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Quiet Title

 

Mark Zuckerberg’s lawsuits to force the sale of kama‘aina lands may have been withdrawn, but it serves as a reminder that land acquisition through quiet title is still a distressful issue for local families who have inherited ownership of family lands. How frequently is quiet title used in local land disputes? And are Native Hawaiians still being alienated from their traditional land?

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Susan Yamada

 

Susan Yamada is Executive Director of the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Shidler College of Business. Yamada calls herself an “accidental entrepreneur,” with a career that moved from hospitality to publishing to leading tech companies. After a successful life in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom, she came home to Hawaii, never needing to work again. But in this phase of her life, she has dedicated herself to giving back to her community by mentoring young future entrepreneurs.

 

This program is available in high-definition and will be rebroadcast on Wed., July 20 at 11:00 pm and Sun., July 24 at 4:00 pm.

 

Susan Yamada Audio

 

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Transcript

 

I just talked with a CEO of a large company who said, If I’m feeling comfortable, I suspect something is wrong. Something has to be wrong.

 

Yeah. I think there always needs to be that level of discomfort, because that means you’re pushing things, you know, whether it’s your company, your programs, yourself personally. So, people go, Why? Why do you want to do that? And I think the more you do that—and pushing your comfort zone, in my mind, is taking risks. And it’s not like, yeah, I’m gonna jump off a cliff and hope, you know, I have my parachute. It’s really calculated risks that you’re trying to take. And I think what that does is, it really builds confidence that, Hey, I can do it, I can talk to Leslie on TV, and everything was good, and I didn’t die. And all those culmination of experiences, I think, gives you the confidence to move forward and do other things in the future. It gave me the confidence to move from one industry to another industry, it gave me the confidence to take risks that, you know, others may not have taken, and know that it’s not gonna be the end of the world if it fails, because I’m building a skillset that I can then transfer to something else.

 

Susan Yamada’s confidence has taken her from playing football in the streets of Kaneohe to leading tech companies during the dot-com boom. Even with her crazy work hours and success on the West Coast, she never lost sight of home. Susan Yamada, next, on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Susan Yamada, raised in Windward Oahu, was an accidental entrepreneur who did very well in the Silicon Valley dot-com industry. She was so successful that when she returned to Hawaii to raise her children, she didn’t ever have to work for pay again. Yet, she does. Today, Yamada is the executive director of PACE; that’s the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship within the Shilder College of Business at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She’s mentoring Hawaii’s future entrepreneurs. Yamada grew up in Kaneohe, where she realized at a young age that she loved to compete.

 

Kind of a Rockwell-ian childhood. You know, my dad had his own business selling plywood in town, in Kalihi. My mom was a schoolteacher, so she taught kindergarten at Heeia Elementary School. And I have two brothers; one older than me, two years, and one younger than I am.

 

So, you’re the only girl, and you’re the middle child.

 

Yes.

 

Does that say anything about you?

 

Hm … that’s a good question. I think it says a lot about me in that I grew up playing more baseball than with dolls. I remember one Christmas I got a hairdryer, and that turned into a nice little pistol.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

So, yeah.

 

And you’re athletic.

 

I love athletics. Growing up, we played in the neighborhood, right? Baseball, football, with all the neighborhood kids. So, yeah, I love sports.

 

Did you play in the street?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

In the street.

 

And the cars had to wait a little bit ‘til you could get off the road?

 

Luckily, we lived on a dead end, but you know, every time the ball went into, like, the mean neighbor’s house, you know, everybody ran away.

[CHUCKLE]

 

Whoever hit the ball into that yard had to go get it; right? So, it was just kinda like that. Okay; pass the telephone pole, that’s a touchdown. Okay. And then, this manhole cover, that’s home plate. So, it was really cool.

 

That’s interesting that you were an athlete and a tomboy. So, does that mean competition might have been easier for you when you hit the business world? ‘Cause in those days, women were still …

 

Yeah; that’s interesting.

 

–treated differently.

 

I think my competitiveness helped me. I don’t like to lose. You know, I like to set my goals and achieve them. But I think when I set out on my business career, that really wasn’t kind of foremost in my mind.

 

What was high school like for you? I mean, public high school in Hawaii.

 

Yeah.

 

Everyone has fond memories, or maybe not so fond.

 

Yeah; it was a lot of fun. You know, I went to public schools all the way up to Castle. And so, some kids you knew, and then you know more kids as you go to King. And that’s when, I don’t know, there’s like four or five elementary schools in the Kaneohe area that all matriculate to King Intermediate. And so, I got to know a lot more friends at King Intermediate, and then we all went up to Castle. And you know, I just met a ton of friends, and we remain friends to this day. You know, every Christmas, we have a gathering and we get together, and we just laugh and laugh.

 

Did your parents explicitly tell you about life? Did they give you advice, or was it leading by example?

 

[CHUCKLE] Yeah; well, career-wise anyway, my mom gave me advice. And she said, Be a schoolteacher, because schoolteachers, you get the summer off, all the holidays, when your kids are off you’ll be off too. So from that point, I wasn’t a really good listener. But, you know, I think the fundamental values that they exhibited themselves about being hardworking, being honest, being a contributing member of society; they totally led by example. And I feel that that’s the foundation for my life. And on that, you grow, you know, who you are, what you become, and things like that.

 

Your father owned his own business, and then sold it; right?

 

Yes. Yeah; so, that was great, because growing up in elementary school, he had his own business, and on weekends, he’d let one or two of us come over to his—and it was a pretty small place. And you know, we’d just kinda be messing around. And he had uh, a plywood business as well as some hardware supplies. And so, all the scrap wood, we’d just be building stuff, and sometimes he’d tell us to clean out the hardware area, so we’d do that. All so we could have like, this Boulevard Saimin plate lunch for lunch. And that was like, the best Saturday, was to be able to go with Dad to work.

 

When you were raised, I imagine your parents really weren’t giving you water bottles and …

 

Oh, we drank from the hose.

 

–and helicoptering.

 

We drank from the hose. [CHUCKLE]

 

And telling you, Don’t come back ‘til—I bet you they said, Don’t come back ‘til dusk, or …

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

How did you raise you kids? Differently than that?

 

You know, it’s very different, and it’s unfortunate, really. When I was growing up, it was like, you know, you had something to eat for breakfast, you were out, you were playing all day. When you got hungry, you know, you came home, you made yourself a sandwich, you went back out again, and you had to come home when you saw Dad’s car coming down the road, because you’re either gonna have to do yardwork, or dinner’s gonna be ready soon. And so, we had so much freedom. You know, we’d get on our bikes, we’d ride down to the river, catch fifty fish, put ‘em all in an aquarium and try to name ‘em all. I mean, it’s crazy; right? And you know, I’m sad for my kids that they couldn’t have that level of freedom at that young age anymore.

 

Well, why couldn’t they?

 

You know, I don’t know how much is reality and how much is perception in parenting at this point, where you know, even if my kids, when they were in elementary school were playing in the front yard, I felt like I had to be out in front

 

watching. If there’s even a miniscule chance that your kid’s gonna get abducted, then of course, you’re gonna be out front and you’re gonna be watching. But it’s just a different world. And because, you know, our neighborhood wasn’t full of kids, you know, you would have to have play dates, you would have to invite kids over to play with them. And you know, when you were talking about helicopter parents, you know, I don’t think I am one. But, you are, when your kids are young, kind of setting their life up. It’s less creative for them, I think, at this point. You know, that’s where I think some of the old charm, I guess, of Hawaii is being lost. And I was just commenting to my friends; I go, I know I’m getting old because I’m grumbling a lot now about how it used to be and how it is now, and how it’s, you know, losing some of that ohana, that inclusive community sometimes.

 

After Susan Yamada earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she went into the hotel industry. Eventually, her love of the ocean led her to greater opportunities.

 

I learned some interesting things that they don’t teach you at the Travel Industry Management School. And that’s when you work at a hotel chain, if you want to move up, many times you have to transfer out of one hotel into another. And at the time, I know it’s hard to believe, but there was just one Marriott in the State, and that was on Maui. That was the first Marriott that they built. And so, I was there, and then I found out I would have to travel. So, my big goal in life after the university was to move to Maui.

 

Why?

 

Because my cousins were there, and I used to spend all my summers there, and I just loved the lifestyle there; it’s just so laid back. But I found that, you know, being single and in my twenties, after about two and a half years, it was just a really small place. And so, it was time for my promotion, or I was up for promotion, and so, they asked if I wanted to either go to, I think it was Torrance or Santa Clara. So, I got out the map, because to that point I had been out of state once. And I went on my second trip right before I moved, but I knew nothing; right? So, I looked to see what the proximity of those two areas was to the beach. So …

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Santa Clara looked much closer. So, I chose Santa Clara. And little did I know that Santa Clara is Silicon Valley. So, that was … a good move on my part, but I can’t say that I planned it.

 

And you had the beach.

 

Yeah.

 

But, you know, you’re going there to work in the hotel industry, not to work in Silicon Valley.

