Technology, Entrepreneurship And Waiwai - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Authors

Kelsey Amos

Kelsey Amos is a new mom and has a PhD in English from UH Manoa. A co-founder of Purple Maia Foundation, she grew up in Waipio Uka, graduating from Mililani High School and receiving her BA from NYU.

Donavan Kealoha

Donavan Kealoha is a co-founder and executive director of Purple Maia, a nonprofit technology education startup providing indigenized tech education to underserved, high opportunity youth across Hawaii. He graduated from Lanai High School and holds a BA and JD/MBA from UH Manoa.


Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the University of Hawaii Press and Center for Biographical Research of the University of Hawaii Manoa in 2020. It is taken from “The Value of Hawaii 3: Hulihia, the Turning,” edited by Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘ōpua, Craig Howes, Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio and Aiko Yamashiro. It can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here.

“Whatever is Hawaiian, support ‘em full on.” — Israel Kamakawiwoole

Technology alone will not save us, but it can be a powerful part of the solution. What works in creating change is the power of convening diverse people to take innovative action based in kuleana to Hawaii.

When we pose questions, talk story and investigate together, we build ideal conditions for co-creating the futures we want. True in the best of times, this is even more essential now, when global disaster and ineffectual or downright dangerous leadership lay bare the current system’s inequalities, injustices and dysfunctions.

Purple Maia started in 2013, when we saw a need for coding education for Hawaii’s youth. At that time, only three public high schools offered AP computer science — compared to 33 by 2018.

We sourced our teachers and content from a community of local people who wanted to present technology in a relatable and culturally grounded way. Our students then felt empowered to learn and use technology for their own and their community’s purposes.

We teach digital technology skills together with entrepreneurship because entrepreneurial action must complement progress in other arenas, such as policy, protest and public education. If we don’t pursue our own interests as Hawaiians and people of Hawaii in technology and entrepreneurship spaces, no one else will — or worse, someone will seek to do it for us.

Students in a Purple Maia web development workshop. Courtesy : Purple Maia

Innovate Technology By Grounding It In Our Own Community Needs And Cultural Wealth

We have a vision of culturally and community-grounded technologists and entre­preneurs. We’re not the experts at loko ia and language resurgence, but we can be the engineers and innovators who design the water sensors that track tides and nutrient levels in the fishpond, or create the Google Chrome extension that makes crowd-source translation and dubbing of Netflix content into Olelo Hawaii possi­ble.

We can be up to date on machine learning, blockchain, robotics, augmented reality and IoT while staying grounded in local community needs and efforts.

In this moment of COVID-19, how as technologists and entrepreneurs do we innovate in this space? We can see some things immediately.

  • Increasing demand for online learning and access to Honolulu-based programs can become more equitable for rural communities. We must also address unequal access to computers, smartphones and broadband.
  • Will we see a greater demand for technology that connects students with aina virtually, via technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality, in a post-COVID-19 world where we are more attuned to limited mobility?
  • COVID-19 has pushed many employers to embrace employees working from home. Will this trend continue, granting Hawaii’s workforce access to national or even global employment opportunities remotely, earning enough to continue to live in the islands?

COVID-19 has taught us that the future is unpredictable. We need to keep fostering pilina, because those connected to community are best positioned to respond quickly to community needs in a crisis.

We also need what we call “com­munities of practice” to innovate toward the future we want. Communities of prac­tice are often thought of as groups of people in a similar profession — web developers who exchange ideas, for instance, shaping trends and progress in their field.

We feel that while differing widely in individual skills and talents, a communi­ty of practice can also share a grounding in kuleana to a place, and to care for aina and people. We can lift each other up, creating an amplification effect.

One example of how technologists and entrepreneurs might contribute to aina-based communities of practice is ahupuaa restoration across the pae aina. The work in Heeia brings together education, conservation, resource management, research, biocultural restoration, regenerative farming and economic develop­ment.

Technologists and innovators could support what kiai are doing, leveraging tech to amplify culture rather than leveraging culture for tech.

Participants in the 2019 Purple Prize innovation competition learn about loko ia and low-cost ocean sensors at the makaha at Paepae o Heeia. Courtesy: William Evangelista

Innovate Business Models For Community Wealth

While solving problems locally, it’s imperative to think globally, embracing oppor­tunities to provide unique, homegrown, collaborative solutions to external mar­kets, thereby realizing economic value that can be repatriated back to those communities who had a direct hand in birthing those ideas/solutions.

