This is the third in a series of Q&As with JEI Fellows about the path they’ve taken to financial activism and what they’ve learned along the way. For this post, we interviewed Keoni Lee, CEO of Hawai‘i Investment Ready, about what it takes to partner across differences and how the effort can produce deeper impact.
Hawai’i Investment Ready is a 501(c)3 nonprofit impact investing intermediary working at the nexus of purpose, business, and culture to restore regenerative abundance to Hawai’i’s economy. HIR supports purpose-driven enterprises (for-profit and nonprofit) and funders in Hawai’i to strengthen and scale their impact through a variety of programs and services for capacity building and impact capital deployment.
JEI: Can you share any a-ha moments you’ve had when engaging with someone through JEI, or in another professional context, that changed your perspective on how to do the work?
KL: Just going through the fellowship program creates conditions for conversations that I don’t think ever would have existed otherwise. The cohorts are so diverse. You have people who hold the wealth, who steward and manage the wealth, and who receive the wealth all thinking about a more just and equitable community.
To hear the wealth holders’ perspectives on money and how it can negatively impact them, especially those with inherited wealth, was enlightening to me. I came from asking for money, and my assumption was that if you have all this wealth, life’s easy for you—no problems. I realized through this experience that in order to have productive conversations, I have to first have empathy for the other person’s truth. Understanding the nuances that I didn’t understand before allows me to have better conversations with wealth holders and get to the core of “Can we be in right relationship down the road?”
It’s made my fundraising a lot easier. If I demonstrate aloha for their person, they’re more willing to listen to my perspective, especially if what I’m offering challenges their current position. They’re more willing to lean in instead of closing the door or pushing back.
JEI: Can you give an example of a cross-class, cross-race collaboration you’ve been involved in? How did it come together?
KL: We are in the early stages of building out a food systems funder cohort involving 24 active investors across philanthropy, government, and the private sector. It’s cross class, cross race, cross culture. They’re coming forward to learn from each other about better ways to move money and solve for some of the market challenges we have in scaling healthy food systems.
When we brought participants in for the first in-person event, they thought they were coming to learn about impact investing, and there was this energy of uncertainty—“Why am I here?” But we started with a group visioning exercise that allowed people to get to know each other on a personal level. After we did that work, the energy rose, and you could tell folks were seeing “There’s something special going on here; this is different.” There was a sense of abundance and possibility rather than scarcity and skepticism.
I learned all that through JEI. I don’t think I would have been able to imagine this funder cohort had I not gone through the fellowship. I saw the power of the JEI approach and wanted to recreate that experience for my cohort. As we move into more difficult conversations and there is conflict, because we now have the foundation of a relationship and know why we’re together, we can pause those conversations and ask ourselves, “How can we have this conversation differently?” It opens up possibility.
JEI: What does it take to effectively partner across differences?
KL: You have to understand that the system has programmed us all in particular ways, and we are all subject to the way the system is currently designed. Some obviously have it better than others, but we’re not going to fix the system just by being righteous, by saying “my community has been wronged” or “you gained this wealth through bad business practices and extraction,” or by taking on a hero or victim mentality. We don’t get anywhere by playing those roles; we get somewhere positive by saying “How can we be different?”
For those who have power, there is a trend toward acknowledging the need to cede power. The more important part is that hearts and minds are shifting. I think of Grace Lee Boggs, who said “movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.” We build these critical connections by first changing our internal conditions. Change at the individual level then transmutes into the collective level.
Whatever perspective we’re coming from, we are all going to have to change in this evolution of finance. Challenging the conditioning we’ve been subject to and trying to be different in a system that’s programmed us not to be is hard work. As we unwind the ways to think, act, and be, we have to approach the collaborative work ahead with the understanding that it is going to be messy and imperfect along the way. To be successful in achieving our shared, long-term goals we need to have aloha for each other on this journey and stay in grounded in relationship with each other — especially when things get hard.
Keoni Lee is the Chief Executive Officer of Hawai’i Investment Ready, a 501(c)3 nonprofit impact investing intermediary working at the nexus of purpose, business, and culture to restore regenerative abundance to Hawai’i’s economy. HIR supports purpose-driven enterprises (for-profit and nonprofit) and funders in Hawai’i to strengthen and scale their impact through a variety of programs and services for capacity building and impact capital deployment. Before joining HIR in 2019, Keoni co-founded ʻŌiwi TV – Hawaiʻi’s first and only Native Hawaiian language and cultural television station and media production company – where he spent over a decade learning from and producing stories in and about native communities throughout Hawaiʻi and around the world. These stories and relationships grounded in indigenous knowledge and values have shaped his perspective and drive his work to shift contemporary structures of power.
Keoni is active in community work and initiatives around decolonizing education, food systems, and the economy, including the Omidyar Fellows program, the First Nations Futures Program, and the Just Economy Institute Fellowship. He is a member of Toniic, the global action community for impact investing, was awarded the 2021 Investor of the Year by the Hawaii Venture Capital Association and named to the 20 for the Next 20 class of 2022. He is a co-leader of the ‘Āina Aloha Economic Futures initiative – an indigenous-led mainstream movement calling out and addressing the inequities, injustices, and unsustainability of Hawai’i’s economy.