 

Yes; uh-huh. And so, that’s what I thought; it was just a next step, I would go there, spend two years there, and then I would come back home. And so, I got there, and … and this is why I feel a lot of local kids, they should really get out, because it’s such a big world. You know, I thought tourism; hey, being from Hawaii, wanting to stay in Hawaii, that’s where my career opportunities were gonna be. And when I got to Silicon Valley, it was just like, Oh, my gosh. It was just … you know, drinking from a fire hose, there were so many different opportunities. So, I went, I got my MBA after two and a years at the Santa Clara Marriott. And then, I got into the technology industry.

 

Susan Yamada left the hotel industry to pursue work that would give her experience in running a business. She got an opportunity to test her skills when she was offered a job at Upside Magazine, a publication that was on the cutting edge of the digital revolution, and groundbreaking in its time.

 

What did you do in those years between your MBA and that?

 

Okay; so I was a research analyst for the technology industry for a couple years, and I worked in a head injury rehab organization, doing the business side of it. My father-in-law had a contact with a magazine publisher, and he said, I’ve got a failing magazine that needs to get turned around, and I’m looking for somebody to run it. And so, I think maybe it was four years out of my MBA, my father-in-law introduced me to this guy. And that’s how I got my first opportunity to run a company. And it was a failing company.

 

What was that transition like?

 

The one thing that I learned is, business is business, no matter what you’re hawking. So whether you’re in the hotel business, or whether—you know, I was a consultant soon after researcher and analyst, you know, you have a product and you need to sell it. And so, that, I think, was one of the first lessons that I had of, Okay, how do you make money? You know, what is my business, and how do you make money.

So, you go from head injuries and research and analysis to magazine publishing.

 

Yes.

 

Of course, that is in the middle of, at that time, a digital revolution.

 

Right. So, the internet was just starting to come out and be a big player. And so, the magazine that we had—and again, it’s hard to believe, but there was no wired, when you picked up Business Week, they didn’t have an extensive editorial about the technology industry. Technology industry was just starting to come out. The PC was just kinda transforming all kinds of things. We were trying to figure out all the different things PCs could do. So, our magazine really focused on those sorts of needs to a higher level audience. So, they were executives within the technology industry that wanted to know what other people were doing, because the future of technology was still unlimited.

 

So, did that put you in touch with the titans of technology?

 

Yeah; yeah. So, every month, we would have an interview with one of the leaders in the technology industry, whether it was Bill Gates, or Larry Ellison. It was just an incredible time. And I’m not sure it would be so easy to get those interviews today. But during that time, you know … most definitely.

 

And did you think that was your calling, magazines?

 

I loved it. Yeah. It wasn’t so much magazines as it was I loved the fact that you never knew if you were gonna make payroll.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

I know; I know. And people were like, That would drive me nuts. And you know, obviously, it wasn’t just like wishing. You actually put together a plan and start implementing the plan. But when things start working, it’s so exciting to see that.

 

Susan Yamada was the publisher of Upside Magazine for five and a half years. During that time, the magazine became profitable, and the connections she made there opened doors to new opportunities in the digital revolution.

 

That’s when the internet was starting to take off. And that was a super-exciting time. It was like the second coming of the Gold Rush in California, because there was so much excitement in the Bay Area. People were flocking to the Bay Area to take part in, you know, the internet mania. You know, if you graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree and you were halfway decent, you were making six figures already. It took me all my career to that point, to get up to that point. And here these kids are, and just because there was such a shortage

 

of talent, they were making incredible money; there was so much money going around in the Bay Area at that time.

 

And so, what did you do? What was your next step?

 

I joined an internet startup company called Trustee. And if you look at a lot of the major websites now, they all have privacy statements, and many of them have a Trustee seal. And it was an interesting time, because the internet was so new, privacy was an issue. Privacy of your personal information; your name, your address, your phone number. Because the internet is a global marketplace, and unlike the United States, the European union considers your personal information yours. In the United States, any information you give, that’s a database for somebody to sell. And we used to sell that database extensively when I was at Upside. Now, we’re dealing with the fact of having to train U.S. websites that they have to state what they’re using that information they’re collecting it for, and they have to do it.

 

Your company came up with that limitation?

 

Yeah; right.

 

And Trustee is still working?

 

Still there; yeah. Still operational? Wow. So, what happened to your time there? Because

 

clearly, you don’t do that anymore.

 

You know, the first time a big site came in, like the first time Yahoo said they were gonna use our seal, you know, the crowd goes wild; right? But, you know, when Microsoft comes in, it’s like, Mm, all right. Then, when, you know, Netscape was really big at that time came in, it’s just so anticlimactic already. It’s like you were expecting it to happen. And I don’t know; for me, it just kinda gets boring, really. So … I just find eighteen to twenty-four months, it’s time to move on.

 

Now, it seems to me that at that time, there were very few women, probably very few Asian women.

 

M-hm.

 

Very few Asians, period.

 

Yeah.

 

What was that like for you?

 

My married name was Scott, so it was Susan Scott. And when I would make an appointment to see people, they were expecting Susan Scott; right? And so, I think first impressions are very important. And I think if I went in on the mainland as Susan Yamada, there would be a ton of stereotypes. I don’t know; I think it’s just human nature. But right in that little time when they were like, looking around in the waiting room for this Susan—

 

Where’s the blond?

 

Yeah.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

That’s exactly right. A tall, statuesque blond woman; right? Isn’t that what you would think? And so, right in that moment of confusion, it was my time to make a good impression. So, you know, that’s when I would just be, you know, very forthright and go, Hi, I’m, you know, Susan, and just try and break any stereotype they may have had about me already. So, I use that as one specific example. But the one thing that I felt about the technology industry is, for the most part, it’s gender-neutral. It’s like, What can you help me with? And if you have the skillsets, I never felt like gender was a big, big issue.

 

But you did have to get in the door.

 

Totally. Yeah.

 

Susan Yamada moved back to Hawaii in 2001. She had made enough money to retire, and she spent her time raising her children and volunteering in the community. Over time, plans changed, and in 2008, Yamada started working part-time at the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship in the Shidler College of Business at the UH. That turned into a fulltime role.

 

The job with Shidler, I mean, it’s not something I have to do, but it’s something that I’ve come to love to do. And part of it is a bigger issue of being able to give back to Hawaii. I mean, it’s been fantastic for me, it’s where my roots are, I love it here. The seventeen years I was in Silicon Valley, you know, my main purpose was a goal that took me too long to attain, ‘cause as I told you before, it was just supposed to be two years that I was up there, was to come back. Because this is my home. And so, having the opportunity to be able to give

 

back to my community through the university, because I’m very passionate about education, it’s an honor for me to do that. So, yeah; I could be messing around and playing golf all day, but I don’t think I’d get the same level of fulfillment.

 

In your opinion, what are the things that drive entrepreneurs? I mean, are they very different, and you can’t generalize, or do they tend to be hardwired in a certain way?

 

I think there are certain characteristics that make a successful entrepreneur. Number one is, they have to have a vision and drive. And they can’t be easily dissuaded. You know, so you talk about entrepreneurship and passion a lot. And I think a big part of that is passion; it is very important. You need to be able to really believe that what you’re providing will be a significant improvement to your life, whoever your buyer is. And the first year, the first two years, the first five years, it’s very, very difficult, and you have to work really hard. So, I think the work ethic and passion are two things that we always look for. And then, there’s the coach-ability stand point.

 

It seems like such a tough deal, where an entrepreneur has to be able to be able to persevere, despite rejection and hard times, and yet, has to know when they’re hearing advice that they really should take and leave it, do something else.

 

Exactly. I mean, it is not easy, for sure. But it is something that almost every single startup will go through at some point.

 

Have you ever been wrong in saying, That’s not gonna work, don’t do it?

 

Rarely do I say that. Because, you know what? If I was that smart, I would be … I don’t know, sitting on a beach right now; right? ‘Cause you never know; right?

 

So, what do you say?

 

If they wanted to open a restaurant, for example, serving hamburgers in Waikiki, the first question I would ask is, How are you different from these ten other competitors that are—

 

So, you ask probing questions so that they make their own conclusions.

 

Now, if you are different, right, if you’re a Korean style taco truck, for example, which is wildly successful in L.A., okay, maybe that’s enough of a difference; right? If you have a social media campaign … I need to see different. I can’t see the same. Because if you’re copying the same thing, it’s very, very, very tough. A goal is hard work. And if you’re easily dissuaded from your idea, or you don’t have that passion, or perseverance, not gonna happen.

 

And how do people even support themselves for four or five ideas, while they’re just refining this?

 

Yeah. So, that’s what I tell my students. I go, If you ever have entrepreneurial aspirations, do it now. You don’t have kids, you don’t have to pay, you know, for tuitions, you don’t have to pay a mortgage or your car loan. I said, You have the least to lose right now, so do it now.

 

But whoever doesn’t have that when they’re an adult?

 

And that’s where it gets much harder. But it is possible. So, you know, I was adult when I started my business. So it’s possible; you can do it. You just have to be able to manage what resources you have.

 

And yet, Susan Yamada credits her time away from Hawaii for challenging her to grow in ways that she may not have if she’d stayed home.

