Donne and Chris Dawson may walk different paths professionally, but when it comes to family—the people and culture they hold dear—one thing is certain:‘ohana comes first for the successful siblings.
Much like the traditional hawaiian sailing canoe, Hokule‘a, Donne Frances Leinani Dawson and her younger brother, Christopher Ho‘oka‘amomi Dawson, are on a mission to expose Hawai‘i to the world.
Hokule‘a’s crew sailed around the world for three years, traveling 46,000 miles to make stops in 19 countries rallying to preserve the environment and indigenous cultures. The June 17 return home was a chicken-skin moment for the Dawson siblings, who gathered to watch a modern-day Hawaiian victory unfold.
The brother-sister duo say they too are committed to perpetuating their culture as they navigate the world of business with a goal of empowering Native Hawaiians and creating broad social and cultural benefits for Hawai‘i.
Donne in her roles as Hawaii State Film Commissioner works to encourage film producers to reflect an accurate and culturally respectful isle image. The four-person office generates $250 million to $300 million a year for Hawai‘i’s economy.
Chris, founder and chairman of Hawaiian Native Corporation (HNC), and president and CEO of the DAWSON companies, uses his businesses to model Hawaiian cultural values across the globe.
“I’m making up for lost time. Because of the injustices and losses of the past, I think it’s incumbent on me to share my Hawaiian culture and turn people on to my culture, my Hawai‘i, my people,” says Donne, a rare blonde, blue-eyed Hawaiian.
Donne says she’s driven to share Hawai‘i’s unique history, language, culture, natural environment and voyaging legacy with the world. She’s also passionate about saying “No” to those that want to denigrate Hawaiian culture. She stopped one film-maker from blowing up a historic heiau and a producer from creating a humorous reality show centered on learning hula, a sacred language for the Hawaiian people.
It comes down to kuleana (responsibility and privilege), which is a powerful value within the Hawaiian community, says Chris, whose decades of playing polo have given him the confidence and build of a paniolo, the Hawaiian cowboys who were roping and riding before their peers settled America’s “Wild West.”
“If you can, you must,” Chris says.
The duo’s mindset is only fitting considering they are the youngest of four children born to Donald Roy Dawson and Beadie Kanahele Dawson. From their father, a Canadian entrepreneur who fell in love with a local girl, they got their can-do spirit. From their mother, they inherited a passion for their culture and to do all things in a pono (righteous) way. Older sisters—both born in Montreal, Canada—Lani Dawson Arena, Chief Advocate for the Dawson Companies; and Malia Dawson Song, who is a registered nurse and serves as the middle school RN for Kamehameha Schools-Maui Campus, also helped raise Donne and Chris.
Beadie Dawson is a well-known Hawaiian attorney whose pro bono counsel in the late 1990s resulted in reform of the Bishop Estate trustees, who were accused of mismanaging assets meant to educate Hawaiian children.
“She’s half auntie, half pit bull. She’s got a massive heart and a big bite,” Chris says of his mom, who ensured that her children understood and could perpetuate the Hawaiian culture in a way that previous generations couldn’t.
Their grandmother, Annie Lehua Asam Kanahele, who was born in 1896 in Kona, was fluent in the Hawaiian language and lived through Hawai‘i’s most tumultuous period after the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
“My mother was punished for speaking Hawaiian,” Beadie says. “It wasn’t that my parents prevented us from speaking Hawaiian, but they urged us to be excellent in the world that we were in and that we were moving into.”
Beadie says the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s morphed into today’s celebration of “Hawaiianess.” Culture permeates into every aspect of her children’s life from business to their personal pursuits like hula and polo. Donne Dawson studied hula on Moloka’i and is part of Snowbird Bento’s halau, Ka pa hula o ka lei lehua. Chris has spent two decades engineering polo resurgence in the isles.
“I cannot describe the depths of my pride that my children reflect the respect and love for their culture,” Beadie says. “In their living, they are Hawaiian through and through. We have a long history of Hawaiian ali’i and chiefs and common people in our family. My kids were always fascinated by it.”
