymore.




Because of the labor.


It’s a lost art, actually. Not even my children know how to do it.


We make loko too. And not to waste all of the kalua pig when they kalua the pig, so we’d have to learn how to clean the liver. Yeah; and then you saved the blood from the pig also. And then, you had to cook it up with the kalua pig. So that’s like one thing that not too many people eat, that we still do also. And the naau, we still do that. It’s the …


The pig intestines. But now, everything needs to be certified.




We’re culturally certified, so we don’t have any homemade or home slaughtered pork, pork parts.


Organs; yeah, You buy it and you cook it.


I see.


Everything needs to come in from the mainland. We’ve seen a lot of government regulations put on the foods that native Hawaiians are used to eating, so the generation now, they’re missing a lot of the traditional ways of preparing things. But I think health wise, and for the safety of everyone, something needed to be done.


People who love Hawaiian food don’t know some of these Hawaiian foods, because they’re not available in any quantity elsewhere.


Yeah. Like dried fish. Before, on the Big Island, all of the dried akule, everything came from the Big Island, milolii, akule, opelu. Now, there isn’t any, so a lot of the fish that needs to be sold, it’s imported fish from Asia, and then you improvise.


So, you buy the dried fish, and then you do all —


Right. You buy it frozen.


Yeah; you buy it frozen, and then we dry it. Process it in our way. Yeah.


In our parents’ generation, my dad would buy by the pounds. And back then, it was called kau. The Hawaiian way of measuring was the kau.




K-A-U; yeah.


And what was that?


It was like, so many pieces of dried opelu or dried akule was one kau. So, when you ordered it from the fisherman, you’d say, I want three kau’s of dried opelu. And they knew what you were talking about.


Rachel and Lorraine Haili’s mother was of Chinese ancestry, and she encouraged her children to take pride in their Hawaiian and Chinese heritage. After the birth of each of her six children, the matriarch would visit a Chinese temple to ask the fortuneteller to bestow a Chinese name on each daughter, according to the time and day of her birth. All of the girls were given Hawaiian names as well. The Haili family continues to honor this practice.


‘Til today, we still do a lot of the things that my mother respected and taught us to do. You know, like, we still go to the cemetery for Ching Ming, and we do it for my father, my mother, my sister, and my aunties, just because it’s something my mother taught us that we should do for our ancestors.


Do you think your children will do it?


My children, yeah. They’re very involved with the cultural things that we do.


So, you’re pretty sure that’ll be continued.






I think so.


Lorraine is very culturally in tune. She’s a grandmother, and for a young generation grandmother, she wants to be called Popo, you know, which is the Chinese name for grandma.


So, my grandchildren call me Popo, and my grandchildren are multicultural. They’re Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian-Chinese, and then, my granddaughter is Hawaiian-Chinese, Caucasian. And it’s like a melting pot at home.


Now, why did you choose Popo? Is that because your mom was Popo? Because you could have said Tutu, or Puna for Kupuna.


Puna; right. When my first grandson was born, I said, No, I waited this long, and my children grew up with a Popo. My mother was Popo to all of the grandchildren.


But your father was not Gung Gung.


He was.


He was Gung Gung?


He was Gung Gung.


He was a Hawaiian Gung Gung.








He was Gung Gung. And that’s what my grandkids call my husband.


Oh …


Gung Gung.


In the late 1960s, Rachel Haili had just graduated from college in Ohio. When she returned home to help run the family business, her mother, at age forty-eight, had suffered the first of a series of debilitating strokes, and only a few years later, Rachel’s father died at age fifty-three. Rachel took on the job of supervising her sisters and the other relatives who worked at the store. It’s now her younger sister Lorraine’s turn to carry on with the family business that presents challenges each year.


When I was young, I always said to myself, You’re going to study really hard, and you’re going to go away to college, and you’re going to get a good job. You’re gonna be like a college administrator or something.


You’re never gonna de-vein another liver in your life.


I’m never gonna clean another aku. I’m never gonna do that again. And, it turns out, I had to come back and do exactly what I had said I wasn’t going to do. But, luckily, my family had prepared me for that. They had taught me how to do everything that was necessary to run the business, and then I think going away to college, I learned to be a little more independent and to make decisions. And I had been taught all my life that family is first and you need to take care of your family, so it was a no-brainer for me.   I had to get everybody set. I thought, well, by the time my younger sisters graduate from school, I can go back to school. And time just kinda went along, and I was enjoying doing what I was doing, and it just flowed. So, by then, I was like forty, and I was like, well, do I want to start from the bottom all over and go get a job and work for somebody else? I had already worked for myself.


And look who’s running the business now.


I’m glad she has —


It’s my turn. [CHUCKLE]


I think it’s so wonderful that one sister has passed the baton to another, and now, you are the only sister working in the shop after six did.


But I also have my nephew, Kaulana, who is the son of our youngest sister, Carol. And so, he’s stepping in and learning the ropes. And then, my children come in. My two sons are firefighters, by the way, so they come whenever I need help. And my daughter teaches, she’s a schoolteacher, so she’ll come on weekends or special events. And all of the other grandchildren, whenever we need help, they all step in. And business now, it’s so different as far as the way things are done. There’s no garage laulau making nights. Everything needs to be on a schedule. You have employees, you need to make sure that you have all your materials and supplies there when your employees come in, otherwise it’s wasted time. And time is money when you’re running a business, so that’s what I need to get my children to understand.


And you’ve learned all that on the job. You’ve seen all the transitions.


That was the difference; we learned it on the job.


Well, I chuckle now, because back then, I used to tell Lorraine these things, and she’d just say, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or I tell my sister them these things, and they say, Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so now, I hear Lorraine almost echoing me.


And the kids are saying, Yeah, yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]


Yeah, yeah, yeah. [CHUCKLE]


But you’ve done this for a long time, and you have the energy and the spirit to keep going.


This is what we know. And I still have a passion for it. I credit my mom and my father for allowing us, or letting us fly out of the nest for a little while. Rachel got to go away and go to college, she got her degree. My sisters, they all held other jobs. I was able to go to live in Chicago and New York, because I was a flight attendant for United Airlines, and decided this is not for me. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. It was a fun job. When you’re young and you’re in your twenties, it’s exciting. But then, you come back home to Hawaii, and it’s like, I really don’t want to go back to the mainland, I want to stay here.


And so, what made you decide to go back to the family business?


Because at that time, there was a need for me to be there. And my obligation to my family was very strong.


And my mother always stressed that even though she was pure Chinese, she always told us, You’re half Hawaiian, and you need to be proud that you’re Hawaiian. And that was a time when, you didn’t speak Hawaiian, and being Hawaiian wasn’t, something that you kind of touted, I guess. So, she always told us that. Be proud of who you are.   In a way, our family has made a little bit of contribution to helping to preserve this Hawaiian culture, by offering Hawaiian food, good Hawaiian food.


We never thought that —


Yeah; we had no intention —


— Hawaiian food was so important. Any kind of food to a culture, it’s important. It’s very important, because people will sit and share the food, and share conversation. And, it’s always like when you parties.


We always gather around the table.


What kind food did you have?


Right; it’s like a language.






Yeah, it’s a coming together. Like they say paina, and you come and you share. You not only share food, but you share good times, and camaraderie, and everything. But we never thought when we were doing this that, oh, we’re learning this because we want to be able to preserve the limu culture, or whatever.




And it’s just kind of like, when you look back and you say, Wow, when I say limu lipepe, everybody —


People look at you and go, What is that? [CHUCKLE]


Do you have regulars who come for the kind of foods that they don’t see other places, and they come regularly to you for it?


For ake and raw squid.


And you know when they walk up, you know what they want.


Yeah, I already know what they want. There’s a man that’ll come for lomi oio once a week. I have to make sure that it’s there on Fridays. And if I don’t have it, he’ll give me scoldings.


Isn’t oio really bony?


Yeah, but the way that the lomi oio is prepared is, it’s scraped, and then … by hand, all of the pin bones are pulled out of the fish.


Yeah. That’s why you have to learn how to clean the fish correctly, so when you cut it, the bone stays on one side, and when you scrape the meat off, it’s easier.


Ah …


Rather than getting everything in there.


And you’ve got all these other things going on in the shop, but you’re basically making sure the bones don’t go in the meat in this one oio fish.






I really valued what my family had built up, what my parents had established. And I’m hoping that along the way, somebody else in our family is going to recognize, what this is, and what it could be, and what opportunities their grandparents and their parents, and their aunts and uncles have created, and can perpetuate some of this. Because there is value to their lives, if they could just recognize and accept it.


In 2009, after nearly sixty years as a tenant at the Ward Farmer’s Market, the Haili’s Hawaiian Foods family operation lost its lease. The business went through a spell as a lunch wagon, and then found a modest new home in Kapahulu. With its sit-down restaurant atmosphere near Waikiki, a now expanding tourist clientele can experience a first taste of authentic Hawaiian cuisine. And of course, Haili’s continues to be a favorite gathering spot for local people to enjoy traditional Hawaiian foods like lomi oio, ake, and raw squid, coming not from a recipe book, but from the heart. Thank you, Rachel Haili and Lorraine Haili Alo for sharing your long story short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou. ‘Til next time, aloha.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.