 

If people could have seen you in Silicon Valley at the time they were working at their jobs in Honolulu, would you have had a markedly different style from your style now?

 

I think I’m more forward, and I’m less concerned about what people think about what I say. So, maybe less filter. And I think part of that has to do with, you know, where I am today or who I am today, and not being overly concerned about, am I gonna get a promotion, or what are people gonna think about me. I mean, they can think whatever they want to think, actually. It’s just who I am, it’s what my opinion is. And we can agree to disagree, and I’m perfectly happy with that. I don’t have to win an argument. So, I think, you know, it has changed me. I think it’s given me more confidence to say what I want to say, and just be who I am, and not try to be someone that someone else wants me to be.

 

Do you recall being that way before?

 

I think when you’re younger, you’re a lot more insecure. And so, you know, you take everything to heart, and maybe you create self-perception issues that might not even be there. But I think the great thing about getting older is … who cares?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You know,I am who I am, and you know, I try to be a good person. And so,I try and let that guide me. I have mentors for everything; right? For how do I raise my kids, to you know, business mentors, to you know, my friends from high school; right? They all form this very informal kitchen cabinet, if you will. And so that I can call them and share different things with them, and get feedback.

 

And do they always agree?

 

I have mentors for everything; right? For how do I raise my kids, to you know, business mentors, to you know, my friends from high school; right? They all form this very informal kitchen cabinet, if you will. And so that I can call them and share different things with them, and get feedback.

 

And do they always agree?

 

Who?

 

Your friends in the kitchen cabinet.

 

Oh, I don’t want them to agree with me.

 

You just want to hear some … how you would handle this, and then you decide what you do.

 

Because I don’t want them to tell me what to do. I want them to give me their opinion. Because they don’t what specifically I’m going through. And so, you take their opinion, and you make your own decision based on that.

 

But you never said formally to any of them, Would you be willing to be part of my kitchen cabinet?

 

No; no.

 

How did that evolve?

 

I just make them. [LAUGHTER] What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?

 

Professionally, the magazine. So, we brought in the chairman of the board, the guy who hired me. He eventually wanted the job back after it was profitable. And so, I did conferences; that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to get back into a startup routine. And we weren’t really quite seeing eye-to-eye on things, and I came home from a conference, and there was an envelope on my front door. And it was a termination letter. And so, it’s like, he didn’t even have the courtesy to call me. You know, it was something he gave me, something that wasn’t successful, I was able to turn it around. And I was like, How can this happen? How can the board allow something like that to happen? So, that professionally was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me.

 

Didn’t the magazine later go into bankruptcy?

 

Mm.

 

How long after that?

 

I think they expanded too quickly into the internet, and they put too many resources there, and they were under-capitalized, and so it didn’t work out. So, I think within the three years after that, it was pretty much on the ropes and down.

 

But that is quite the rejection, isn’t it? Especially after you’d put so much into it.

 

Yeah. After five years into it; right? And I didn’t think it was very well done, either.

 

Since you’ve headed PACE, what’s the best thing that’s come out of it?

 

I don’t think it would be a specific business idea. It’s the students that come out of there. You know, I see them going in, and I see them experiencing the joy of discovery, of the aha moments like, Ah, I get it; okay, I’ve gotta do this and this. And you know, they’re students; they’re so eager to please, they really want to do a good job. And when I see them working hard, when I see things coming together for them, I’m super-excited for them. Because what I think I’m doing is, I’m teaching them life lessons.

 

Susan Yamada is inspiring and challenging new generations of entrepreneurs through her passion and perseverance, qualities that continue to guide her own life. Mahalo to Susan Yamada of Honolulu for her enthusiasm and her commitment to serving our community. And mahalo to you for joining. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Do you see yourself making another change in the future?

 

Yeah; I definitely do. My son is in ninth grade now, and I’ve always said that— and this should be no shock to my boss, that once my son is into college, then I think that opens up a whole ‘nother chapter in my life as far as, what do I do next.

[END]

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
What is the Future for Hawai‘i’s Largest Power Utility?

 

A multi-billion dollar deal merging Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries with Florida energy company NextEra Energy is on the table. NextEra Energy says it will provide a more affordable clean energy future for Hawai‘i, but opponents have concerns over how a merger might impact consumers and Hawai‘i’s renewable energy goals. The pending deal has also prompted some to examine the merits of other available options, such as utility cooperatives or county-run utilities.

 

Your questions and comments are welcome via phone, email and via Twitter during the Live Broadcast.

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Mark Dunkerley

 

Mark Dunkerley is most happy when he’s flying an airplane – upside down. The Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO grew up with aviation fuel in his blood, flying unaccompanied between boarding school in London and his parent’s home in Washington D.C., and eventually earned a degree in Air Transport Economics. Since 2002, Dunkerley has been at the helm of Hawaiian Airlines. And his passion for flying upside down‌ That kicks in when Dunkerley is piloting his personal aerobatic aircraft.

 

Mark Dunkerley Audio

 

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Transcript

 

When you sort of deconstruct what we do, airlines fly the same types of aircraft, we put people in the same types of seat, we fly between the same two airports on a given route. So, the scope to really differentiate ourselves from the next guy is actually quite limited. Every airline, however, has to find some way of differentiating itself. And at Hawaiian Airlines, what we’ve chosen is to say, you know, We want to capture the sense of hospitality and all of the wonderful, wonderful cultural attributes of Hawaii, which people so appreciate, and we want to bring that forward to the customer experience. And so far—and I cannot guarantee it’ll always be the case, but so far, we’ve felt that the cost of providing the food—and it is very costly, it’s tens of millions of dollars a year, really sets up a customer experience that helps make us fundamentally different than our competitors.

 

Mark Dunkerley joined the senior management team at Hawaiian Airlines in 2002, three months before the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Today, under his leadership, Hawaiian Airlines is turning a profit. Mark Dunkerley, next on Long Story Short.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mark Dunkerley, chief executive officer of Hawaiian Airlines, developed his love of aviation at a very young age. His unconventional childhood involved traveling, by himself, on airlines that often took him halfway around the world.

 

Life began for me in Bogota, Colombia, and the child of two economists. Both my mother and my father were economists specializing in the developing world. And they spent the balance of their careers as civil servants working either for different governments, or they had a stint teaching for a little while, and then, um, my father settled in an international organization, World Bank, in Washington, D.C. looking after the urban poor around the world.

 

And do you have siblings?

 

I have two siblings. I have a younger brother and an older half-sister.

 

You spent most of your formative years in boarding schools.

 

Given the nature of my parents’ jobs, we would typically move every couple of years from one country to another. I lived in Ghana in Africa, we spent a little stint of time in Boston, and also in the U.K. during this period of time. And when my father took a job in Washington, D.C., the expectation was that that would probably only last a couple of years, and we’d be off somewhere else. So, they were keen that I should be part of a single education system. And so, I was sent away to boarding school in England on the basis that no matter where we lived, I would be part of the same system, same schooling, and so on. Of course, no sooner had they done that, then they ended up settling in Washington, D.C. essentially for good. But yes, from a very young age, I think I was seven years old at the time, I was packed off to boarding school in England. And it was six hundred years old, and we led this sort of Dickens, slash, Harry Potter type life. No heating.

 

Did you really? No heating?

 

Oh, yeah. I mean, we lived in the original buildings. And to this day, actually, usually when people ask about that, you know, they come in with this view that, Ah, I mean, how wonderful would it be to live in a building that’s six hundred years old. And I can tell you, it’s miserable. You know, we didn’t have bathtubs; we had agricultural tubs. You had to pull up to the taps and fill with hot and cold water, and then you hopped in them. It was like Lee Marvin, you know.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

It’s just hard to imagine, but true. And we lived in these dorm rooms with not only no heating, but because the buildings were so old, none of the windows were double-glazed at all. And so, everybody went to bed at night with a hot water bottle in the winter.

 

Seven is so young to be packed off, as you described it.

 

Yeah, it is. And you know, the funny thing is, as a child, your sense of normalcy is defined by the circumstances in which you’re living. Because you don’t have much of a sense of the broader world perspective. So, I didn’t think it was particularly odd.

 

Do you remember your parents dropping you off? Was that a fateful day, or not anything remarkable?

 

Yeah; I actually remember it pretty clearly. I remember being told that I was going to be going to a boarding school. And it didn’t sort of compute at the time. I then have a recollection of going to school and climbing on the airplane with my mother, and driving up and being introduced to the school. And again, it was sort of unreal. The thing I remember perhaps best from that period of time was traveling alone. I mean, I was seven, eight years old, and you know, lugging my trunk. This was in the days before luggage had wheels, and you know, catching trains, and buses to get to the airport to climb on a plane to fly back to Washington, D.C., and of course, reverse it.

 

You would do that by yourself? You didn’t have any companion?

 

Yeah; I did it by myself. And again, in the context of today’s world, that seems extraordinary. But we all did. I mean, there was a train, and as soon as I got on the train, there’d be some friends or some kids obviously from the U.K. who just lived a hundred miles away, and then there’d be other kids who just got off a plane from Hong Kong or from somewhere else. Latin America, for example, all going to school. And it didn’t occur to us to think of it as being unusual or odd.