“I’m a social entrepreneur—someone who focuses first and foremost not on profit, but on creating wide-spread social economic good,” says Chris, who heads Dawson Technical LLC, a military-contracting company.
Chris Dawson started the company in 1994 with two employees and through sheer force of will has grown it into an enterprise with 600-plus staff members, who work in 11 states on operations throughout the globe.
Friends and family say Chris is a born entrepreneur and visionary, whose faith and confidence have allowed him to sail through rough seas and find undiscovered lands.
“I faced catastrophic bankruptcy three times in the first decade. The darkest time was when all was on the line, including my house,” Chris says. “I could have lost everything. I learned during those times that it was most important to maintain your spirit of gratitude. It may just be a test.”
Beadie says she’s enjoyed watching her brave son who always felt he could “lick something no matter what” grow into a “fearless man.”
“He started out with minimal assets and has grown those and just excelled as a leader because he’s a risk-taker. His vision makes him look forward and see things that nobody else does. He’s grown the company by leaps and bounds,” she says.
Chris has also aggressively grown polo in the isles and worked to educate people about the sport’s history in Hawai‘i, says Allen Hoe, a long-time family friend, who is Chris’ mentor and fellow polo player.
“When he learned that polo was played in Hawai‘i before it was played on the mainland and that it was used as a training process for army officers in the late 19th century, he made it his mission to share that incredible story,” Hoe says. “He convinced the U.S. Polo Association to look back in their history and reconnect the sport with its U.S. Army legacy.”
Hoe says Chris’ influence lead to the polo association and the U.S. Army working together to promote service men and women playing polo.
“Here’s this young boy with long hair sitting down and chatting with the polo association and Army leaders earnestly convincing them that this was something worth doing,” Hoe says. “He’s very persuasive.”
Those that know Donne say she has a similar intensity of purpose, whether it’s applied to studying hula or connecting people across cultures to promoting Hawai‘i authentically.
“Donne has a deep connection with her Hawaiian heritage and an ability to communicate that message with people that are totally unaware of her Hawaiian heritage,” Hoe says.
For instance, Hoe says he was impressed when Donne helped rescue a failing Makua Cave film project in a matter of hours by convincing the U.S. Army to relax its restrictions.
“She organizes people and brings out the best in everyone,” Beadie says. “As a small kid, she was the one that egged us on and pushed us into marvelous activities.”
While Chris’ success lies in creating opportunities by shattering barriers, Donne’s style is more about finding pathways within parameters.
“They are really clear about what they are championing and they are often in situations where they are the only Hawaiians in the room and everyone wants to represent us without input,” says Maile Meyer, who worked with the duo to establish the Dawson Art project, which has developed, promoted and marketed Hawaiian artists, whose work is showcased in the company’s corporate offices and in family collections.
Meyer says she particularly admires how Donne excels at delivering a tough message with a lot of aloha.
“I am passionate about things like my brother is, passionate about the work I do, passionate about my culture, but I have to exercise and express that passion within a very strict structured environment,” she says.
While they go about it differently, each vigorously believes in the importance of “malama kekahi i kekahi,” a Hawaiian principle which means, “always take care of one another.”
Donne was there for Chris during his financial struggles and he was there for her in April of 2015, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to undergo surgery.
“I admire the great bond between Donne and Chris,” Meyer says. “Those two run fast and they run fast together. I always feel slightly exhausted if I spend too much time with them. They are global citizens and Hawai‘i is kind of their resting place.”
The Dawson siblings also take care of their business family. Donne has never met a stranger. Chris says his company heavily invests in employees and their families, their communities and their culture.
For instance, when the company won a government contract to cut the grass at Makua Valley, it begun with the Hawaiian traditions of blowing the conch shell and asking permission to enter the community.
Recently, Chris brought 11 junior employees from the U.S. mainland to Hawai‘i to learn cultural values from his mother Beadie Dawson and to give back to this community.
The Dawson siblings want to impart that same message of hope to Chris Dawson’s daughter Kylie Malia, his young son, Kawailoa, and to all who will become the next generation of Hawai‘i’s leaders. Someday it will be their turn to forge ahead, and when they do, they should go with courage, pride and the collective wisdom of their island ‘ohana.