God, I remember when all the whole beach was covered with seaweed, and you just have to walk on the shore and pick it. We should be concerned about too, is how can we bring back all of these limu’s and preserve our culture. ‘Cause nobody knows now when you say huluhulu waena, or lipoa, what those limu’s taste like.


Where do you get your limu now?


Commercially, we have to buy ogo. We get ours from the farms, the limu farms. And then, there’s still limu kohu in the ocean, so whenever there’s fishermen that come into our store and they say that they have limu kohu, I’ll buy it from them. Because a lot of the fishermen are still dependent on the ocean for their livelihood.


Olin Lagon


Original air date: Tues., Sept. 10, 2013


Olin Lagon is the director of Kanu Hawaii, an environmental and social movement. He calls himself a “geek” raised in Kalihi and Palolo public housing. In his teen years, Olin says he skipped school to catch waves, and jokes that his blood alcohol level was higher than his GPA. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, see how Olin found new paths in life and became a tech entrepreneur and community champion.


Download the Transcript




The last tsunami scare we had, it was interesting ‘cause I went to pick up my mom, and she lives in Waimanalo near the beach, and so went driving there, and, you know, I saw all these lines at stores, and it’s so orderly. People are buying water, and they’re like, “Oh, you can take the last one” and stuff. I went to put gas in, and they’d run out of the cheap gas, and so they put the sign saying, “All gas same price, at the lowest price.” And so even the owners could have gouged, but they didn’t; they actually dropped the price. And everyone’s waiting very patiently. And then I saw a video of the last scare in L.A., where people are fighting and duking it out for water and stuff, and it really made me reinforce that there’s still a mass amount of compassion in our state, that people do care.


Olin Lagon believes that compassion is the secret of life. He’s a successful software developer and entrepreneur, yet his passions are community and sustainability. Olin Lagon’s lifestyle and work reflect his deep beliefs in simplicity and family, values instilled in him at a young age by his mother. Olin Lagon next on Long Story Short.


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


Aloha, mai kakou. I am Leslie Wilcox. Olin Lagon developed his first computer program when he was a boy. Since then he’s had a successful career creating tech companies and selling his designs to companies worldwide. Now, he has Kanu Hawaii, an organization dedicated to creating a sustainable future. Olin Lagon grew up in Honolulu, but there’s very little about his childhood that prepared him to become both a successful businessman and a leader in the non-profit world. His family had to overcome many obstacles, and it was his mother’s faith and love for her son that got them through.


When I was six and my dad died, my mom only went to the sixth grade or so, and so she had a really hard time in finding a job. We lived in public housing, and so she’s trying to raise her three kids and — actually four kids with myself, and not being able to find a job. McDonald’s or fast food, she wasn’t able to get employment. So it took a long time before she’d get a job, and it affected everything about what we could do, what we could buy, what we could eat, where we could go, and so that was really hard period for us.

You remember thinking about when am I gonna eat next? What am I gonna eat?


No, but I had this memory where I remember we were eating flour and water, and we had this — and I remember it being good, like wow, and I think some sugar in it and stuff like that, and she created some kind of stew with flour. And so I tried to recreate that when I was in college, and I it just tasted awful. [laughter]. So, I know that I probably ate a lot of food that wasn’t healthy or wasn’t, — was what we could get. So, I remember getting blocks of cheese from the government. I’m not trying to like say everything was really bad, but there were long periods of time where we didn’t have a lot of food to eat.


And did you think of yourself as a poor kid?


Absolutely. And so the thing with living in public housing is that you live in some of the poorest communities in the country, in one of the wealthiest countries. So, the disparity is huge, and kids are not blind to that. I’ve been to 20-some-odd countries, and I’ve seen poverty first-hand, but what makes my childhood different is that we were sort of trapped in this bubble where everyone around us is rich, except for us. And so, we couldn’t get clothes for school, we couldn’t do a lot of things that we thought other kids could do. And I remember this one episode where I wanted to buy baggy pants, ‘cause everybody was popping, and I thought I wanted to be a dancer, and so I stole five dollars from my mom’s wallet, and I opened it up, and she had, I think, six bucks in it. So, I took the five, and I hid it in a book. And then she came up to me after — I think she knew I took it — and she said, “You know, I’m missing five dollars, and we really need it.” So, I remember pretending to look for it, and then — I think I was about eight at the time. And then one night, sort of pretended to find it. I didn’t find it. When she went away, I took it out, and I put it back in her purse. Never stole again. That’s how I — I guess even as a kid, I knew that even five dollars meant a lot to my family.


Did that reduce the size of your dreams?


I think it reduced the size of my social circle, because I felt embarrassed being in the situations, where we grew up in public housing. I felt like I couldn’t bring friends over. I couldn’t … I didn’t relate to a lot of different people because we didn’t have a lot of the things that the culture said we should have. And so, from that perspective, I think it did reduce my social circle. And I’m sure it had an impact on myself, as well, my self-worth and esteem.


What about your mom?


She lived a very spartan and simple life, and I rejected that, and I hated that, and I thought I would want nothing to do with that growing up. And I’ve come full circle, and so it’s that, to me, is a really amazing lesson that I’m still trying to learn; it’s just this full-circle aspect of simplicity and sustainability.


Your mom sounds like she had a lot of faith.


She never felt embarrassed that we lived in the housing. I’m sure she wasn’t happy about it, but it wasn’t something that she hid. She lived as she lived, and it is what it is, and where she worked was where she worked. I was embarrassed that she worked at Zippy’s at one point, where she ended up getting a job, and now I love Zippy’s ‘cause they gave her a chance.


What was life like within your unit at Kuhio Park Terrace or Palolo Housing? How did you guys handle that?


This story might illustrate that. So, I was seven at the time, and I had some chalk, and I was drawing on the sidewalk, minding my own business, and then I felt this sting in the back of my head. And then I turned around and saw these neighbor kids laughing, and they ran into their unit. And as I was rubbing my head, it hurt like I’ve never felt before, and then it felt weird. So, I looked at my hand, and my entire hand was covered in blood. And so they had stabbed my head with a piece of metal that they found. And then so, of course, I went home. By the time I got home, this side is just all bloody. But what, I guess the surprise is not what … that happened, but what my mom did about that. So, I got home, my mom’s freaking out. And she didn’t call 911, she didn’t call the ambulance, she called her pastor. Because I found out years later is that I needed to go to ER, and he took me to the ER, but she needed comfort because she felt how is it that I can’t take care of my own kid and keep him safe within a few feet of our own home? And so from that context, that, I think, illustrates some of the pressures that went on, living in housing. That’s why I went back for years once a month to volunteer with Parents and Children Together and other organizations, because there’s still a lot of injustice in public housing. Shortly after that, I went to live with my sister. And my sister took me in, and she lived in Waipahu at the time.


And she was much older, yes?


Fourteen years older.


So, that was a safety precaution for you?


I think so. Yeah, I think so. It was just really difficult for me. And I’m a geek, and so, I don’t know other geeks in the public housing at that time. And so, I was not only sort of this unusual kid, but I didn’t have a lot of peers that I could relate with.


Explain how you were a geek in public housing.


My Mom, bless her heart, she didn’t have a lot of money, but her pastor gave her a hundred dollar loan, which she used to buy a used computer back in the early ‘80s. It was a Texas Instrument TI-994A, had no monitor, had no disk drive, and then we went to Radio Shack and bought a tape player. And then I set it up as a computer, went to the library, and then I borrowed — there were three books on computer programming. And that’s in an entire library. So, I borrowed all three …


Which library was this?


This was the Waikiki library. And so, I borrowed the three. I read them, and then I learned how to program, wrote my first program. It was a funny program where I — you put in your name, and it would tell you your future. And so when I put in my name, it had all these amazing things to say [laughter]. And my sister put in her name, and then it had some not so good things to say, but those are the kinds of things that I did as a kid. And so, — and from there, I started doing design work and programming different things.


You taught yourself from a remnant of a computer?


It wasn’t that difficult cause I had some books that I could read, yeah.


But nobody else was doing it, you were just self-motivated to check it out?


Right … that was my Mom. She had the foresight to do that.


When he was young, Olin Lagon’s only ambition was to become a professional surfer. That didn’t work out for him. But some of the people he met along the way had a profound impact on many of the choices he’s made in his life.


Did you know you were smart?


I don’t know if I can answer that now. I think that I’m okay …


So, at the time did you have a sense of your self-worth?


I didn’t.


And you didn’t know what was going to happen to you?


No. I just kind of went with the flow, thinking that I was going to be a surfer, and that I was gonna make money doing that and just have that career.


After your father died when you were six, was there another father figure in your life after that?


The father figure I had was someone from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and so this guy, Dave, who was a volunteer. I remember it’s one of the most joyous moments in my life. I was sitting at home at KPT, and then the phone rang. My mom picked it up, and she said, “It’s for you.” And I never got calls, right? So, I pick up the phone, and it’s Dave. And he’s like, “Olin, listen, listen!” And he’s telling me, “Don’t say anything.” So, I’m straining to hear something. I don’t hear anything. He’s like “Come on, you can’t hear it?’ And I couldn’t hear it. And he said, “It’s hailing; it’s hailing in Kaimuki.” And he was just jumping for joy. And he thought it was the most amazing thing. And while I didn’t know it hailed in Hawaii, but when I hung up the phone, I had chicken skin, and I still do, because this guy was so excited, and he called me. And I just felt so good about that.


