On the Up & Up

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When Meli James left Hawai‘i to enter Cornell University after graduating from Punahou School in 1996, she went with the belief that if she wanted to do something interesting or different, she had to look for that opportunity elsewhere. And she found it.

James graduated from Cornell with a business degree focused on hospitality and found work in San Francisco. After 11 years, she experienced a “quarter life crisis,” quit her job and saw a life coach. She’ll tell you it’s the best thing she ever did.

Coaching exercises helped James hone her talents and passions. As a result, she started Nirvino — her first company in 2007 — the first mobile website for wine enthusiasts. It just so happened that Apple launched its first iPhone the same year and Nirvino became the No. 1 ranked wine app in the iTunes store.

Content in Silicon Valley, James started other companies, but a part of her want- ed to return home. “I kept thinking about Hawai‘i and felt frustrated that it wasn’t an option for me,” she says.

Trips home gave James a peek into a slowly developing environment for entre- preneurs, startups, ideas and innovation — all the things that excited her. One day, she bought a ticket back to Hawai‘i, and this time it was one way.

“I’m a big believer in if you have an idea and you have the hustle, then how can we create a place that has resources, mentor- ship, access to capital — the things that can really juice an idea or entrepreneur
— and make it happen,” says James. She wanted to break through the barrier of “the lack of opportunity in Hawai‘i.” This was the impetus for her return home.

James switched to the other side of the table working at Blue Startups as a mentor/investor. By working hands-on with local entrepreneurs, she wanted to delve deeper into what types of companies in Hawai‘i could succeed by leveraging a competitive advantage or regional strength.

Around that time, she met Brittany Heyd, co-founder and managing director for a Washington D.C.-based startup accelerator, 1776. Together, they founded Mana Up in January of 2018 to answer that question.
Through an accelerator and fund, the goal was to help build 100 product-based businesses headquartered in Hawai‘i earn- ing $10 million or more in annual revenue.

“I came home to help build an ecosystem of entrepreneurs because I thought that was the best way to grow opportunities for this community,” says James. “How do we create the jobs, the sustainable livelihood and the kinds of businesses that make sense to not only start here, but to stay and thrive here as well?”
The next step was to identify their strengths and build Mana Up’s pro- gram around those. What better than the globally loved and recognized brand that is Hawai‘i?

Companies wanting to work with Mana Up had to be headquartered in the state because as the company grew, so would the jobs, thus boosting the local economy. Each product and the entrepreneur behind that product, had to have an authentic story and connection to Hawai‘i’s culture as well.

“A regenerative economy is key to our mission,” explains James. “We strongly believe in our program not only supporting local products, but also being an initiative that continues to help strengthen more entrepreneurs and brands locally.

“Sustainability is also key as over 60 percent of our companies incorporate an agricultural element in their product mix. This is really important as we look at sustainable agriculture and sustain- able tourism.”

House of Mana Up is the retail shop located at the Royal Hawaiian Center where merchandise can be purchased onsite. During the pandemic, it was forced to close, but Mana Up successfully pivoted to an online shopping site.

The company’s Economic Impact Report is proof. Total annual revenue in 2019 was $36 million; in 2020 it was $43.4 million. Jobs in 2019 numbered 264; in 2020 it was 315. In short, more than half of Mana Up companies grew their revenue despite the pandemic.

A $6.3 million venture fund, setting up human resources and a pilot fulfillment center are just a few of Mana Up’s successes.

James is one of those fortunate to have had a mentor early in life. “My great Uncle Tony was a very different thinker,” shares James. “He taught me how to engage and experience the world in a way that wasn’t only about reacting or seeing it, but also stepping back and thinking about what was happening that was bigger than you.

“For me, I think about how we’re approaching systemic challenges and being able to work with so many different partners and connect the dots.”

James believes that’s one of the reasons Mana Up has been successful. “We’ve helped create a shared vision, a community vision by working with a lot of different partners. We want to help create a diverse and regenerative Hawai‘i.”

Having personally experienced the local perception of the need to move elsewhere to find opportunity, James gets it. Together with her partner, they’ve shown it doesn’t have to be that way.

“I want Hawai‘i to be a place where people can achieve their aspirations and not having to move away to do it. By creating a vibrant, creative economy, we can have incredible opportunities for your work, your family and your livelihood. And if that happens, we’ll have an industry that’s regenerative and self-sustaining through the people who live here.”

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