Many are already advocating for growing our technology and innovation industries, urging Hawaii to become a model for sustainability and positive innovation.

Having our tech industry bring in investment and high-paying jobs is a worthy goal, but we must not forget that if we, as Hawaiians and people of Hawaii, cannot shape how innovative solutions are created, marketed, distributed and owned, we run the risk of settling for less — less value circulating in the economy with only low-wage or “service” technology jobs available, and tech that runs counter to our values.

In response, we must build up our peoples’ skills as we think about how Hawaii benefits, who’s leading and whether we are just shifting around inequalities or achieving a state of waiwai where less is actually more.

In her book “Kaiaulu,” Mehana Vaughan describes how in the recent past, people lived by becoming experts who managed their resources so well that they could always share. Her example is how lawaia had to understand the fish and their environment, and learn how to malama and manage them in order to have big catches, which would then be shared with everyone, without demanding immediate return.

At the same time, people would receive what others shared from other resources.

The same should be true of building technology companies. We must become excellent entrepreneurs, while thinking creatively about how to structure companies seeking to make a profit (even if it’s only one part of a triple bottom line), so that equity and ownership extend not only to all shareholders, but to stake­holders that include the organizations actually doing the work of biocultural resur­gence, co-creating these market innovations with excellent entrepreneurs and creating waiwai.

To achieve our own purposes, we have to understand and innovate contemporary structures.

Shifted Energy is an enterprise with an innovative business structure that shares waiwai. The idea for this company originated in the work of local nonprofit Kanu Hawaii to create a more compassionate and resilient Hawaii. Shifted devel­oped a way to use water heaters as batteries for renewable energy, allowing apart­ment dwellers and not just homeowners to benefit from shifting to clean energy.

When Shifted established its own company, along with the founders and early employees, Kanu received a significant percentage of ownership. This differs from the typical Silicon Valley model, where the majority of a company is owned by its founders, with a smaller percentage set aside for employees.

As investors put mon­ey into a company to help build it, they too claim significant ownership. Only rarely is anything given to community organizations. Founders usually wait until they get rich to become philanthropists, and this sharing usually represents a small percent­age of the wealth claimed by founders and investors.

Why not build in the giveback from the beginning? A percentage of equity or ownership of Hawaii tech companies could be allocated to a collective of commu­nity organizations. Then, if there is an exit or liquidation event, or revenues get to the point that dividends are available, the collective members would realize eco­nomic benefit.

We could define the percentages for ourselves, in this way reimagin­ing social safety nets. We would have to acknowledge that we’re aiming to create technology businesses that are home runs. Not all of them will be, but if some do go big, that success will help everyone else.

So Hawaii benefits — and if Hawaiians and people of Hawaii are leading, they’ll make the right decisions about what kinds of innovations to pursue and how to share the results.

A grandmother and grandson try out coding together at a Purple Maia workshop in Nanakuli. Courtesy: William Evangelista

Innovate The Ways We Live

All this hoped-for economic growth from technology and innovation — funneled back into community and creating waiwai — must be paired with innovations in how we live. If we’re all still pursuing a life of too much too fast, then success will come at the expense of someone else and their aina. But if aina and beloved com­munity can meet people’s needs, that is truly waiwai.

Share Your Ideas

Maybe we can live less indi­vidualistically, less dependent on markets and with fewer material luxuries. And technology and entrepreneurship can help us shift to living in a (k)new way, where less is more.


Read this next:

Why Is It Still So Hard To Reach Hawaii's Unemployment Office?


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About the Authors

Kelsey Amos

Kelsey Amos is a new mom and has a PhD in English from UH Manoa. A co-founder of Purple Maia Foundation, she grew up in Waipio Uka, graduating from Mililani High School and receiving her BA from NYU.

Donavan Kealoha

Donavan Kealoha is a co-founder and executive director of Purple Maia, a nonprofit technology education startup providing indigenized tech education to underserved, high opportunity youth across Hawaii. He graduated from Lanai High School and holds a BA and JD/MBA from UH Manoa.


Latest Comments (0)

When I taught a computer literacy course at the college level back in the 70's, I told me students it was optional.  Four years later I told it should be required for graduation.

Richard_Bidleman · 1 week ago

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