One sharing adult makes a huge difference.


Yeah, and I’ve had a few. And there are really two parts to that equation, because I think in everyone’s life, you’re gonna have tons of opportunities where adults are giving you this advice, but it takes your growth to be willing to accept that. And so, I’m sure that throughout my life I had all these wonderful forces coming in, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. I dropped out of high school and was sort of a delinquent kid and all that. And so, but when I would join the military as a naval reservist, I had a guy in military school that was really, — really pushed me to go to college. And no one had ever told me that before, and I was ready to receive that.


Nobody had told you that before?


Never. In fact, it was so bad that when I came back to Hawaii I dropped out of school, so I didn’t take the SAT or anything like that. So, I went to Honolulu Community College, and I took the placement exams. So, it’s just where you go for math and English. And then I went to the counselor, and I said, “I want to be an engineer.” Then he looked at my scores, and he said, “No!” And I said, “What do you mean, ‘no’?” It’s like, “Well, your scores are not high enough, so let’s look at the survey program. It’s two years, and you can do this.” And I said, “No, I want to be an engineer.” And he refused to help me.


And so I was the keynote speaker at HCC one year, and I shared that story, because that’s wrong; you don’t do that to kids. But that’s how strong it is, I think, in terms of, you have to overcome some these issues, people telling you things that you can’t do.


Even before graduating from the University of Hawaii with a degree in business administration, Olin Lagon was already making money as an entrepreneur and software developer.


You were a pioneer in crowd funding and software development.


I’ve been lucky. Some of the designs that I’ve worked on have been adopted by companies worldwide: Olympics, Nike, Fed Ex, NTT. MIT even bought some of the software that I designed.


Do you hold patents?


I have nine, nine patents.


Do they pay you?


Well, the patents were sold in a previous company. So, there’s no financial interest. Some friends and I invented independently this concept of chipping in, or now it’s called crowd-funding. And so, we designed systems around that, and we got some patents for the work that we did.


You own … you founded and owned that company for a relatively short time, I think a little more than a year, but you did an amazing amount of work. Lots of money flowed through there, and then you sold it to a big, big enterprise.


I left that company to launch Kanu with some friends, but I was there for about two and a half years, and so we did roughly a hundred million dollars of crowd-funding through the system. We funded all kinds of projects worldwide. It was pretty amazing. And then my partners went on to sell the technology and the systems to a large national … international company.


You had a very, very strong career going in software development and creating new ideas and companies when you left to join Kanu, which was a fledgling non-profit Hawaii-based enterprise. Why did you decide to do that? It’s a non-profit.


Right, but it’s actually part of my plan. So, my adult life, 50 percent has been given up to service or volunteering. So, I want to give away half my life, and I want that to remain constant for the rest of my life. And so, Kanu was an amazing oppor — I feel privileged that I was able to be a part of the founding of the getting it off the ground and getting staff engaged. And so I see that as a privilege and an opportunity. So half my life is starting companies, tech companies, but I do that for three or four years, and then I go back and so some cause-related work and then sort of oscillate between the two.


And you don’t have trouble making that move?


It’s the same work. You do good work, you find great ideas, you think big a little bit, then you push the boundaries here and there and try to change the world the best way you can.


Did you become wealthy through your ideas in tech?


I feel wealthy, and so I’ve never done anything in my life for money, and I never will. And so, I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m happy with what I’ve got. I’ve been given a lot, and I’ve been very generous.


So, that wasn’t your motivation, but you did make money on your expertise?


Made some and enough.


That’s interesting, “enough,” and how people define “enough.”





In your case, how do you define it, as far as quality of life?


Enough is that you can spend time with your family. So, at 4:00 every day my goal is to just spend some time with my two boys. And so we try to go walking or do whatever we can for that short period of time. We have dinner every night together. And then if I have to work, I’ll work again at night. But then enough means that you can have someplace safe, you can enjoy some of the beauty of Hawaii, which most of it is free, right? — the beach, and hiking, and stuff like that if you’ve got a safe place to call home. And you’ve got good food that you can eat, hopefully a lot of it locally grown. And I think that’s more than enough.


You live off the grid, so to speak as well.


We have a zero energy home. We produce more energy than we need. And we now have an electric car, and it’s still a zero energy home. And we’ve been very fortunate, but I think the kuleana is, if you have the opportunity to live in a zero energy home, then you have to help support other initiatives, ‘cause not everyone has that opportunity. If you are renting, you can’t switch out your appliances or put solar. And so, where you have this deep kuleana, to really be fair, to help others as well.


You also met your wife at an early age, too?


I did, yeah. When I came back from military training, I was 17, actually — no, 18. I was 18. And then one of my friends, my surfer friends, wanted to get a job, and he couldn’t go to the interview by himself. That’s how, I guess, we were. So, I went with him to this job interview at the Mexican restaurant Chi-Chi’s. And so while I’m interviewing with him, maybe — I don’t know what they were thinking, but we’re in this interview together, they said, “Why don’t you come and work, too?” And then I thought, oh, no, I’m not here for the job, I’m here to support my friend. So, I ended up taking the job, and I worked as a busboy. It was the first job I ever had, and I met her there. She was studying to be a doctor, and she was this really smart girl. She was at UH. And I was so intimidated. Like I’m this kind of rough kid. And I’m trying to find my way through life. And she blew me away with sustainability. We went and had dinner, and she was a vegetarian at the time. And I thought, why are you a vegetarian? Like, that is weird. Are you a hippie? I didn’t know what that meant. This was back in 1990. And then she gave me a few books to read, which I did, and then I started my sustainability journey from her. So, we have cloth napkins that we use daily from that time period. Yeah, she has these Down To Earth plastic bottles that are so old the people at Down To Earth don’t recognize them, but she’s been refilling them for 30 years. She’s never bought, like, another plastic bottle for shampoo, ‘cause she just goes back and refills them. And just like these really small things that she does quietly that have just impressed me immensely about sustainability.


Did she become a doctor?


No, she became a teacher. Her brother was in special-ed at the time, and she wasn’t happy with the services that he was getting. And she decided that she couldn’t just say that she didn’t like it, but she had to do something about it. So, she switched her major into teaching and ended up spending ten years on the Waianae Coast teaching in public education.   And then we joined the Peace Corps together.   And then she came back and taught in Kalihi for a couple of years.   And then when my first son was born, she’s been at home ever since.


Kanu Hawaii was launched in 2008 by a group of like-minded individuals who felt that the islands could be the model to the world in compassion and sustainability. They started a non-profit organization based on individual commitments to practice sustainability and compassion. Olin Lagon joined this movement early on and today is Kanu Hawaii’s executive director.


When Kanu first started, I remember talking to some of the early guys when they organized their 40 folks, and I loved the simplicity of it. So, here’s a group of 40 that want to change fundamentally Hawaii for the next 30 years.


And how did these 40 get together?


They’re just friends that were about the same age and hung around together. And but what they did was fascinating: They said, we’re not rich, we’re not famous, we don’t have a lot of money, we can’t do a lot of things, but what we can do is make our lives consistent with the vision that we see.   And so they had this “I will” movement where they said, “First, I will do this in my life, and then collectively we can work together, but not until we actually get our own lives in order.” And I thought that was really empowering, and so, I –when they wanted to get it off the ground, I said, “I would love to.” So, James Koshiba, Andrew Oki, and myself were the first co-directors of it; we got it off the ground. And it’s blossomed in many ways that we didn’t anticipate since then.


And you have 20,000 supporters throughout the state?


About that, yeah, in every zip code across the state. And we’ve done a lot of national work, too that we haven’t really broadcast, like, CNN did a cover story on our group last year, on the elections work that we did. We knocked on about 3,000 doors. We got 25,000 people election information for — that are unbiased and for some of the elections that didn’t have much information, like the local House races and City Council. We did work with 500 families last year on energy efficiency. These were families that were disadvantaged that maybe couldn’t install solar and stuff like that. And so, national groups have picked it up. And so, like ted.com, we built their community-based system for them. It’s a pretty large group. The Points of Light Institute, did the same. The 911 Commission adopted our model for their tenth anniversary of the 911 commission. So, it was really neat to see Kanu’s humble model being used nationally and even internationally, too.


What is the change that Kanu wants to see in Hawaii?


It’s really simple. In the next 30 years we want to fundamentally change sustainability and compassion. So, food, energy, waste, civic engagement, we want us to be more locally self-sufficient and rely less on external sources for energy, to not lose this compassion that we have that’s really different here.


Do you think the compassion reservoir or reserves are dwindling here? I’ve heard people say, you know, the “Aloha” isn’t quite the same anymore.


Yeah, it has changed. In some communities, no; in some communities, yes. And part of it is, there were peoples that lived in Hawaii for many years that had these tenets of aloha at its core, and the demographic profile of Hawaii has shifted, so there’s more people that are not from Hawaii that live here than are from here. So, that has changed the culture in some ways good and in some ways, not so good, and so, the compassion piece has shifted quite a bit, unfortunately, I think.


