Mana Up's newest cohort features 10 local businesses

June 10, 2024

Mana Up's Cohort 9 met for their first session on June 4. Pictured here are (from left): Roselani Aiwohi, Karli Rose Wilson, Christine Valenti, Dana Shapiro, Alx and Sarah Kawakami, Brittany Heyd, Meli James, Judiah McRoberts, Kris Goto, Kapua Browning, Joey Valenti and Jina Wye. (Not pictured is cohort member Janice Leilani Lafontaine.)
By Christina O'Connor – Senior Digital Editor, Pacific Business News

Mana Up has selected the next group of Hawaii companies that are participating in its product business accelerator program.

An initiative founded by Meli James and Brittany Heyd in 2017, Mana Up aims to help Hawaii consumer brands scale globally, with the larger goal of diversifying the local economy and increasing job opportunities.

This marks the ninth cohort of its accelerator program, which launched in 2018 and has a total of 85 graduate businesses to date.

Mana Up has been announcing the new cohort members in partnership with Pacific Business News, and individual profiles on each of the companies have rolled out over the last several days. Here’s a roundup of the businesses, including links to their profiles where you can hear from the founders about their company’s origins, future goals and what they’re hoping to get out of their time with Mana Up:

  • Alikaleo Park – a children’s activewear brand that features clothing with built-in sun protection in colorful, Hawaii-inspired designs. The company is based on Oahu, founded by Alx and Sarah Kawakami.
  • Bizia Surf - a specialty surfboard retailer that creates surfboards from invasive albizia trees. Founded by Joey and Christine Valenti, the company also opened a retail location with a coffee shop, Bizia Surf and Coffee Bar, in Wahiawa last year.
  • Farm to Fudge – Maui- based company that creates gluten-free and dairy-free fudge from cacao, organic coconut milk, smoked sea salt and macadamia nuts. Founded by Janice Leilani LaFontaine.
  • Hawaii Ulu Cooperative – a farmer-owned co-op comprised of more than 160 farmers across four islands that sells recipe-ready ulu and other crops, as well as value-added products. CEO Dana Shapiro was among the nine Hawaii Island farmers to launch the cooperative.
  • Honua Skincare – a skincare brand that utilizes Hawaii botanicals to create its products that include creams, serums, moisturizers and more. The company is based on Oahu and its founder is Kapua Browning.
  • Kauai Hemp Co. – Led by Judiah McRoberts and Daryl Kaneshiro, the Koloa company crafts CBD wellness products made from certified organic hemp that it grows.
  • Kris Goto – the brand of Oahu-based artist Kris Goto, who has a retail line of products — such as tote bags, cards and pareos — that feature her original artwork.
  • Sea Crunchies – an Oahu-based seaweed snack brand founded by Jina Wye, who is currently conducting research in local limu and working to develop her initial product line.
  • To Be Organics - a Maui-based bath, body, and home company that features 100% all-natural products that are hand-crafted. Founded by Karli Rose Wilson.
  • Waiwaolani – a clothing company featuring colorful prints of Native Hawaiian plants. The brand was founded Roselani Aiwohi, who is based on Maui.

In a previous interview, James told PBN that the cohort was chosen from “another record-breaking year of applications.” She said Mana Up received a total of 163 applications for the cohort. From there, it conducted 68 interviews before ultimately selecting these 10 as the participants.

Among the applicants, 60% of businesses were from Oahu, 18% from Maui, 15% from Hawaii Island, 5% from Kauai and 2% from Molokai. About a quarter of the applicants had over $500,000 in annual revenue, another quarter were in the $100,000-$500,000 range, and half had under $100,000. The applicant businesses had an average of 2.92 employees.

One trend that James noted from this year’s applicant pool is that a lot of them “seem to be really optimistic about their future.” On average, she said, the companies expect to grow their revenue by 20% year-over-year in 2024.

Among the cohort members, James noted that a number of the companies are creating innovative, brand-new products from local ingredients.

She also highlighted how three of the 10 companies are based on Maui — which she said is a focus for Mana Up this year in the wake of the wildfires that destroyed much of Lahaina town last year.

“[We’re] thinking about what we can do to support the small businesses that were there … but also really thinking about how Hawaii has been hit as a whole,” she said. “Lahaina was a huge retail hub for a lot of local companies, and a lot of these local product companies were affected. So, it’s even more important for us to think about how to continue to drive more opportunities for sales that are not just here, but are on the Mainland and online, and make it easier for folks to continue to move inventory and drive revenue.”

Cohort 9 officially kicked off earlier this week, with the first session taking place on June 4. Over the next six months, the cohort companies will participate in workshops, talk with local business leaders, receive one-on-one coaching and more. They will learn about topics including inventory, distribution, packaging and e-commerce. The Mana Up team also will construct individual programming tailored for each business based on their needs.PBN 060424 COVER MANA UP COHORT9 AC AC 5

Alx and Sarah Kawakami of Alikaleo Park chat with Brittany Heyd and Meli James of Mana Up during the first cohort meeting on June 4.

The accelerator will run until November, culminating in the annual Mana Up Showcase event taking place on Nov. 7.

In addition to the programming during the accelerator program, Mana Up also provides a breadth of support and resources to its alumni companies through other initiatives, including its House of Mana Up retail stores that carry products made by past cohort businesses. James told PBN that Mana Up also is now in the process of creating more programming to target later-stage challenges for portfolio businesses as they continue to grow.

According to Mana Up, its portfolio companies are growing at a mean rate of 33% annually, represent 874 jobs, and brought in a total of $81 million in revenue last year alone.

Read More →