 

Well, that’s the train. What about the plane?

 

So, in the plane, yeah, we’d travel by ourselves. And this is where I think I got an early inkling that I would end up in aviation. Because these were very glamorous days to be traveling. You know, the idiom was coined, the Jet Set. You don’t hear people talk about that today. But at the time, you know, it was pretty unusual to see a little kid by themselves on an airplane. And of course, I was extremely well looked after on the airplane. I mean, there was um, no lack of attention and so on, and it sort of kindled some of the interest that I’ve had in aviation and travel, which has stayed with me to this day.

 

So, it was exciting and safe. People taking care of you on the plane.

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Defying gravity.

 

Yeah. I remember my first ride on a 747. I mean, how good was that? You’ve got this enormous, enormous airplane. And I was very fortunate to have this experience at the time when very few people traveled. And I knew it, and I appreciated it even that age, hard, candidly, though it was to be separated from home the way that I was.

 

When you look back, do you wonder why your parents did that? Or was that what people did at the time, especially in their field?

 

Well, my parents were absolutely resolute that they could likely only leave us the quality of the education that we had, and that was always the plan. So, I think whatever their personal feelings, getting a good education was absolutely at the top of their list, and they were prepared to make sacrifices themselves. In fact, sacrifices on my behalf, frankly, to make sure that that took place.

 

How often did you see them?

 

So, I would see them three times a year. I would be back for a couple of months in the summer, and then sort of three weeks in spring, and three weeks over Christmas. And you know, everybody I went to school with was essentially in the same boat, and so it didn’t strike us as being quite so unusual as it appears today.

 

And what was life at boarding school like when you were in your grammar school years? I mean, did you get a lot of attention from staff?

 

Well, you know it was … so, if I really focus through that period and into my high school years, um, th—these boarding schools are interesting in somewhat odd places. The quality of the education is very high; very high. And you know, it’s been the great asset that my parents have bequeathed me. There’s no question about that. You have very few adults supervising a lot of kids. So, some things have stayed with me ever since. I mean, the way they stopped the student body from burning the place down, which they would do, unquestionably, if left to their own devices is, you know, they made sure that you’re busy from dawn from dusk.

 

With what? With schoolwork?

 

Oh, uh, schoolwork.

 

Athletics?

 

There was lots of sports, lots of schoolwork, you’ve got to clean the place. There were all kinds of sort of chores and things that you have to do. And it’s by keeping you occupied essentially all of the time is how they sort of essentially controlled the uncontrollable, you know, great sort of mob of kids. So, you know, that’s one of the things that I took away. At the same time, you know, without very many adults around, you develop the ability to look after yourself. There aren’t any corners you can hide.

 

You don’t wait for somebody to come kiss your boo-boo, kind of thing.

 

Yeah; correct. And you know, children in that collective environment can be rather cruel to one another. And of course, they get over it a day or two later, and then alliances change. The Lord of the Flies is a famous book, which felt very biographical, frankly, from the way that things were. So, to survive and prosper in a boarding school, you learn some life lessons. You become quite self-reliant at a very, very, very early age. You don’t have much adult sympathy available to you. In that sense, it’s a school of hard knocks. And it’s sort of an interesting contrast, because I was extremely fortunate to get a great education at one of the most famous English boarding schools that’s out there, and so, I’m amongst a very privileged few. At the same time, it was a school of hard knocks.

 

Mark Dunkerley says he didn’t have any particular ambitions when he was kid, and instead was satisfied with just getting by. It wasn’t until he nearly finished his education and entered what he calls the real world that his many years at boarding school started to pay off.

 

So, you’re a kid, and you’re jet-setting, and meeting your parents three times a year for summers and vacations. And what was your plan? I mean, you knew you loved aviation, but did you have grand plans as a kid?

 

You know, I really didn’t. In fact, I was a very sort of poor student. I mean, notwithstanding the fact that I had always managed to sort of scrape into some pretty good schools always by the skin of my teeth, once at those schools, I then set about doing as little as I possibly could.

 

So, you liked to be busy, but you didn’t like to get ahead in your schoolwork?

 

Yeah; correct. I mean, I struggled to um, keep interested in, you know, the subject matter. And I was considered a sort minor jock at school. I mean, in the sports that I cared about, I was typically on the school team. But I was never the star, never somebody that people would be talking about um, on Saturday afternoon after the game was over. So, I had a lot of interest in in sports, but I was not particularly focused or driven. And it was, I think, a real surprise to people who knew me, when in my twenties, I became considerably more focused than I am. Because I think up to that stage [CHUCKLE], I think they probably would have said that I seemed largely without direction and focus. Being at a boarding school makes you in some respects quite mature, because you have to deal with some very complicated human interactions. Because as I mentioned, you don’t benefit from parental guidance and so on, so you’ve gotta learn pretty quickly. In some senses, I think was quite mature, but in a range of other senses, I wasn’t particularly mature at all.

 

You went to the London School of Economics, and then what happened, then?

 

So, I was at London School of Economics, and I went LSE largely because it was not a campus university; it was a university in the middle of London. And during that period of time, I wasn’t that focused on work. I was focused on having a pretty good time in London, and I enjoyed that. Coming to the end of my time at LSE, my game plan, such as it existed, was to go and get a PhD in economics and follow in my parents’ footsteps in that area. But I really felt that, you know, four or five more years, or given my attributes as a student, perhaps eight, nine, ten more years as a student , you know, it didn’t seem like such a good alternative. And I’d had this interest in aviation, and there was a master’s program available in the economics of air transportation, and I won a scholarship, so I took that. It was a one and a half year master’s program, so I went and studied at Cranfield. And it was really then that I felt that I sort of found my calling and wanted to be in aviation.

 

Finally, things just came together for you?

 

Yeah; they did. There was something about the real world that I found sort of stimulating and appealing. And you know, my background is sort of interesting inasmuch as it’s very different. But as a consequence of that, I didn’t naturally fit in, in any environment. I’ve never in my life been part of any sense of a majority, you know, whether it was at school. Vacation time, I went to the United States, and so I didn’t share and, you know, I didn’t see what movie was on, on Christmas Day in the U.K., because I was in the U.S. And so, in all kinds of kind of little ways, my background was always sort of defined by being sort of in the minority. And not to say I’ve ever been disadvantaged by that, because I clearly have not. It wasn’t really ‘til I got into the workplace where the very things that defined me in that way, I think, were an asset as opposed to a liability.

 

You were an outlier who could look at situations with detachment. And your comment about the real world, I sense maybe the net was gone, you were on the rope without a net, and that was more exciting.

 

Yeah. No, has been, you know, much more exciting, and I’ve enjoyed that. And when I look in the professional workplace, I’m always struck by how difficult a time people have—not all people, obviously, but many people have in making decisions. And making decisions based part on analysis, but never with perfect information, and largely based on the accumulation of one’s personal experience is something I’ve always felt comfortable with. That’s not something that keeps me awake at night.

 

Do you think that came from having to negotiate these unfamiliar situations throughout your school life, without your parents around?

 

Yeah; I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I’ve always had to kind of work my way through from first principles. And it’s that aspect of life that I enjoy, and I still find very stimulating.

 

Mark Dunkerley earned a Master of Science degree in air transport economics, and started his career in aviation. He advanced quickly and soon made his way into senior management positions at several different airline companies before moving to Hawaii to work for Hawaiian Airlines.

 

Now, based on your track record in airlines, you know, you came here, and everyone trumpeted you as a turnaround expert. And amazingly, you led a transformation at Hawaiian Airlines, which so many people thought could not be done. And I personally was surprised that you stayed after bringing the airline to very good financial health. But I suspect you’ve stayed because it’s never gonna be easy, and you like that.

 

Yeah; I think you’re exactly right. First of all, you know, people are very generous, and they give me great accolades for the transformation that Hawaiian has enjoyed. But nobody should be under any illusion; this is the hard work of everybody in our company, and you know, it’s really uh, my great privilege and benefit to be part of this company, certainly not the other way around. But you know, this is a tough business. It’s competitive every day, we’re a tiny airline in a land of giants. We are one-twentieth the size of our major competitors. And so, we are on our toes, and that challenge in a sense gives me the same enjoyment and the same thrill that being in the middle of a turnaround does. This is a fascinating business. It’s exciting, there’s a new challenge every day, there’s never a dull moment. As a manager in it, you’ve got to balance a sense of the strategic direction with being prepared to make very quick decisions day-to-day to protect your position or to improve it. And it’s full-on exercise. I’m not a golfer, but there’s not much time for taking an afternoon off to play golf. People in our business work very, very hard. And that either stimulates you and you find it really interesting, in which case there’s no business like it, or it doesn’t, in which case it’s the wrong business for you.

 

Based on what you learned at boarding school, has any of that stayed with you? For example, do you keep yourself busy all the time, and do you also keep your own counsel and not look for other people to guide you?