That’s so interesting that your organization is interested in preserving and growing compassion.


Compassion is the secret of life, I think. If you can’t be vulnerable and compassionate, then it’s hard to be connected with other people. And so, that cannot go away. You can’t do good work and do it without coming from a place of compassion.


I’ve heard one of your members talk really passionately and movingly about how you can’t judge people by where they’re from because it’s the heart that counts.




And that we can’t demonize each other, or we’ve really hurt ourselves.


The truth is, when you — when we mix cultures, then something changes and something shifts. And so, Kanu really wants to make sure that we don’t lose that compassion piece, that we hold sustainability true to our hearts, and the work we do and the lives we live are consistent with that, and we don’t forget to take care of one another. For example, we have this day of action where we’ve set up 20 or so projects statewide that our members can chose whether they want to count turtles, or go plant plants at KPT, or help feed people who don’t have food. And we provide these opportunities for just hundreds of people to just get out and experience different parts of the community. On the compassion side, I remember this one volunteer; she went to a shelter in Manoa that we organized a clean-up effort for for women and children that were battered. It’s a really terrible thing that happened, but it’s a great shelter. And so she was so moved that she showed up the next Sunday and helped and the next Sunday and helped. She was a sophomore in high school. She ended up going every single Sunday until she went to college. And to me, I think that’s compassion, because she has fundamentally changed the lives of everyone in that shelter, and her family, and her friends and created this mass amounts of compassion.


And, so, part of what Kanu did was exposed her, introduced her, made it a personal matter for her.


Right. Or even some of the things we do may not be that effective, but we try to register homeless communities to vote. And I don’t know how many people we got registered, but it was just really difficult, but in doing that work, we found all these challenges. We went to this shelter, and they get their mail in another community, so where do they vote? And if they show up, then what do they use? We just got to learn about some of these challenges first-hand.


That’s right. And so, you learned that you — when you try to come up with a solution, if you don’t have all the information, it is not a solution, right?


No, no.


So, has it been harder than you thought to solve some of the — or at least begin working on some of these societal issues?


Not because we’re not — we got a long way to go, and so, we’re not rushing it; we’re just going as fast as we can. We’re trying to affect food, energy and waste issues. We have an “Eat Local” challenge, where we’ve got thousands of people eating more local. It’s not solving everything, but it’s a step in the right direction. So, I feel like the pace we’re going is good.


What do you see Hawaii in 20 years with Kanu’s work to improve things step by step?


I see Hawaii in 20 years as leading the world in models of sustainability. We’re gonna need it. We’re shifting away from major different resources going off of oil into renewables, and finding ways to live together compassionately. And so, we have this opportunity to excel at that and show the world that it can be done in a very isolated place. And so, I have faith that we’ll find amazing technical solutions, cultural solutions to become one of the most sustainable places on earth.


And what stands in the way of us reaching that goal?


Our culture, in some ways, being stuck in the past. We have to — we can’t talk about sustainability but drive an SUV with one passenger, and not recycle, and not try to eat local. It’s hard because my wife still buys strawberries, and it’s $10 a basket for the Kula strawberries. And I said, “We can’t afford it,” but I still cringe, but I know that’s what we need to do. But I cringe because I’m still connected with that feeling. So, we have to really go all in and support our local agriculture. We don’t support it as much as we should. We need to support local businesses. We don’t support it as much as we should. And that requires a big cultural shift.


So, our salvation is our culture, and our nemesis is our culture.


I think so, right. But there’s hope in that.


As you watch your boys grow up, is there any mistake you’ve seen other parents make that you’re gonna try not to make?


I think the over-scheduling is — I see that kids are doing too much. At least, I think it’s too much, and they’re not allowed to just sit and be. And so, that’s one thing that I want to do differently. And so, I mean, I feel bad, I go to parties, and this kid is doing soccer, and then baseball, and basketball, and trombone, and piano and stuff, and I’m thinking, am I robbing my kid of these experiences? And then I keep going back to, no. I think this is the path that works. And they will find their own ways.


And at 4:00 p.m., you’re there with your sons, talking with them.




Well, Olin Lagon found his way and is helping to blaze the path toward a future Hawaii that is built on self-sufficiency, sustainability, and above all, compassion. His life so far has been a remarkable journey shaped by a caring mother, mentors who were there when he was ready to listen, and his own unending quest for knowledge and justice. Mahalo to Olin Lagon for sharing his story of inspiration and hope, and Mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. 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.


I’m very … very fortunate that I was born in Hawaii. I’ve seen so many difrerent places, many different countries, and lived in different communities, and this is such a blessing to have come from here. Just even what I went through as a kid, I think there’s so much the world can learn, that we’re from diff cultures and different backgrounds and in some ways it’s working really well and I think theres a lot of beauty there and I’m very grateful for that.



Anne Namba


Original air date: Tues., Feb. 2, 2008


Fashion Designer of “Kimono Couture”


Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.


Anne Namba Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox welcoming you to another episode of Long Story Short. This one is a little different. Usually I’m getting to know the guest at the same time you are. But this time, our guest is someone I happen to have grown up with. Used to hang out at her home with her family, saw her go through school, boyfriends, marriage, major career moves. So I already know her— and I also know she’s full of surprises. Anne Namba is the creator of a fashion line blending vintage Japanese fabrics and contemporary fashion, “kimono couture.” Her brand, Anne Namba Designs, is being picked up nationally by Nordstrom’s and is featured in other select Mainland stores. Anne graduated from Kalani High School and went on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. After stints in the garment industry in New York and L.A., Anne started her own business.


When I met you, you were in third grade; I was in fifth. And you showed up at Aina Haina Elementary School with your sister—wearing an—you were so exotic, because you were carrying your books in a bag and the strap was on your forehead. It was a woven tribal bag. And everyone took about five second looks, if you can do such a thing.


Yeah. Okay; exotic would not be the correct term. I was like nerd. I was like weirdo. That’s ‘cause we had just come back from living in Thailand. And those were like our little book bags. And they were actually these ethnic bags from Thailand. And my mother was like, These are perfect to carry your books in. So that’s how you carried ‘em, was on your head, so you didn’t get shoulder, you know, aches or anything. So we did that. Oh, my god.


I can’t remember the year, but we were young, and you and I took sewing classes together. Your first formal sewing class.


That’s right. Yeah; that was—I think it was yeah, it was soon after. I know I wanted to learn how to sew, and so Nodie came too.


Your sister.


My sister, Nodie, and you were there and Tammy Higa was there. And yeah, you guys were terrible; I remember that.


I don’t remember that part; not at all.


Oh, you were terrible.


Well, you were about twelve. And is that—did you discover that you were so much better than the rest of us?


Well, I just loved it. I loved it, and it came natural—you know, very natural—


Did you know before that, that you’d be good at it?


Well, I think my mom will be horrified by this story. But it’s true. Because I was the second daughter, I got all of my older sister’s hand-me-downs. And I never had my own clothes. So the only way to get my own clothes was to actually make them, which is why I wanted to learn how to sew. And so I remember my grandmother died, my Japanese grandmother died, and she had one of those really old fashioned sewing machines that you pumped the pedal and it would go. And so I just started fooling around. I found some fabric, and I made this little outfit, not knowing what I was doing. And my mother saw that, and she was like, Oh, maybe you need to take sewing lessons. I’m like, Oh, yeah, I’d love it. So that’s when I started doing it. And Nodie started wearing all of my clothes, so everyone thought that they were her clothes, and I was still wearing her hand-me-downs. So then I started renting them to her, which was my whole entrepreneurial start, so—


How much did you charge her?


I can’t remember, but it was in high school. ‘Cause I’m going, That’s not fair. I buy the fabric, I make the outfit, and then you wear it like it’s your clothes, and everyone just assumes that I’m wearing your old clothes.


Well, I remember at a certain point in that class, I was trying to follow the lines of my Simplicity pattern. And I looked over at you and you weren’t even using a pattern. You were just free-forming it.


Yeah; I remember you would pin everything, like every inch apart. I was like, Oh, my god.


And you would just be done. Like, what’s she still working on? And you would design your own clothes at that point.


Yeah; I started off by just like altering a pattern, or you know. And then I used to go to India Imports and buy the bedspreads there, and—you know, ‘cause that was the hippie days, and make, you know, our long sort of muumuu things. And then people started asking me to sew it for them, so that’s when I started doing that and charging money. So I started way back when.


Was that natural for you, the idea of the—you know, the creative part and the commerce part?


Oh, absolutely. I was like, I’m not doing this for free.


But tough, right? Because so many people asked you to do favors, and Anne could you help me with this.


Yeah. I still to this day have a hard time saying no.


Your family was very supportive of you in this business.


Yeah; yeah. They always—you know, when I announced that I wanted to be a fashion designer, it was like, oh. But they supported me all the way, and you know when I think back now, my parents, you know, they had to scrape together money to send me away to New York to go to school. And you know, back then, you just think, Well, that’s what I want to do, of course they’re gonna pay for it.


