Kea Peters, a native Hawaiian illustrator and designer, was on the last flight from California to Honolulu before the pandemic brought travel to a virtual halt in March 2020. Over the next 14 days, quarantined in her room, she thought of all the people feeling the same sense of isolation and decided to take his creativity online.
She filmed live tutorials on Instagram, teaching viewers how to draw native plants, create letterheads and assemble do-it-yourself crafts. By the end of the year, she had started a business called Kakou Collective.
Peters grew her social media from a few hundred to 10,000 in nine months as she began selling her native plant-inspired stickers, stationery and washi tape online – eventually joining the accelerator program. Mana Up company in 2021.
“As my audience has grown, I’ve learned that people really want to feel connected to Hawaii and need a place to express themselves,” Peters said. “This community is a really cool way to let people express what they want in a crafty way.”
Now she has decided to take part in a new program, Hawaii Rising, a collaboration between Mana Up and Shopify Inc., the second largest e-commerce platform behind Amazon.
The eight-month program launched in February and enables Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders and any other self-identifying Indigenous entrepreneurs to get their product, service or concept business running on the Shopify platform.
Mana Up co-founder Meli James said innovation was key for businesses during the pandemic as they needed to learn new ways to reach consumers when tourist numbers plummeted.
“As we seek to diversify our economy, we seek to create opportunities that are not so much related to tourism,” she said.
It’s part of a growing trend. While many local businesses have struggled to cope during the pandemic, others have been able to successfully transition online or start business operations, finding new customers across island borders.
Companies that participated in Mana Up’s accelerator programs experienced a boom in cash flow, with 53% achieving their highest revenues in 2020, according to James.
The state also saw a nearly eight-fold increase in taxable income from online sales, from about $25 million in January 2019 to $183 million in December 2021.
“E-commerce definitely increases presence and helps connect our made in Hawaii brand nationally and internationally,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, President and CEO of the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce. Menor-McNamara said it also gives tourists a chance to continue buying products discovered during their visits.
So how is Hawaii Rising different from previous Mana Up accelerator programs? It creates a designated space for indigenous businesses in the islands on Shopify’s platform.
The Canadian e-commerce company wants to set itself apart from its competitors by avoiding “Western capitalism”, said Tracy Ridler, head of Shopify’s Indigenous Entrepreneur Program.
While the company hardly seems like an anti-capitalist outsider with total revenue of $4.6 billion in 2021, Shopify prides itself on its ability to cut out the middleman by allowing merchants to ship directly to shoppers.
This way of shopping has become hugely popular during the pandemic, when supply chain issues prompted major backups for businesses nationwide.
Shopify also lets customers browse curated business categories on its Shop app, like black-owned businesses and non-binary fashion.
“It’s all about reciprocity, helping each other and sharing knowledge, because historically there is (has been) a lack of access to these resources, a lack of access to capital and we’re talking about having the impostor syndrome when you go through programming that isn’t specifically for you, or has nothing to do with your culture,” Ridler said.
The Hawaii Rising program offers participants six months free access to a Shopify Advanced Account, eight in-person or virtual workshops, and access to Shopify’s Build Native community. Applicants must be Hawaii residents, identify as Native Hawaiians or Native Americans, have a desire to sell online, fully participate in the program, and have a product, service, or concept business.
That said, candidates have varied experience.
Blaine Apo, owner of Maui Crisps, said he started selling his jerky in 2014 out of the back of a gas station. He joined Mana Up’s accelerator in 2019, doubling production to 12,000 packets of crisps per month.
He has now joined the Hawaii Rising program to grow his clientele.
“We really focus on a specific customer, which is people who buy omiyage gifts, so we try to find different demographics and reach new customers,” he said.
Apo said he hopes to expand production on the mainland and fully automate the production process.
Meanwhile, 14-year-old Coen Cadinha has just started his business. Four months ago, he made li hing mui gummies to sell at school.
He quickly sold out and used the money to buy more, eventually starting his business: Big Boy Sweets.
Cadinha now sells her sweets at weekend pop-up markets in Waikele, but does not yet have a certified kitchen that would allow her to sell her produce in local grocery stores.
He said he hoped this program would help him mobilize his ideas, eventually dreaming of Big Boy Sweets vending machines placed across Oahu.
“I didn’t think I could do it because there are so many big companies here, but my aunt told me to apply and I got it! It’s crazy,” Cadinha said.
Cadinha was one of the newest additions to the Hawaii Rising program which kicked off on February 10. While the program is already in full swing, Mana Up is still encouraging interested entrepreneurs to apply before the second workshop in March.
“Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation through its CHANGE Framework project.