 

Yes; I keep busy all the time, and it’s natural to me. I’m incapable of sitting on the beach for an afternoon. I mean, utterly incapable of doing so. So, that is a life lesson that has stayed with me to this very day. And left to my own devices, I do tend to keep my own counsel, and you know, have absorbed that aspect from growing up. Where that has changed is my wife, who’s from Latin America, has the opposite temperament to mine, and she has taught me a great deal. I mean, I’m a much better and more rounded person for having come to see and recognize that there’s a different strategy for succeeding as a human being to my own, and that’s helped me understand so much.

 

How does her approach work for you?

 

She is a much more intuitive person and has much better sense of the limitations of analytical thought and logic, and where intuition and emotion take over. And it has been a valuable, interesting lesson for me in my life to see that, to appreciate that, and it’s made me a far more effective uh, adult as a consequence.

 

Bringing the emotional intelligence in.

 

Yeah; yeah. Yeah.

 

And discernment.

 

Yeah; absolutely. And without that influence, I think I would be much less able to understand the sort of broad dimensions and the three-dimensional nature of people and society, and situations.

 

What do you do in your spare time, and what counts as relaxation?

 

In the day of emails, and texts, and so on, there really never is a day that is truly ever away from what’s going on. But the things that I enjoy doing is, I enjoy travel, to this day. My wife and I enjoy going places. I’m particularly fond of the African continent, and India, and Latin America as well. So, when we can get away and do that, which isn’t very often, we do that. I have taken up again fly fishing, which is the one pastime I shared with my father, which after I started work, I didn’t get to do for about thirty years. But I started up about five years ago. And an afternoon on the stream remains to this day probably the easiest way to clear my mind.

 

And how much do you personally identify with Hawaiian values, Hawaiian culture?

 

You know, really, it’s better for other people to judge that than me, myself. I would like to think that they would say a great deal. I have lived in many, many different places, and as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been used to really being a minority in the context of where I am. It has made me, I think, more open and more sensitive, perhaps, to other cultures and other values than other people might be. And as I’ve looked around, and I’ve had the luxury, frankly, of being able to pick and choose those attributes that I think resonate with me, I find myself over, and over, and over coming back to what terrific values Hawaii stands for, and how much therefore I feel comfortable here. I’ve lived in Hawaii now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. Which is, you know, pretty extraordinary.

 

From being a very young jet-setter, to piloting planes himself, to his career as an airline leader, flying has defined Mark Dunkerley’s life. Mahalo to Mark Dunkerley of Honolulu for sharing his life stories with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

And then, you do something pretty crazy, which is acrobatic flying.

 

Yeah; that’s been a really important part of my life. You know, in graduate school, I saved up, and I learned how to fly. And in my early professional days, I would go out, rent an airplane about once a month just to keep current. And I enjoyed doing that. But then, somebody said, Hey, have you ever flown an aerobatic airplane? And I was game to try it. By the time we came down, I wanted to learn how to do this, and so on. And that started about a decade- long time when I got into competition flying, and I flew all kinds of aerobatic contests, domestic and international ones. And it was kind of a defining hobby for me. And even when I moved to Hawaii and stopped competing, because there are no contests here and so on, I continue to do it. I’m never quite as happy as I am flying an airplane upside-down.

 

[END]

 

 

Thankful for a Beloved Feathered Friend

 

Leslie Wilcox, President and CEO of PBS Hawaii

You might think that Big Bird would make himself scarce at Thanksgiving time. After all, he could be mistaken for a holiday feast!

 

However, it was on a Thanksgiving Day that Big Bird was front and center in one of the most powerful programs that the groundbreaking series Sesame Street has ever produced.

 

The year was 1983. The broadcast aired during the first week of a new Sesame Street season–on the holiday, so that parents were home with their children to discuss the program.

 

Our tall feathered friend helped children to understand death and grief.

 

The episode was called “Farewell, Mr. Hooper.” Will Lee, the actor who played the gruff but good-hearted store owner, had died of a heart attack. They’d grown to love the grumpy grocer through his many chats with Big Bird, who came in to buy birdseed milkshakes.

Big Bird, Our Feathered Friend

The question for show producers was: How do we explain Mr. Hooper’s absence? Had he gone on vacation, never to be seen or mentioned again? Had he moved away?

 

No. Producers said they followed their instincts to “deal with [death] head-on.” First, they researched how preschoolers react to death. Experts advised them to stay away from how Mr. Hooper died and provide their young viewers with a sense of closure about Mr. Hooper’s passing.

 

Head writer Norman Stiles is quoted as saying: “We decided to say that while Mr. Hooper was not here anymore, we will always have that part of him that lives within the heart, that we have our love, and that it will always stay.”

 

The episode ends with a tearful Big Bird saying he’s going to miss Mr. Hooper and hanging Mr. Hooper’s picture near his nest. Then he leaves to see a new baby visiting the neighborhood.

 

Like many children’s shows scattered over the TV universe, Sesame Street entertains. And, like other PBS children’s shows, it has always done something deeper and lasting: it teaches.

 

So, at Thanksgiving, we at PBS Hawaii toast a dear, not-for-eating “big bird” who has brought new dimension to young lives!

 

Thankfully,

Leslie signature

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Mark Dunkerley

 

Mark Dunkerley is most happy when he’s flying an airplane — upside down. The Hawaiian Airlines President and CEO grew up with aviation fuel in his blood, flying unaccompanied between boarding school in London and his parent’s home in Washington D.C., and eventually earned a degree in Air Transport Economics. Since 2002, Dunkerley has been at the helm of Hawaiian Airlines. And his passion for flying upside down? That kicks in when Dunkerley is piloting his personal aerobatic aircraft.

 

TRANSCRIPT

When you sort of deconstruct what we do, airlines fly the same types of aircraft, we put people in the same types of seat, we fly between the same two airports on a given route. So, the scope to really differentiate ourselves from the next guy is actually quite limited. Every airline, however, has to find some way of differentiating itself. And at Hawaiian Airlines, what we’ve chosen is to say, you know, We want to capture the sense of hospitality and all of the wonderful, wonderful cultural attributes of Hawaii, which people so appreciate, and we want to bring that forward to the customer experience. And so far—and I cannot guarantee it’ll always be the case, but so far, we’ve felt that the cost of providing the food—and it is very costly, it’s tens of millions of dollars a year, really sets up a customer experience that helps make us fundamentally different than our competitors.

Mark Dunkerley joined the senior management team at Hawaiian Airlines in 2002, three months before the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Today, under his leadership, Hawaiian Airlines is turning a profit. Mark Dunkerley, next on Long Story Short.

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mark Dunkerley, chief executive officer of Hawaiian Airlines, developed his love of aviation at a very young age. His unconventional childhood involved traveling, by himself, on airlines that often took him halfway around the world.

Life began for me in Bogota, Colombia, and the child of two economists. Both my mother and my father were economists specializing in the developing world. And they spent the balance of their careers as civil servants working either for different governments, or they had a stint teaching for a little while, and then, um, my father settled in an international organization, World Bank, in Washington, D.C. looking after the urban poor around the world.

And do you have siblings?

I have two siblings. I have a younger brother and an older half-sister.

You spent most of your formative years in boarding schools.

Given the nature of my parents’ jobs, we would typically move every couple of years from one country to another. I lived in Ghana in Africa, we spent a little stint of time in Boston, and also in the U.K. during this period of time. And when my father took a job in Washington, D.C., the expectation was that that would probably only last a couple of years, and we’d be off somewhere else. So, they were keen that I should be part of a single education system. And so, I was sent away to boarding school in England on the basis that no matter where we lived, I would be part of the same system, same schooling, and so on. Of course, no sooner had they done that, then they ended up settling in Washington, D.C. essentially for good. But yes, from a very young age, I think I was seven years old at the time, I was packed off to boarding school in England. And it was six hundred years old, and we led this sort of Dickens, slash, Harry Potter type life. No heating.

Did you really? No heating?

Oh, yeah. I mean, we lived in the original buildings. And to this day, actually, usually when people ask about that, you know, they come in with this view that, Ah, I mean, how wonderful would it be to live in a building that’s six hundred years old. And I can tell you, it’s miserable. You know, we didn’t have bathtubs; we had agricultural tubs. You had to pull up to the taps and fill with hot and cold water, and then you hopped in them. It was like Lee Marvin, you know.

[CHUCKLE]

It’s just hard to imagine, but true. And we lived in these dorm rooms with not only no heating, but because the buildings were so old, none of the windows were double-glazed at all. And so, everybody went to bed at night with a hot water bottle in the winter.

Seven is so young to be packed off, as you described it.

Yeah, it is. And you know, the funny thing is, as a child, your sense of normalcy is defined by the circumstances in which you’re living. Because you don’t have much of a sense of the broader world perspective. So, I didn’t think it was particularly odd.

Do you remember your parents dropping you off? Was that a fateful day, or not anything remarkable?

Yeah; I actually remember it pretty clearly. I remember being told that I was going to be going to a boarding school. And it didn’t sort of compute at the time. I then have a recollection of going to school and climbing on the airplane with my mother, and driving up and being introduced to the school. And again, it was sort of unreal. The thing I remember perhaps best from that period of time was traveling alone. I mean, I was seven, eight years old, and you know, lugging my trunk. This was in the days before luggage had wheels, and you know, catching trains, and buses to get to the airport to climb on a plane to fly back to Washington, D.C., and of course, reverse it.