Because your father was a professor, he believed in higher ed.




Would he have liked you to have been a scientist like he is?


Oh, they knew that that was never a possibility. In fact, they saved some of my old reports cards. And my kids were shocked. They’re all like, Mom, you got Ds? It’s like, but look at Art; it’s A’s.


Picked the right job.


Yeah, right.


So you went away to New York, and was that like for you?


I remember um, when I first landed in New York—and nowadays, you know, parents take kids on college tours, and they set them up. I just got there, and got out of the train station with all my suitcases, and some man comes up and said, Do you need a cab? And I’m like, Yeah. And he picked up my bags and just took off through Madison Square Gardens. And I’m following him; he takes me to the curb, and he hails a cab for me. And I was like, Oh, I thought he was a cab driver. And then he asked me for a tip. And I was just like, Oh; what? And then the cab driver starts yelling at him for doing that, ‘cause he was scamming me. So the cab driver and this guy then start fist fighting on the street. And then I’m just watching in horror. And then he yells at me; he says, Get in the cab. So I get in the cab, and I’m just like going, I just want to go to FIT, you know, just to the school. I was in shock. I was like, Oh, my god, this is New York. And then I got there and decided I was gonna go—there was a bagel shop, and I wanted to get a sandwich. And everyone’s in there, shouting out their orders, and I’m politely standing, waiting and waiting. And finally, the bagel guy looks at me and he goes, You gonna order, or what? And I was like, Oh, I’m sorry. So that was my very first hour in New York City.


You realized, I’d better ratchet up my—


I was like, Oh, wow.


–confidence level here.


Yeah, right.


Well, by the time I visited you—and this was in the 80’s—you were working in the fashion industry, Radio City Music Hall. Right?


Yeah; yeah.


You were costuming the dancers


That’s right; that’s right.


I remember thinking, What’s happened to Anne? Because you walked—


Oh, I know.


–about five times faster than you ever had, and we were just walking. We weren’t going to any particular place.


I thought, Where are they?


You talked faster, and you were very proactive in dealing with people. You know, just combative, as a matter of fact, as I recall.


Yeah; back—oh, back then—well, especially in fashion, and in school too, it’s really a super competitive field. So you have to— you can be intimidated; you gotta just get out there and—


Did that come naturally for you?


No. I was shy. Remember? I was really shy as a kid. So yeah, I don’t know what happened along the way.


But was it hard, or do you just remember thinking, This is what I have to do, therefore it’s what I’ll do?


No; it was hard. I remember feeling like a country bumpkin when I first got up there, and not being sophisticated, not knowing anything, not being fashionable, not being able to buy the latest you know, fashion.


Did you think you were gonna cut it? Did you think you might not make it?


I never thought that I wasn’t gonna be a fashion designer; I always thought that’s—you know, I’m gonna work in fashion. But I never thought I would be where I am today. I didn’t have that in my fantasies.


What did you think you would do with your degree once you got out of this prestigious fashion school?


I thought I would just be probably designing for you know, companies in New York City. And that someday I might be able to, you know, design for, you know, one of the big—you know, Calvin Klein or something like that. And to me, that would have been like, wow. But then, you know, of course, I burnt out of the city and and left, so—


What did you think when you were leaving the city? Did you think—




Oh, you were glad to go?


I was like, Oh—


And what next?


Well, I moved to L.A. because I thought there’s a good fashion center there, so I moved to LA. And then at that point, I still did not want my own company. So I moved there, and I wanted to get into costuming again. But it’s so tough; that industry is really, really a hard industry to get into. And I fell back into the garment district, into the—actually producing overseas. So that started a whole ‘nother interest in overseas and producing over there. And then naively thought, you know, Oh, my bosses are a bunch of jokers, they don’t know what they’re doing. You know. I just thought, pff, I’m doing all the work here, I might as well open my own business and—you know, very naively. Because running a business and designing stuff is completely—it’s a lot more than just designing pretty clothes. And so I moved back to Honolulu, because I thought, Well, at least if it doesn’t work out, I have a roof over my head, and I know that my family will feed me. So I moved back to Hawaii, and worked here for about a year, just to sort of get the climate, figure out resources, and how it all works here, which is a lot slower.


Yeah; I noticed you started walking more slowly again. And talking more slowly.


And then I started my business. And it’s been great.


And you did literally start your business under your parents’ roof.


Yup. I got the old bedroom, and I updated the—my grandmother’s sewing machine, though. And just—I was a one-man show. I did everything myself.


Anne launched a boutique in 1989 and Anne Namba Designs was born. Despite being what she terms a “one man show” during those early days of the business, Anne credits family members for their unwavering support. More on that as our conversation continues.


Must be a thrill to hear when somebody is wearing an Anne Namba.


The first time I heard my name used in that way, like, Oh, I wore my Anne Namba, and I’m like, Wait, that’s me. What do you mean you wore my Anne Namba? You know. And now, you know, I’ll just say, Oh, I’m gonna wear an Anne Namba. And so I’m very used to it now.


I remember your dad liked to help you pick the models.


That is my dad’s main objective with all my shows.


And your mom is very long-suffering. Kind of rolls her eyes, and smiles.


No; all the models know that if my dad doesn’t like them they don’t get hired again. So they all make sure to say, Hello, Dr. Namba, whenever he comes to my shows.


You had to find a niche for yourself when you got back home.




How did how did Eurasian clothes get to you? How did that idea get planted?


Well I think a lot of it had to do with the influence of always traveling, seeing different cultures, seeing different fabrics which—I love Japanese fabric; love the kimono, the culture, the food, everything. And so I was very taken with the fabric and the kimono, but you can’t really wear a kimono, ‘cause either you look like you’re wearing a costume or a bathrobe. And so I decided, since I had the background of fashion and how do to, you know, Western contemporary style clothing and flattering lines, that I would incorporate the two. And it’s nothing new; people had been doing it before. But you know, I have a different sort of take on it than—you know, everyone has their own sort of individual take. You know, and then slowly got into doing my own prints, because I’m running out of kimonos.


I was gonna ask you; where did you get all the kimono that you used, and how was that taken in Japan? Are they wild about you cutting up kimonos?


Actually, they’re starting to do it now.




You see a lot more of it happening.


Were they doing that at the time you started?


No; no, not at all. In fact, they would be just like, Why are you using that old stuff? And they would not themselves buy it, because it’s almost looked upon, back then, as you couldn’t afford new clothes so you had to remake one of your old kimonos. Nowadays, though, again, you see a lot of the younger generation. I was shopping some of the stores the last time I was there, and you’re seeing Japanese labels, jeans with kimono pockets and patches on it. So things are changing. I have a lot of Chinese influence too, and some of my prints are Chinese inspired, as well as styles. I did one whole collection once for a showing that I did that was all based on Chinese different dynasties. And I researched it and did that whole thing.


That must be fun, the research. Historical research.


Oh, yeah. Yeah; yeah. It’s a lot of fun.


Now, you said you’re getting into prints too.


I’ve been doing prints for a long time, actually. If you have your own fabric, then you can mass produce the styles. So I started doing that, oh, gosh, quite a while ago. And right now, that’s my main wholesale collection.


Who designs your fabrics?


My nephew. He started—that’s Nodie’s son. And he started when he was like fifteen; he’s really talented artist, and so I started having him do some artwork for me. And nowadays, it’s all done on the computer. So you know, we’ll discuss ideas, and I’ll look at things, and you know, if I don’t like a color, you know, he presses a button, it’s, How’s that? It’s much different today.


And he designed the fabric you’re wearing now?


Yes; m-hm.






What are women most concerned about when they dress, in general?


Well, my mission statement is to make every women look taller, thinner, and I just added younger, now that I can relate.


How do you do that, though? Just the cut of the—


The cut, yeah. You know, you don’t want dowdy cuts. You know, you try to keep it modern, but wearable for people that don’t have the most—you know, the perfect body. And it’s funny that, you know, if you have a certain flattering style on people, and you know how to achieve it, then when they put on the garment, they’re like, I love it. And they don’t know particularly why, but they love the cut.


It must be frustrating, ‘cause sometimes you probably want to design for fashion model types who can wear anything. And you have to be realistic and design for people who are regular folks.


Actually, for me, I—mostly because I’m not built like a model, I always design with myself in mind. Like, what would I want to wear. And naturally, you know, I want to look taller, slimmer, younger, so I’ll do that. And when the models put it on, I just see that as like, you know, icing on the cake. It’s just like, oh, well, they’re just so tall and thin. So I don’t design for model figures at all, and I never have. And it’s just when they throw it on and it’s that much better, then you know, that’s great. But you know, I’ll have women that say, Well, of course it looks good on her, she’s six feet tall and size, you know, zero. But I’m like, No, it’s not true. If you put it on—it’s actually too big on her, but you know, that’s her job to make it look better. And put it on, ‘cause it’ll look good on you too. And I was just approached by another store for—to do plus sizes. So now I might expand into that.




Not personally.


Yeah. So is there a new area of the business you’re going to be moving into, or are you gonna be at this level for a while? How’s it working?


