This Hawaii Entrepreneurship Program Is Empowering Locally-Owned Businesses

February 28, 2022

Michele Herrmann | Contributor

While tourism in Hawaii can be a big driver of consumer spending, there is also an initiative fostering locally-owned businesses to increase and maintain their sales globally.

It is happening through direct mentorship on how to increase product marketing and develop leadership traits to reach new and different audiences. This mission is the focus for Brittany Heyd and Meli James, two friends and entrepreneurs who run Mana Up, a business incubator promoting and advising Hawaii-based proprietors. 

Having launched Mana Up in 2018, these two Hawaii residents started their business incubator after talking about wanting to create well-paying job opportunities within Hawaii, but in an innovative way. Their approach is applied through promoting products made in, and often associated with, this state.

When they met, Heyd said they talked about how they felt there was a need in Hawaii for well-paying job opportunities for locals that would also best utilize their education. 

“So that was the kind of the problem that Meli and I really bonded over,” Heyd added.

Thus James and Heyd applied their professional backgrounds toward providing small business owners across the Hawaiian Islands with more leverage in the consumer market. 

“We really landed on the brand of Hawaii, and that its strongest form is in consumer goods,” said James. 

Referring to major Hawaii product brands, such as Mauna Loa and Hawaiian Hosts, James noted that they found name brands leveraged a cachet of tourism that is held in high regard by many. 

“It's this global love for Hawaii; it's an inspirational brand. And it's whether people have come here twenty-five years ago, and they want to remember Hawaii, they buy the candle, they get the chocolates,” said James. “Or they've never been here, but it's this idea of the spirit of Aloha; that warmth. And so we thought, we’ve always had great products here, but they’ve been our best kept secrets.” 

In forming Mana Up, James and Heyd established an accelerator program that aids vendors in building up their infrastructure and expanding their markets globally through both retail and e-commerce channels. This purpose is applied through a six-month program providing leadership training and teaching in areas ranging from having an online presence to increasing access to distribution channels. 

Vendors can apply to the program through an application process; selected participants join numbered groups known as cohorts. Their goods and services run the gamut — food, drink, skin care, jewelry, housewares and so on.

“As a result of Mana Up, we are implementing many new strategies and following up with many connections,“ said Mana Up Cohort 1 and Kō Hana Rum Co-Founder Jason Brand. “As a management team, we are stronger and more professionally bound to think through our business goals and the words we choose to present them."

The number of cohorts in Mana Up originated with 10 and now counts over having 60 participants; 10 are chosen for each cohort group. 

Vendor cohorts can sell their goods through House of Mana Up, a retail store with a brick and mortar location in Royal Hawaiian Center in Honolulu along with an online counterpart. In November 2020, Mana Up began promoting its cohorts via video with a product showcase, with vendors presenting QVC-format sales pitches. The inaugural showcase was aired on television, and the 2021 edition was broadcast via livestream.

In February 2022, Mana Up and Build Native with Shopify, an initiative by Mana Up partner Shopify, launched the program, “Hawai‘i Rising.” It’s designed to meet the needs of Native and Indigenous business owners in Hawaii by helping local entrepreneurs to build up what they need in order to scale up and go global with their companies. 

Tanya Uyehara, founder of Lahaʻole Designs and a Mana Up Cohort 2 vendor, said that Mana Up has helped her to think bigger and introduced her to companies that can help her business grow. “They’ve changed my thought paradigm. From a triangle, where opportunities seem to shrink. Flipping that triangle upside down, helping me realize that there is a large number of untouched opportunities for my company.”

As the global pandemic in 2020 led to a statewide work from home mandate in Hawaii that March and then a May report noting a 98.9 percent decrease in tourism, James and Heyd noticed a good outcome for Mana Up vendors for emphasizing e-commerce. For that year, their economic impact report noted that vendors’ revenue grew by 53 percent from 2019 from resulting online sales. 

“So it's kind of another reason that now is a good time because they are tapping into e-commerce and being able to reach people that are outside of Hawaii and bring new dollars into the state,” said Heyd. 

Even Mana Up’s name draws upon this re-energizing; Mana, a Hawaiian word, can be partly defined as a miraculous power. “We really love the term because it's very inspiring and positive and really kind of utilizing and elevating what Hawaii has and kind of leveling up,” noted James.

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