You would do that by yourself? You didn’t have any companion?

Yeah; I did it by myself. And again, in the context of today’s world, that seems extraordinary. But we all did. I mean, there was a train, and as soon as I got on the train, there’d be some friends or some kids obviously from the U.K. who just lived a hundred miles away, and then there’d be other kids who just got off a plane from Hong Kong or from somewhere else. Latin America, for example, all going to school. And it didn’t occur to us to think of it as being unusual or odd.

Well, that’s the train. What about the plane?

So, in the plane, yeah, we’d travel by ourselves. And this is where I think I got an early inkling that I would end up in aviation. Because these were very glamorous days to be traveling. You know, the idiom was coined, the Jet Set. You don’t hear people talk about that today. But at the time, you know, it was pretty unusual to see a little kid by themselves on an airplane. And of course, I was extremely well looked after on the airplane. I mean, there was um, no lack of attention and so on, and it sort of kindled some of the interest that I’ve had in aviation and travel, which has stayed with me to this day.

So, it was exciting and safe. People taking care of you on the plane.

Oh, yeah.

Defying gravity.

Yeah. I remember my first ride on a 747. I mean, how good was that? You’ve got this enormous, enormous airplane. And I was very fortunate to have this experience at the time when very few people traveled. And I knew it, and I

appreciated it even that age, hard, candidly, though it was to be separated from home the way that I was.

When you look back, do you wonder why your parents did that? Or was that what people did at the time, especially in their field?

Well, my parents were absolutely resolute that they could likely only leave us the quality of the education that we had, and that was always the plan. So, I think whatever their personal feelings, getting a good education was absolutely at the top of their list, and they were prepared to make sacrifices themselves. In fact, sacrifices on my behalf, frankly, to make sure that that took place.

How often did you see them?

So, I would see them three times a year. I would be back for a couple of months in the summer, and then sort of three weeks in spring, and three weeks over Christmas. And you know, everybody I went to school with was essentially in the same boat, and so it didn’t strike us as being quite so unusual as it appears today.

And what was life at boarding school like when you were in your grammar school years? I mean, did you get a lot of attention from staff?

Well, you know it was … so, if I really focus through that period and into my high school years, um, th—these boarding schools are interesting in somewhat odd places. The quality of the education is very high; very high. And you know, it’s been the great asset that my parents have bequeathed me. There’s no question about that. You have very few adults supervising a lot of kids. So, some things have stayed with me ever since. I mean, the way they stopped the student body from burning the place down, which they would do, unquestionably, if left to their own devices is, you know, they made sure that you’re busy from dawn from dusk.

With what? With schoolwork?

Oh, uh, schoolwork.

Athletics?

There was lots of sports, lots of schoolwork, you’ve got to clean the place. There were all kinds of sort of chores and things that you have to do. And it’s by keeping you occupied essentially all of the time is how they sort of essentially controlled the uncontrollable, you know, great sort of mob of kids. So, you

know, that’s one of the things that I took away. At the same time, you know, without very many adults around, you develop the ability to look after yourself. There aren’t any corners you can hide.

You don’t wait for somebody to come kiss your boo-boo, kind of thing.

Yeah; correct. And you know, children in that collective environment can be rather cruel to one another. And of course, they get over it a day or two later, and then alliances change. The Lord of the Flies is a famous book, which felt very biographical, frankly, from the way that things were. So, to survive and prosper in a boarding school, you learn some life lessons. You become quite self-reliant at a very, very, very early age. You don’t have much adult sympathy available to you. In that sense, it’s a school of hard knocks. And it’s sort of an interesting contrast, because I was extremely fortunate to get a great education at one of the most famous English boarding schools that’s out there, and so, I’m amongst a very privileged few. At the same time, it was a school of hard knocks.

Mark Dunkerley says he didn’t have any particular ambitions when he was kid, and instead was satisfied with just getting by. It wasn’t until he nearly finished his education and entered what he calls the real world that his many years at boarding school started to pay off.

So, you’re a kid, and you’re jet-setting, and meeting your parents three times a year for summers and vacations. And what was your plan? I mean, you knew you loved aviation, but did you have grand plans as a kid?

You know, I really didn’t. In fact, I was a very sort of poor student. I mean, notwithstanding the fact that I had always managed to sort of scrape into some pretty good schools always by the skin of my teeth, once at those schools, I then set about doing as little as I possibly could.

So, you liked to be busy, but you didn’t like to get ahead in your schoolwork?

Yeah; correct. I mean, I struggled to um, keep interested in, you know, the subject matter. And I was considered a sort minor jock at school. I mean, in the sports that I cared about, I was typically on the school team. But I was never the star, never somebody that people would be talking about um, on Saturday afternoon after the game was over. So, I had a lot of interest in in sports, but I was not particularly focused or driven. And it was, I think, a real surprise to people who knew me, when in my twenties, I became considerably more focused than I am. Because I think up to that stage [CHUCKLE], I think they probably would have said that I seemed largely without direction and focus.

Being at a boarding school makes you in some respects quite mature, because you have to deal with some very complicated human interactions. Because as I mentioned, you don’t benefit from parental guidance and so on, so you’ve gotta learn pretty quickly. In some senses, I think was quite mature, but in a range of other senses, I wasn’t particularly mature at all.

You went to the London School of Economics, and then what happened, then?

So, I was at London School of Economics, and I went LSE largely because it was not a campus university; it was a university in the middle of London. And during that period of time, I wasn’t that focused on work. I was focused on having a pretty good time in London, and I enjoyed that. Coming to the end of my time at LSE, my game plan, such as it existed, was to go and get a PhD in economics and follow in my parents’ footsteps in that area. But I really felt that, you know, four or five more years, or given my attributes as a student, perhaps eight, nine, ten more years as a student , you know, it didn’t seem like such a good alternative. And I’d had this interest in aviation, and there was a master’s program available in the economics of air transportation, and I won a scholarship, so I took that. It was a one and a half year master’s program, so I went and studied at Cranfield. And it was really then that I felt that I sort of found my calling and wanted to be in aviation.

Finally, things just came together for you?

Yeah; they did. There was something about the real world that I found sort of stimulating and appealing. And you know, my background is sort of interesting inasmuch as it’s very different. But as a consequence of that, I didn’t naturally fit in, in any environment. I’ve never in my life been part of any sense of a majority, you know, whether it was at school. Vacation time, I went to the United States, and so I didn’t share and, you know, I didn’t see what movie was on, on Christmas Day in the U.K., because I was in the U.S. And so, in all kinds of kind of little ways, my background was always sort of defined by being sort of in the minority. And not to say I’ve ever been disadvantaged by that, because I clearly have not. It wasn’t really ‘til I got into the workplace where the very things that defined me in that way, I think, were an asset as opposed to a liability.

You were an outlier who could look at situations with detachment. And your comment about the real world, I sense maybe the net was gone, you were on the rope without a net, and that was more exciting.

Yeah. No, has been, you know, much more exciting, and I’ve enjoyed that. And when I look in the professional workplace, I’m always struck by how difficult

a time people have—not all people, obviously, but many people have in making decisions. And making decisions based part on analysis, but never with perfect information, and largely based on the accumulation of one’s personal experience is something I’ve always felt comfortable with. That’s not something that keeps me awake at night.

Do you think that came from having to negotiate these unfamiliar situations throughout your school life, without your parents around?

Yeah; I think that’s exactly right. I mean, I’ve always had to kind of work my way through from first principles. And it’s that aspect of life that I enjoy, and I still find very stimulating.

Mark Dunkerley earned a Master of Science degree in air transport economics, and started his career in aviation. He advanced quickly and soon made his way into senior management positions at several different airline companies before moving to Hawaii to work for Hawaiian Airlines.

Now, based on your track record in airlines, you know, you came here, and everyone trumpeted you as a turnaround expert. And amazingly, you led a transformation at Hawaiian Airlines, which so many people thought could not be done. And I personally was surprised that you stayed after bringing the airline to very good financial health. But I suspect you’ve stayed because it’s never gonna be easy, and you like that.

Yeah; I think you’re exactly right. First of all, you know, people are very generous, and they give me great accolades for the transformation that Hawaiian has enjoyed. But nobody should be under any illusion; this is the hard work of everybody in our company, and you know, it’s really uh, my great privilege and benefit to be part of this company, certainly not the other way around. But you know, this is a tough business. It’s competitive every day, we’re a tiny airline in a land of giants. We are one-twentieth the size of our major competitors. And so, we are on our toes, and that challenge in a sense gives me the same enjoyment and the same thrill that being in the middle of a turnaround does. This is a fascinating business. It’s exciting, there’s a new challenge every day, there’s never a dull moment. As a manager in it, you’ve got to balance a sense of the strategic direction with being prepared to make very quick decisions day-to-day to protect your position or to improve it. And it’s full-on exercise. I’m not a golfer, but there’s not much time for taking an afternoon off to play golf. People in our business work very, very hard. And that either stimulates you and you find it really interesting, in which case there’s no business like it, or it doesn’t, in which case it’s the wrong business for you.