Well, at this point, for me to expand in my wholesale division, that’s the easiest, ‘cause I contract everything out. So the hard part is designing the fabric, designing the collection, and then getting it produced. Once I do that, I can up my numbers. And so I could say, Cut 50 of these, or cut 500. It’s just adding more numbers.


That could be an exponential move then.


Yeah; yeah. And it wouldn’t be that much more for us to do; it’s just upping the numbers when we order things. So we’re looking at that. Aother division of mine that is just going gangbusters is my bridal division. And that started out as you know, client coming in; Oh, my daughter’s getting married, why don’t you make a dress. And well, 500 people came to her wedding, and they all—you know, it was great advertising. So now we’re going gangbusters with our bridal.


What do women look for in bridal dresses when they come to you? What do they want?


They want the Asian, you know, influence look. A lot of the girls want to have that. Different fabric, something you know, some of ‘em, you know, it reflects their heritage. Just something—you know, a lot of times, they want something simple, but really different. And so when they come to us, then you know, that’s what they get. We custom make all of our gowns for our brides.


So I understand you’re gonna be appearing across the nation in a particular store. Something new is happening?


Yes; yes. I am, well, I’m participating in the new Nordstrom store, so we’re just going gangbusters getting all the collections ready for them. And of course that goes nationwide. So that’s big.


That’s huge. How much do you think that’ll add to your business in percentage?


Gosh; you know, like I said, I got a D in math, so I don’t know; that’s why I have my husband. Marriage is a business.


Another family member helping—


Yes; yes, yes.


–in the business and being a resource.


Yes; so we do and I’m using my daughter as a model now. So yeah. So we have lots of nepotism.


And it works for you.




What do your kids take away from your running a business and being a fashion designer, do you think?


Well, I hope that they don’t think that life is all about stress. That’s really what I hope they—you know, they don’t do. ‘Cause you know, I worry that—a lot of times, I’m like, Mom’s had a bad day, I’m really stressed. And I don’t want them to think that’s what running a business is about. So I try to watch that, but a lot of times, I know I’m, How was your day, Mom. It’s like, [GROWL]. I think I—well, I constantly remind them that it is a business, so it can go up and down. And in fact, I’ve tried to get—my daughter has done a little bit of her own business. And this is just—you know, I’m trying to get her to have an entrepreneurial spirit, and to realize that if you work hard, and you know, you try to use your head about things and you know, if you have a little bit of talent and you just figure out how to take advantage of it, you know, that you can make money. And so she’s been making money off of little things too. And so I think she’s gonna be able to—and she wants to go into fashion and into business, so I think she’s gotten that from the business, and she really enjoys that part of it. She’s a great salesperson too, so—


Were there times where you wanted to rethink the whole business, or when it was really difficult to decide where to go next with it?


No. Actually, once I started, I never thought—I mean, before I started, I thought, well, you know, no guts, no glory, right, and I can always get a job. So—why not? And started doing it, and I never once said, I want to give up, or this isn’t working, or I rather work for somebody. Never, ever. But then I’ve just been really lucky, and things have been going really well for me. So—


And you’ve seen other fashion businesses lose their way.


Yeah. Yeah; come and go. But you know, I’ve been able to sort of market my look, the image, and you know, create a good image. And just keep on top of things. Although my body’s starting to revolt.


Speaking of that, you’ve done triathlons.


I know; that was like, my daughter calls it my midlife crisis. So she just said, All of a sudden, Mom decided to do triathlons, so—


Well, was it all of a sudden? I mean, were you ready?


Yeah. Yeah; no, I just thought, Oh, I can do that, that sounds like fun. And so I did it. And of course, now I have arthritis in my knees and tendonitis in my arms and—


And now you don’t do those three events anymore?


No; I—yeah, I had to give up running. So then I started swimming and biking, and then now I can’t swim anymore, so today I’m gonna try and do a spinning class. And I walk in the mornings, and I used to make fun of people that walked for the exercise, and now that’s what I’m doing.


Several times now, I think you’ve paddled to Kalalau along the Na Pali Coastline of Kauai, which is rough, there are no lifeguards around to save you if you get into trouble. It’s about a 27-mile paddle from the beginning to the end.


Well, we’ve done that now every year for, oh my goodness, maybe five, six years. And it’s my spiritual renewal. And it’s where we go and we sleep on the beach, and we have to pump our own water, and we look and you know, bathe in the waterfall. But we hike every day, and for me, that is just getting back to nature and realizing that in this world, you are very small. And then all of a sudden, it just doesn’t really matter that the color was slightly, you know, too yellow—or you know.


And the main fashion garment is the pareau, right? Because you can wear it, you can towel off on it.


Yes. You sleep on it. You can—yeah. You can do everything with it.


The wilderness trips, the camping; that doesn’t jive with your image as this fashion designer who’s just perfect at your shows.


I know. I remember when one year we came back from Kalalau; and this was after being a week on the beach, right? And we came direct from the beach to the airport. And as I was checking in, the guy looks at my ID and he starts to laugh, and he goes, Hey, you have the same name as the fashion designer. I went like, Oh, yeah. And another time, I was up at a waterfall, and I don’t know how it got out, but this guy there that works for advertising found out that I was there. And he goes, Oh, Anne, I always to meet you, and so I was a little embarrassed of the way I looked. So I thought, I’m just gonna be cool, like I’m cool, you know, I’m in nature, and so what if I look like this. So I was like, Oh, yeah, and I was doing my whole, you know, I’m nature too, and all that. And then all of a sudden, I’m talking to him, and one of the lenses from my sunglasses popped out and fell on the ground. And then I completely lost it. And I was like, Don’t tell anyone you saw me here.


Do you think your position number two in a family of four kids—you know, they always talk about birth number being important somehow.


Yes. I think I was ignored as the middle child. Because—


Well, we know about the hand-me-downs.


Yes, Leslie. And you know, my older sister, she got all the new stuff, and she got to do things first. And then my younger brother was the baby, so he got babied. And the middle child always gets ignored.


But it seems to have worked out for you.


Yeah. I just like to use it.


The middle child has done very well for herself. I’ve overheard women saying with pride ‘I’m wearing an Anne Namba.’ Anne’s clientele has grown to include Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Hillary Clinton, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and many women throughout Hawaii. It was fun sharing stories with this successful Hawaii entrepreneur, creative force, and good friend – Anne Namba. But, as always, we have to keep this long story short.   Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox with PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou!


We lived in Thailand and Iran, and then just—


You lived in Iran when you were a kid.


Yes. That’s right.


What was it like?


You know, it was really fun back then ‘cause it was the Shah, and you know, we rode horses, and we went to a private little school and it was great fun; international school. And it was great back then.


Your dad was a professor from the University on sabbatical.


Right; and you know, he was basically, you know, looking for different experiences to do, and we went as a family. And so we all sort of got the travel bug and just curiosity in other cultures. I think it was just sort of you know, you grow up around it.


Kent Untermann


Original air date: Tues., Oct. 30, 2007


Hawai‘i Entrepreneur


An entrepreneur with an inspiring story of success. Kent Untermann’s career has included playing football at the University of Hawaii, training at the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp – and turning a swap meet business into an operation that generates $15 million dollars a year.


Leslie Wilcox sits down with Kent to hear how he said goodbye to his NFL dreams and applied himself to success in another field – the picture framing business – starting the Hawaii company Pictures Plus.


Kent Untermann Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Today we get to hear stories from an entrepreneur with an inspiring story of success. Kent Untermann’s career has included playing football at UH, training at the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie camp – and turning a swap meet business into an operation that generates $15 million dollars a year. We’re going to sit down with Kent to hear how he said goodbye to his NFL dreams and applied himself to success in another field – the picture framing business – starting the Hawaii company Pictures Plus.


That preseason injury that took you out of the NFL, off the Dallas Cowboys team; what was it?


Well there was actually a pulled hamstring. I pulled my hamstring really badly on a workout when I was first with the Dallas Cowboys. There was a lot of misconceptions. I never actually played in the NFL; I had tried out with the Cowboys. So I want to make sure that I’m clean on that.


So you were trying out — you were at a rookie camp?


Yes; I was at a rookie camp. It was in the spring of 1985. And they were trying to rehabilitate and get it better, and by the time the season came around it still wasn’t ready, and Tom Landry, who was the coach at the time had said I could come back the following year, which I intended to. But then the injury just didn’t cooperate.


And how hard was it to leave your NFL dreams behind on the floor?


It was very challenging. I had to do a lot of soul-searching. But I really decided, and I could have pursued it, because it wasn’t as though it was really a career ending injury. However, I just decided that it was time to move on. And it was a tough decision, but it was the right decision.


Move on to what?


Well, move on to re-channeling my energies. I put a lot of effort and energy into football and I realized that I wasn’t gonna retire from football. Meaning that I was gonna do something after I played football anyway. So the sooner I decided to move on, the sooner I could start that next career, whatever that was gonna be.


So you’d already developed the discipline. Now you just needed a place to put that discipline. That’s a really good way to say it.


Yeah; a lot of disciplines were developed from my athletic career.


Is it true what I heard – that you went from trying out for the NFL to trading at a swap meet?


