This is the fourth in a series of collaboration stories featuring JEI community members who have worked together to shift the flow of capital and power. This post features JEI alumni and facilitator Keoni Lee and JEI faculty member Esther Park. Keoni Lee is the CEO of Hawai‘i Investment Ready, a 501(c)(3) supporting the people and organizations addressing Hawaiʻi’s social and environmental opportunities by accelerating social enterprise impact and access to investment. Esther Park is the CEO of Cienega Capital, a family office investing to improve local agriculture and food systems, and a member of the #NoRegrets Initiative, a relationship-centered approach to land and asset management that deploys human, ecological and financial capital toward soil health and its effect on climate change.
Relationships. While an underappreciated part of the conventional finance system, they’re foundational to the work of building a just economy.
And for Keoni Lee and Esther Park, they’re indispensable.
Keoni is a Just Economy Institute fellow (2020 – 2021 cohort) and has recently joined the core team as a facilitator, in addition to being CEO of Hawai‘i Investment Ready (HIR). Esther is a longtime JEI facilitator and faculty member, and CEO of Cienega Capital, a member of the #NoRegrets Initiative. Together, they’re collaborating to put relationships — among entrepreneurs and funders, and within regional economies — at the center of activity for building a just economy.
“[Our collaboration started] when I applied to the #NoRegrets Initiative for funding,” Keoni shared in a recent conversation. “And while money is great, what I really wanted was some of Esther’s time.”
“At Hawai‘i Investment Ready, we reimagine how to move money differently in service of our collective goals for a more resilient, regenerative, equitable, and just economy for Hawai‘i.” Integral to this work is a business accelerator program that supports entrepreneurs with training, access to resources and capital, and opportunities to scale social enterprises.
Keoni was frustrated. He saw firsthand the challenge of entrepreneurs making themselves fit with what funders wanted, even if it was out of step with their goals. He found a willing co-conspirator in Esther, herself seeking better ways to leverage her relationships with funders in service of deeper alignment of capital with social enterprise.
“Usually you have entrepreneurs who say, here’s what we need,” says Esther. “And you have funders who say, here’s what we provide. There’s no meeting in the middle. Why can’t the funders revise their approach, so they can actually meet the needs that the entrepreneurs have on the ground?”
“Esther and I are aligned in how we see the problems and also the opportunities of moving money differently,” said Keoni. “And she’s been involved with various projects and initiatives on the funder side and getting them to shift. I needed that expertise.”
Keoni and Esther began an informal partnership to discuss how to shift funders to be more responsive to the needs of entrepreneurs. Esther encouraged Keoni to become a JEI fellow. And Keoni made an important leap on behalf of the entrepreneurs in his program by beginning to organize the funder community to help them get into right relationship with entrepreneurs.
He was eager to engage with others seeking new pathways and to reduce the isolation he felt being on an island far removed from other bioregional efforts. Hawai‘i faces unique challenges in building a just economy, and also unique opportunities. “We’re so far away from the continent. And we’re also still in the United States. We’re governed with the same principles and economics, but we’re also our own little sandbox. And so we think and do things a little bit differently and that can provide learnings and insights because we’re forced to experiment within the sandbox. The pressure for us to make real change happen is like a pressure cooker in Hawai‘i. We feel the pressure more acutely because we have nowhere else to go.”
Indeed, Hawai‘i has the highest cost of living in the U.S., one of the highest homelessness rates, and growing disparities for elderly and native populations. For the past three years, and for the first time ever, the state had more out-migration than in-migration because the cost of living is so high. Hawai‘i’s economy is driven by three extractive industries: tourism, real estate development, and the military. The stakes for building a just economy are high.
“If you want to have a resilient economy in Hawai‘i, we have to be able to feed ourselves, we have to be able to house ourselves,” says Keoni. “And the market dynamics that have been created by the extractive economy are clearly working against that, the status quo has an unrelenting momentum. And if we want to change the status quo, we need to have an equally powerful opposing force.”
The force that Keoni is harnessing? Relationships. “We’re taking a culture-based, relationship-based approach as a strategy to build momentum and to push back.”
Keoni and Esther’s collaboration has worked in part because Esther could speak to funders as a fellow investor, as well as inspire and motivate the entrepreneurs in HIR’s accelerator cohort.
“Esther was able to enlighten them that there are funders out there who are trying to be different and there’s a movement outside of Hawai‘i working for a just economy and moving capital differently. There’s a wider set of possibilities than they knew before Esther talked to them.”
Esther admires Keoni’s boldness. “When we first met, he had this accelerator program, and now he’s made this leap into organizing the funder community. It’s super exciting.”
Keoni credits Esther and the JEI fellowship with giving him the support he needed. “When you’re out on the edge, there’s not a lot to stand on, we’re in uncharted territory,” he said. “To have allies and partners and collaborators to lean on is really important, or you feel alone. Had I not gone through the fellowship, I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence or even the idea to really push on some of these funder strategies. But I had the support through my relationship with Esther.”