Based on what you learned at boarding school, has any of that stayed with you? For example, do you keep yourself busy all the time, and do you also keep your own counsel and not look for other people to guide you?

Yes; I keep busy all the time, and it’s natural to me. I’m incapable of sitting on the beach for an afternoon. I mean, utterly incapable of doing so. So, that is a life lesson that has stayed with me to this very day. And left to my own devices, I do tend to keep my own counsel, and you know, have absorbed that aspect from growing up. Where that has changed is my wife, who’s from Latin America, has the opposite temperament to mine, and she has taught me a great deal. I mean, I’m a much better and more rounded person for having come to see and recognize that there’s a different strategy for succeeding as a human being to my own, and that’s helped me understand so much.

How does her approach work for you?

She is a much more intuitive person and has much better sense of the limitations of analytical thought and logic, and where intuition and emotion take over. And it has been a valuable, interesting lesson for me in my life to see that, to appreciate that, and it’s made me a far more effective uh, adult as a consequence.

Bringing the emotional intelligence in.

Yeah; yeah. Yeah.

And discernment.

Yeah; absolutely. And without that influence, I think I would be much less able to understand the sort of broad dimensions and the three-dimensional nature of people and society, and situations.

What do you do in your spare time, and what counts as relaxation?

In the day of emails, and texts, and so on, there really never is a day that is truly ever away from what’s going on. But the things that I enjoy doing is, I enjoy travel, to this day. My wife and I enjoy going places. I’m particularly fond of the African continent, and India, and Latin America as well. So, when we can get away and do that, which isn’t very often, we do that. I have taken up again fly fishing, which is the one pastime I shared with my father, which after I started work, I didn’t get to do for about thirty years. But I started up about five years ago. And an afternoon on the stream remains to this day probably the easiest way to clear my mind.

And how much do you personally identify with Hawaiian values, Hawaiian culture?

You know, really, it’s better for other people to judge that than me, myself. I would like to think that they would say a great deal. I have lived in many, many different places, and as I mentioned earlier, I’ve always been used to really being a minority in the context of where I am. It has made me, I think, more open and more sensitive, perhaps, to other cultures and other values than other people might be. And as I’ve looked around, and I’ve had the luxury, frankly, of being able to pick and choose those attributes that I think resonate with me, I find myself over, and over, and over coming back to what terrific values Hawaii stands for, and how much therefore I feel comfortable here. I’ve lived in Hawaii now longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life. Which is, you know, pretty extraordinary.

From being a very young jet-setter, to piloting planes himself, to his career as an airline leader, flying has defined Mark Dunkerley’s life. Mahalo to Mark Dunkerley of Honolulu for sharing his life stories with us. And mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii, and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

And then, you do something pretty crazy, which is acrobatic flying.

Yeah; that’s been a really important part of my life. You know, in graduate school, I saved up, and I learned how to fly. And in my early professional days, I would go out, rent an airplane about once a month just to keep current. And I enjoyed doing that. But then, somebody said, Hey, have you ever flown an aerobatic airplane? And I was game to try it. By the time we came down, I wanted to learn how to do this, and so on. And that started about a decade- long time when I got into competition flying, and I flew all kinds of aerobatic contests, domestic and international ones. And it was kind of a defining hobby for me. And even when I moved to Hawaii and stopped competing, because there are no contests here and so on, I continue to do it. I’m never quite as happy as I am flying an airplane upside-down.

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Mary Bitterman

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Mary Bitterman

 

Original air date: Tues., Nov. 24, 2009

 

Leading PBS in Hawaii and Beyond

 

Leslie Wilcox visits with Mary Bitterman, who was the Executive Director of PBS Hawaii (then referred to as KHET) from 1974 to 1979. The youngest Executive Director of a PBS station at the time, she headed KHET at the time of the groundbreaking production of Aldyth Morris’ “Damien”, which won the George Foster Peabody Award and was aired on PBS stations nationwide. She went on to become the President and CEO of KQED – the PBS television station in San Francisco – and was board chair of PBS. Mary is now Chair of the PBS Foundation and head of the Bernard Osher Foundation, which provides scholarship funding to selected colleges and universities.

 

Mary Bitterman Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

And I think the future of our state, the future of our republic, and the future of our world has got to be people understanding people, people respecting people, people respecting the diversity of people’s backgrounds and interests, and insights. And I think that Public Broadcasting is going to play, increasingly, an important niche in bringing the people of the world to a better understanding and appreciation of one another. The stories must be told.

 

For four decades, a leader in public broadcasting, Mary Bitterman, has had a meaningful impact on how Hawaii sees the world, and how the world sees Hawaii. Her story on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll catch up with Mary Bitterman, the first woman to lead a PBS television station. Which happened to be this station—PBS Hawaii, called Hawaii Public Television during her tenure in the 1970s. Mary Bitterman would go on to run a larger PBS station, in San Francisco. She would become PBS national board chair, and receive public broadcasting’s most prestigious award for lifetime achievement. She still calls Hawaii home, returning to Honolulu every month from her offices on the west coast. And she takes Hawaii with her everywhere she goes. In Washington D.C. I’ve heard her explain to large national groups the meaning of “ohana” and the Japanese principle she learned here, “okage sama de,” which means, “I am what I am because of you.” Fate brought this fourth-generation Californian and Ivy League scholar to Hawaii. Her husband, psychology professor Jeff Bitterman, was offered a short-term job at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

 

And so he was asked to be a guest professor for a year. And so we came to Hawaii for a year. And that was 1971, and we—

 

You thought it would be one year, I bet.

 

Yes, we never left. I mean, even though I work off island, and have for several years, Hawaii has always been our home and permanent residence since 1971.

 

What made you feel at home here? Because, you know, there is a great deal of aloha and hospitality on one level, but on another level, it’s sometimes hard to get into the culture when people are busy, and they have things to do, and they think you’re gonna be leaving in a—

 

Exactly.

 

—year, anyway.

 

Exactly. And I just can’t tell you how many instant opportunities were made available to me. I mean, I know exactly what you mean. And when people say to me, Oh, I’m going to move to Hawaii, I really want to make sure that they understand how important it is to exercise curiosity, and not just to come fully shaped and imprint themselves somehow on Hawaii. When I first came, I taught several courses at the University of Hawaii. One of the students in class was an older woman who was returning to finish her degree. And she said to me after class, My husband is doing a special project with the Ford Foundation, and I would like him to meet you. So I said, I’d be very happy to meet your husband, and how nice that he works for the Ford Foundation. All right; but here’s what he wanted. He said, What we want is someone to do a history of Hawaiian landownership and land use, so we have a baseline for the development work that we’re undertaking.

 

Now, that’s a—

 

And I said—

 

—fascinating issue.

 

I said, Here’s the problem. The problem is, I think the whole idea of doing historical research on Hawaiian landownership and land use is fascinating; but I’m not competent. I’m not competent, because I don’t know the Hawaiian language, and because I have not studied Hawaiian history in any really significant, deep fashion. And he said, Well, we really would like you to take on this enterprise, and so on and so forth. At any rate, I was hired to do some basic historical research dealing with a great number of texts. What I did was, I published a series of papers that began with the ancient Hawaiian land use forms, going on to the Mahele, going on to the various uses of the land, especially when we had the development of sugar and pine, then moving on to the period of military installations on the aina, and then really ending up with the visitor industry after the second war and the development of resort properties and the rest of it.

 

That’s a great way to get to know Hawaii, isn’t it?

 

Now, this, when you said, How did you, coming with this modern European background, and so and so forth, come into Hawaii and have a chance to sort of be involved right away? And it’s because I worked on land. It just gave me a chance, I would say, to leapfrog and to arrive, say, by year five, at a place that might have taken some other malihini … twenty, thirty years.

 

Well, you could have blown it big time while you were doing this. But you didn’t.

 

I had so many teachers. I had so many people who opened themselves to me. It was just extraordinary.

 

But you were a teacher who was willing to be taught. I think that’s one—

 

Insatiable curiosity; that’s the only way to learn and I think even when one reaches a point where people say, Oh, you know a great deal, one must never be led to believe that one doesn’t have still so much more to learn than one knows.

 

What did you do when the study was complete, or when your role was done?

 

Well I’m very committed to the Buddhist principle of impermanence, with all things changing all the time. It’s become my way to explain everything that happens in life. After I served as the historian for this regional environmental management project, which was called HESAL, and the simulation part of it was really that the Fujitsu Corporation provided us with all of these wonderful computers and computer specialists, so we could take the data that our development colleagues were aggregating, and run different scenarios of development. And the focus of our study was the Kaneohe Bay watershed. And we did a number of public hearings in which Oceanic Cable helped us to record some of the public hearings, and really get the public involved in, how do you want the Windward side of Oahu to develop, how precious are the taro fields, what will be the cost of capital facilities to support a much larger population, what will the erosion from development, soil erosion, what kind of damage might that cause to the Kaneohe Bay. And the final thing I did for Ford was to write a history of the Hawaii environmental simulation laboratory, which is on file at Windward Community College Library. So there.

 

Okay; so now you’re pau with that, and—

 

So now I’m—

 

—what are you gonna do?

 

—pau with that.