Yeah; there was a lot of people that thought I was really crazy, saying, ‘Kent, you can still play at the NFL and all’s you have to do is go back and try again.’ And perhaps I could have made a team. But once again, I had decided that I wanted to move on. I was very entrepreneurial and didn’t mind starting literally at the bottom. So that’s a true story.


You probably knew of other football players who didn’t give it up, and kept trying. Did you ever regret, ‘Ah, I should have given it one more shot’?


No; because I decided when I, at the time that I made the decision, I was gonna have no regrets. And so if there was a little piece of me that still wanted to pursue that then I was gonna pursue it. And so I decided at that time, if I was gonna let go, I had to let go completely. And I didn’t want to be exactly what you described. I saw so many ex-football players—and there’s a lot of ‘em. And football is kinda like acting; it’s a game of chance. And there’s a lot of good actors and good football players that never got a chance to play at that level. And so I made a conscious decision at that time, I never wanted to be one of those ex-football players that said they coulda done it.


So you came back to Hawaii where you’d gone to the UH Manoa; and how is it that you find yourself at a swap meet at that point?


Well, fortunately my wife Laurie was going through the nursing school, and we had made a commitment to each other—we weren’t married at the time, but we kinda knew that we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. She was in the nursing school and had about another year and a half. So I had to kinda preoccupy myself with something, and had an opportunity to work for Ford Motor Company on a temporary basis. They had a bunch of extra goods left over, told me I could have ‘em, and I went and sold them at the swap meet. So that’s kinda how it all began.


And what was beginning?


Well, little would I know, it was the beginning of kind of an entrepreneurial career, which was the start of Pictures Plus.


And how did you get onto the framed pictures?


Well, I was buying and selling a bunch of different things at auctions and trading things. And I was a marketing major and I’d just find out how to market something and then I’d be out of it. And so I wanted to find something that was, that I could sell on an ongoing basis. And there was an opportunity at the time to sell these framed pictures. And so I decided to bring those in, since it looked like something that would do well at the swap meet.


And they did, obviously.


Fortunately they did; yes.


So from there you to a large, very successful business. What are your gross revenues?


Currently, they’re just over fifteen million dollars today.


And that’s back going back to what, 1986 starting at the swap meet?


Yeah, started in 1986. I actually used my small signing bonus, five thousand dollars at the time with the Dallas Cowboys, to start buying and selling things there.


And how easy was it to go from there? I mean, it’s a huge jump from the swap meet to this very large, multi-platform business.


Well, there was a number of steps along the way to get there. We obviously, fortunately at the time, the swap meet really allowed us to be successful to take those other stepping stones. But it’s been, whatever it is, a twenty-year process. So it didn’t happen overnight.


Did you have a model you were building on or a mentor advising you on this?


No, it’s really evolved. I think I’m very opportunistic, and so I recognized that there was an opportunity in a marketplace that I thought that custom framing and framed art was overpriced. And so I thought if we could buy well and bring it to market and convert it at a more affordable price that we would be able to scale and make a larger business out of it.


And what, among the services you provide and the products you offer, what’s your best source of business?


Well, our largest sales volume is custom framing, where a customer brings in something and we frame it to their specifications. It is our highest profit margin, but it’s also our highest cost of doing business. It’s extremely labor-intensive. We’ll spend thirty to forty minutes with a customer designing what they want, with no guarantees that they’ll agree to it. And then we have to make that exactly to their specifications. So it takes a lot of labor, and we try to give great value in our business. But it’s very challenging to keep that kinda price-service quotient in line.


And you know the rap Hawaii has as a bad place to do business. What have you found along the way?


You know, I’m a little bit of a contrarian, so I believe if something’s really tough, there’s opportunity; if something’s really good, then there’s opportunity. And we have been successful in Hawaii, I think, because some of the barriers to entry have been more difficult for businesses. So if you can be successful, I should say, because it’s just as challenging for everybody. But most recently, I’ve found it more challenging, just because of the low unemployment rate. And our product is very labor-intensive. So it’s been tougher lately.


Does that keep you from expanding, you think?


Yes, it does. We’re fairly done expanding. I think that we’ve penetrated the market about as well as we can. We’ve probably even gone into some markets that maybe we shouldn’t have. They’re just not large enough markets to support the way that we do business.


Did you imagine when you started at the swap meet that you were gonna be running a fifteen million dollar a year business doing picture frames?


You know, I can’t say that I did. At the time, I always like to plan and project ahead, and I thought we’d have a five million dollar a year business. So it’s tripled my expectations.


For you though, failure doesn’t seem to be an option. Actually, you see failure as a possible opportunity, right?


Yeah, I never look at, I never consider things a failure. I’ve made hundreds, thousands, I don’t know how many bad decisions in business and everything else. But every one of those is an opportunity to learn from something that you didn’t. And I’ve actually grown and gained more experience on a bad decision than I have on a good decision.


But it really, I mean, you can fail a second time too, in terms of what you do with that, quote, opportunity.


Right. You can, although if you do it right, the hope is that you learn from that, so you don’t fail again. Even though you could, but I always look at it as an opportunity. So it’s, to me, it’s not a failure unless you continue to do the same thing over and over again.


I take it the word ‘driven’ describes you.


I think that’s fairly accurate. Yeah; I think I’m relatively driven and have always been fortunate to be that way.


That’s one of the things I love about this show. I get inspired by the people I meet and the stories they tell. We’ll hear more from Kent Untermann – coming up… on Long Story Short.


So you wear many hats. Obviously, besides being a businessman and an entrepreneur, you’re a father, you’re a husband. Which of your roles tends to define you most?


Ooh, that’s a good question. You know, I’m fortunate I enjoy every one of my roles so much. I think the most challenging thing is to find that balance. But I enjoy I’ll say I enjoy being with my family the most. Absolutely, no question about it.


It’s interesting. Usually it’s women who talk about balance when they’re asked about what they enjoy most or what their biggest challenge is. You sound like an active dad.


Yeah, I’m very active. And fortunately, I just love my children, and we just have an incredible relationship. And so it’s very easy. I don’t look at it as a chore; gosh, I gotta be a dad. I really enjoy being with my wife and kids, and so it comes real natural.


And yet, the business has got to be all-consuming. But you work with your wife in the business.


I do work with my wife. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for the family she retired a couple of years ago. And she kinda ran the whole back end of it, and I run the whole front end of it. Since she’s departed, the back end of it, it’s been more responsibility on me, which has been better for the family. But I’ve been encumbered with more challenges since she’s been gone.


You know, many years ago, I was at UH Manoa commencement address by the late Herb Cornuelle. And he said that the most important choice you make in life is not your career but your choice of spouse. What do you think?


Wow. Absolutely. I have actually mentored my kids with two things. One was, be the bigger person. And then at about twelve years old, I told my wife now we have to ingrain in our kids the most important decision you make in your life is who you marry. It influences the rest of your life. So I could not agree more. I have an incredibly fabulous wife, I’m proud to say.


And you’ve been through more than one career.


Yes, I have.


But not more than one wife.


No, no, no. I have a wonderful wife and cannot say enough great things about her. And the benefit of living with someone that you are in love with, and supports you so well, is just beyond words.


So those were your two messages for your kids. Those were your foremost messages.


Yes; until my kids were about twelve years old, we just ingrained into them, be no matter what they did, it was always about being the bigger person. What that meant was, if kids did things to ‘em, it’s kinda the sticks and stones will break my bones type thing. But um, really trying to mentor them to rise above situations. And so we called it uh, you know, be the bigger person.


And the other was choose your spouse wisely?


Well, who you decide to marry will be the most important decision you make in your lifetime. So in other words, really think about that, and think about it real deeply, and how – don’t just end up with somebody. We wanted to start real young, so that perhaps when they were older and they were making a decision, if it wasn’t the right decision that we had already hopefully influenced them in the right way at a younger age.


You expect a lot of discipline from yourself. Do you expect that of your children too?


Yes. Nothing more than I would expect of myself, of course. But yeah, there is definitely a level of discipline I would expect of them.


Speaking of discipline; is fitness important to you now?


Yes, it is. I don’t – I feel a lot better when I’m taking care of myself. And it’s back to the balance thing; sometimes it’s hard to justify to work out for an hour because that’s an hour less with the family, an hour less in the business. But it’s very important to me, and I try to work out four or five times a week, and make sure that that happens for the benefit of everybody, including myself.


I know you do a lot of thinking and you like strategy. I’m surprised you didn’t consider becoming a coach.


You know, my wife always brings that up. I don’t know why I don’t have any desire. Probably because I’ve been out of football so long, I don’t really have a very high opinion of my ability to think as a coach strategically. I’m so far removed from it. I would probably enjoy working with the players and kids mentoring them. That aspect intrigues me. But the strategic and X’s and O’s part, I’m too far removed from.


So have you been watching the UH football team?


Absolutely. Enjoying every single game.


You played in ’81 to ’84 under Dick Tomey.




And June Jones was around too.


June Jones was the quarterback coach. I worked closely with him in my junior year.


And could you tell me your thoughts about how the program has progressed or moved along?


Well, I wish that I was a quarterback or receiver in the current offense. I’ll be the first to admit that. Back when I played as a tight end, which they don’t have any offense now, we weren’t sure if they knew that we were eligible. We thought they thought we were just an extension of the line.




And maybe that’s why June got rid of the tight end. But no, it’s been really enjoyable to watch. I think that June and his staff have done just a tremendous job. And it’s really been neat, kind of an entrepreneur and as an ex-UH athlete, not to knock Von Appen, but hear the, for lack of a better word, excuses that we heard back then about, oh, we can’t do it ‘cause we don’t have this and we don’t have that. And today, they still don’t have those things, yet they’ve found a way to be successful. So I really admire the job that they’ve done.


As you look at some of the controversies going on in Hawaii? The Super Ferry, which may have shown us a tipping point where people are just kind of tired of so many changes, you know, or a sign that they just see a lack of control? Do you find yourself feeling that way as well?


I actually find myself on the opposite end of it. I’m really disappointed in the behavior. I’ve been involved in a few things, and I’m all about people having a voice. I think having an opinion is wonderful. I think it’s wonderful that people can express themselves.


I think sometimes it’s how you express yourself. And just as far as an opinion on the Super Ferry, I think it’s great for the interisland folks, for commerce reasons and all that. But without getting into detail, it’s just the behavior I have seen on how people are reacting to certain things, I’m disappointed in, frankly.


Are you concerned at the direction Hawaii is going in for your kids’ sake?


What I’m most concerned about is, I have an opinion of the people of Hawaii are the most fabulous people in the world. And that’s why I’ve chosen to reside here. I, despite the challenges, I’m here because of the people. The people in this island are the most wonderful people in the world.


That’s right. This is your adopted home. You’re from Northern California, right?


Yeah. I’ve lived in California, which is a pretty nice place. But you know what? The people in California don’t measure up to the people in Hawaii in any way, shape or form. And I’m here because of the people. And so the recent behavior of the people is what’s disappointing to me.


Mm hm. What advice would you give somebody starting with, as you did, a modest sum with which to start a business in Hawaii?


Well, I think first of all, that’s the best way to start. I think it’s much easier to start small. Because when you start small, there’s not a lot of risk. I started with five thousand dollars. You know, the worst thing that would have happened is, I would have lost five thousand dollars; not the end of the world.


But it’s all you had, right?


It was all I had. But how hard is it to start over with almost nothing? I mean, starting from nothing, or almost nothing, it’s sort of nothing. So I think starting small is actually easier. I think the key to starting your business, though, is first of all you’ve gotta really want to have your own business. If you just sorta think you want to have your own business it’s not a good idea. ‘Cause it’s gonna be tougher, harder and more challenges. But like anything, if you really want it, I think you can be successful with it. And what’s an obvious mistake people make that they don’t realize going into it?


I think it’s maybe identifying their strengths and weaknesses, really being honest with yourself. Sometimes we have a tendency to think that we’re better at more things than we really are. And so if you could start in a business where your core competency or your natural skill sets could be leveraged more often, you have a higher chance of being successful.


You sound like you’re into the challenge and the process, and the achievement. Where does money fit into the equation?


I think money is more important just as far as meeting the needs of your employees and our family. Of course, my family comes first. So really meeting the needs of our family. But I have to say at times I’ve gotten too caught up in just, yeah, enjoying what you do to the extent that you sometimes take your eye off of the pure business and economic side of it.


Family first. Finding balance. Coming up next – we’ll ask Kent Untermann to share his vision for his business. One of our PBS Hawaii viewers asks this question. What inspires you, and who inspires you?


What inspires me. I think I enjoy working with people, whether it’s my kids and just the interaction, and the other thing that inspires me is just making things happen. I really enjoy taking something and trying to make it better, tweak it, noodle with it. So I think I’m inspired by making things better, improving things, adding value to it, and looking back and seeing what you’ve created. I think that drives me.


You talked about the difficulty hiring people in this kind of tight labor market. Are you concerned about this widening gulf between the haves and the have nots in our society here?


You know, I’m becoming increasingly concerned about that. I’ve watched the Gold Coast on the Big Island, and you just see these incredible dwellings – multi-million dollar houses going in. I just thought, who’s gonna service those people? How are those people gonna continue to be serviced? Even in our business, where we’re looking for service-oriented people and what we can afford to pay, and what those people can afford to live on. There’s a real gap there and a real mess. And yes, I’m very concerned about that.


And as an employer, I mean, if the folks you want to hire can’t afford to live here, then your business goes flat. Or worse.


Absolutely. We’re very employee-driven and uh, the service levels we provide to our customers are through our employees. And that’s how we provide the service that we do. And it’s increasingly challenging to be able to accomplish that.


A lot of business folks are concerned about workforce development, which many interpret to be the need to educate future workers better, have a stronger educational system. Are your employees, do they come to you qualified?


Well, I believe that we need to invest in our employees. So I’m really big on training. And no matter how much training we do, and how much we invest in training, it still seems to be not to be enough. I think anything that we can do, the State can do, the community can do to grow our people is money well spent.


Now that you’re bringing custom and other picture frames to all of Hawaii, are you planning to go beyond these shores?


We have been talking about going to the mainland for a number of years, and scaling it. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. We have things that we have resolve and areas that we need to get better at. And I just want to be careful that I don’t expand too far too fast and end up in a bad place.


Although if Hawaii has presented a lot of hurdles that perhaps other states don’t have, perhaps you’re already ahead of the game to go somewhere else?


It’s really insightful that you’re saying that, because you’re right. Having to ship everything in, the cost of doing business in Hawaii – we’ve done national studies and we’re substantially less than the cost of doing custom framing on the mainland, even with all the added burden and cost of being in Hawaii. So you’re correct. We plan way further in advance, everything gets shipped in on containers.


Your land costs are so much higher.


Right. The rent is higher, the land is higher, the shipping costs are much higher, the labor costs are much higher. So you’re correct. We’ve had the benefit of that discipline.


So what’s keeping you back? What are the things you have to resolve before you decide to move on?


Well, I’m just not convinced that – the way that we do things here in Hawaii, it’s a hub and spoke. Everything goes into the central facility and then goes back out to all the stores. We handle all of that art. I don’t think that that’s scalable. So what we’d have to do on the mainland is just make frames. And I’m not convinced that we can do the volume that we do here in just making the frames and not handling the artwork. But I know that we couldn’t handle the artwork on the mainland in the scale that we would need to. So that’s what we have to figure out.


What about selling to uh, a mainland business?


Actually, I’ve spoken with my kids and they would like to, at least at this age—


How old are they?


Seventeen and fifteen. So we’ve had a family discussion. At least at this point in time, they would like to be involved in the business. And so as long as they want to be involved in the business, I would enjoy working with them. And we have other good employees that we’ve given equity to. So selling is really not something that we’re looking at.


That’s a wonderful retention method; giving equity to employees.


Yes; we’ve given equity to five of our key employees that have just been with us and really helped us grow our business. And so we basically just went back to them and said, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you’ve done and want to give you a – it’s not a large piece, but a small piece of the business, just kind of as a thanks.’ And so that they have some equity in it also.


So actually, you’re in a uh, good spot if, because most family businesses have trouble making it to the next generation, and so many mom and pops have died because of that.


I think we have a little bit of an advantage in that we’re vertical – so we make what we sell, which also has its challenges. And we’re scaled large enough that we’re a little insulated. In other words, at the level that we’re at, we’re able to get enough good resource – I think it’s really hard when you’re very small, so you’re limited on resources. We’re also insulated in – what we do and how we do it I think is an advantage. But there’s still all the challenges that everybody else has, for sure.


So what do you think you’ll find yourself doing in the next ten years, if you could project?


I think that I’m gonna enjoy – my son has two more years in high school, and my daughter has a year. And I’m definitely gonna enjoy those years. Every spare moment I have, I’m gonna be spending with them. When they go off to college, I’d like to think that I will be a part of that in some way, shape, or form if they’ll allow me to. And then after that, I would like to think that one or both of them will come back into the business, which will be kind of a whole new, inspiring, reinvigorating thing to get involved with them. And somewhere along there in that ten-year timeframe, I’d like to think that Lori and I will be able to spend even more time together.


You know, you talked earlier about something that I think a lot of people would like to know more about. It’s the idea of pursuing a dream and actually getting there. You know, you were just knocking on the door of the Dallas Cowboys at rookie camp, and then you had to give up your dream, or part of it was taken away, part of it you had to choose, okay, I’m not going ahead with that.


I think when it come – at least for myself, and I can only speak from experience it was my dream and it was my passion, and I was driven for it since I was five years old that it was my dream to play in the NFL. So it – I can’t say that it was easy to switch gears. But I think a lot of it is if you really back off a little bit. Playing in the NFL, owning a business, whatever, it really comes down to enjoying life and being driven and enjoying what you’re doing. And so really, it was just a matter of switching gears. It was the same thing. And so whether I’m the owner of a picture framing business or a health club or an NFL football player, it’s really making sure that you allow yourself to do things that you’re passionate about and enjoy it.


Inner drive. A passion to succeed. The relentless pursuit. And a love for family and our islands. All part of the character of Kent Untermann. I enjoyed his stories. Mahalo to Kent – and to you – for joining me for another Long Story Short.


I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou!



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