 

So far, by the way, I notice you’ve gotten two jobs, not because you went after them, but because people went after you.

 

Well, the opportunities, it just absolutely was incredible. The man from the Ford Foundation, Bill Felling, with whom I got on very well, he became very interested in Hawaiian history as I shared with him some of what I had read, and introduced different books to him that he began reading. Everything from John Papa Ii to Kuykendall, to “On Being Hawaiian” by John Dominis Holt. Just a whole wonderful range of things—David Malo—and serving as the Ford monitor brought me in touch with more people from the Ford Foundation, which curiously, was the major foundation underwriter for Public Television across the United States. The laboratory also had an advisory committed of extraordinary people, including Phil Gianella, who was the publisher of the Star Bulletin then, Kenneth Brown, wonderful Kenny Brown, people like Minoru Hirabara who headed Del Monte operations, Bud Smyser, also from the Star Bulletin. And this advisory group, several of them said, when the position here at PBS Hawaii became open, You should do this. I don’t know the difference between a transmitter and a translator; I think that jobs like that should really go to people well schooled in technology, engineering, production, and the rest of it.

 

Just like you’d said before, I think the job should go to somebody—

 

Exactly; to somebody who is competent.

 

—Hawaiian history.

 

Yes, to somebody who is competent. And so the argument of Minoru Hirabara, who became one of my dearest friends in the world, and Kenny Brown and others was … Here’s what you do have. You’ve told us what you don’t have; what you do have is a real love for Hawaii and the people. You do have an understanding and a growing knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and the cultures of the people of Hawaii. You have been connected to a very big foundation, which supports Public Television; and who knows, maybe you could get them to send some money to Hawaii for Hawaii Public Television. You have testified before the State Legislature, which in those days, PBS Hawaii was part of State government, and we received our appropriation from State government. So being able to go before the leaders of the Legislature and being able to testify was considered very important, to do it effectively and to do it respectfully, and all. And so that’s how I became the youngest general manager in PBS’ history, and the only woman to head such a station.

 

Two historic distinctions … Mary Bitterman says Hawaii’s multi-ethnic culture was quick to accept a young woman in this leadership role.

 

I think that everyone who has come to Hawaii, whether ancestors came from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Madeira Islands, Scandinavia, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, wherever, that the indigenous people, our host culture, has had a very special effect, a softening effect, and I would argue also having women be seen as potentially very competent. I mean, if we read Hawaiian history, we know the place of enormously powerful, gifted women who played such important roles.

 

Queen Kaahumanu.

 

Kaahumanu … Liliuokalani. I was on St. Andrews Priory school board, and we know all the incredible things that Queen Emma did. Princess Ruth Likelike. I mean, just an assortment of people—Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. So I think that, coupled with the fact that a governor like George Ariyoshi, gave opportunity to women. Boy, once we came to Governor Ariyoshi, more and more women were appointed to cabinet positions, and doors of opportunity opened in very, very important ways. So I had this really great opportunity which has made all the difference in my life. This is really where everything started.

 

For example?

 

Well it’s when I really came to Public Television, that in addition to continuing my study of Hawaiian history, that I really became increasingly, increasingly imprinted on Asian history, Asian culture, becoming a host family for East West Center. It was through working with people here at the station, and being really taken into so many ohanas. Our dearest friends were people that I met here; the Kono family, Melvin Kim Farinas, Akio Sakata, who was our chief engineer. So it’s just the world became very, very special for me here. I had never had friends, as I had here.

 

Why do you think that is? I mean you had a—

 

I think—

 

—family in California, you had—

 

But a small family.

 

—college experiences.

 

A small family. So many of my friends here had much larger families. I had two older brothers, and my oldest brother passed away. But it’s really when I came here that I was able to meet so many people with deep roots and many generations in Hawaii, that just opened up so many new doors of opportunity. I mean, just through my dear, dear friend Melvin Kim Farinas. Mel was the art director here at Hawaii Public Television for many, many years, and I think, gave the station its great reputation for artistry. He was half Korean, half Filipino. His father, Francisco Farinas, was the first Filipino radio broadcaster in Hawaii. Melvin’s wife, Ronnie Mae, was half Chinese, half Japanese. Her maiden name was Fujii, her mother’s maiden name, Goo. Just within Melvin, I became involved in all of these cultural outreaches. It just began that everything seemed to connect me to more and more pieces of a mosaic. So if this whole table were these incredible facets, each one of them just sparkling, I began to have connections to so many of them, and every day my life became more interesting, more challenging, because the more I would learn about things that needed to be done or people that we could bring together, and make things happen, it was just terrific; absolutely terrific.

 

Using all of her skills as a team builder, Mary Bitterman took over a troubled TV station and launched an era when Hawaii Public Television became nationally recognized for its programs.

 

So your personal life was developing, and your knowledge of Hawaii was growing. What were you doing professionally here? What did you see needed to be done, and what did you get done?

 

Well, it was a very exciting time. And I think sometimes when entities are in a distress situation, which we were—

 

You were invited to lead a distressed organization?

 

Yes. But I have to tell you, the only distressing thing was that we didn’t have … we had a modest amount of financing, and we were a little overdrawn on our State account, so we had to go bare for a while. What we did have was an extraordinary group of people. We had forty-eight student helpers from the University. Everybody, as we both know, trained in television in Hawaii was trained here in the good old days. And we just had a staff of people, thirty-six people, who were just absolutely incredible. But we had to find out how we were going to do things on almost nothing. That’s why we wanted to find a way, even without resources, that we could just kind of take what we had, and do it. So we started, actually, a program called Hawaii Now, which was a stripped program, five days a week, in which we could put different segments. And so International Kitchen was one day a week. So how did we start out? This is just an example. We took our fabulous administrative officer, Shareen Nakasone, and said, Shareen, you really make great Okinawan donuts—you know, andagi. Why don’t you come and cook them in the studio? Shareen said, I’ve never been on television, I don’t know if I’d want to do this. But she was just such a great girl; she said, Okay, for the cause, I’ll do it. So she came in, and she was our first cook. And then we began. We weren’t online, but we would send people copies of the recipes from International Kitchen. So people would write in, and then we developed a membership group so they could become members. And it was terrific. So we started off with Hawaii Now. But then we did—everybody wants sports, and you have your wonderful Leahey & Leahey program now, but we did something called Sports Page 11, with Marv Vedetto.

 

With Jim Hackleman.

 

Well, Jim Hackleman afterwards.

 

He came later.

 

But it started off with Marv Vedetto from the University, and then went on to Jim Hackleman. But it was really fun, because we did everything from

women’s sports, which weren’t being covered then, to kids’ T-Ball. I remember we did one program doing a T-Ball game over in Waimanalo, and we had more reaction from the community. People were just—

 

Right.

 

—charmed.

 

Totally support that.

 

Absolutely, absolutely wonderful. And then we began an arts program, Spectrum, we had Dialog which was our Friday night public affairs discussion. And we did a lot of interesting people.

 

This was when Hawaii had only a handful of viewing choices, before the proliferation of cable channels. Mary Bitterman found the funding and gave the green light to a production that would, arguably, become the most nationally acclaimed of Hawaii’s locally-produced TV programs.

 

Obviously, the jewel in the crown was Damien, which I am so delighted … I can’t begin to tell you. It just is so personally meaningful to me that this extraordinary story, this exquisite play, written by a most wonderful woman—I just wish everyone could have known Aldyth Morris. Brilliant, sensitive, compassionate. Everything about her was very special. You would just know that if you read the script; you know that somebody very special wrote it. And then to have that combined with a brilliant actor, who just became Damien in Terence Knapp, and a gifted producer/director, Nino Martin, and a gifted art director, Melvin Kim Farinas. It was a combination of things—the videographer, Wade Cuvian—that was magical. It’s just extraordinary. But we did some other programs. We did a three-part series with Joe Nathan, an independent producer, called The Japanese. And those were films that he filmed in Japan, and then we did local follow up. So for example, his film called Farm Song on a Japanese family living in an agricultural area, we went off to Maui and did the Orodomo family in Kula. And when he went off and did Full Moon Lunch, a bento operation, we went down to Liliha Street and did Nishi Catering. So it was a combination of trying to take the wonderful things of our own community and setting them into the context of a larger world. And then, of course, China Visit, which we had a group of Hawaii residents going in 1977, the year after Mao’s death, to do that film, was a terrific thing.

 

You were one of the first groups of Westerners in China.

 

Exactly. But I think it really stands the test of time that you’re able to look at that film, that is PBS Hawaii’s film, and you’re able to go back and see what China, now the tenth largest economy, was like thirty-two years ago. It’s very exciting.

 

You hosted that documentary in pigtails.

 

Well, I have to tell you. It’s very interesting. When we were in China in 1977 people will not believe it; they just won’t believe it, because China has just moved so quickly forward. In 1977, there was not one woman to be seen wearing anything different from a navy blue or a gray Mao suit with Mao trousers, and whose hair was not cut like this, or who had pigtails. And because I have long hair, it was decided that the best thing for me to do was to put them in pigtails, right?

 

Later, Mary Bitterman was asked to take the directorship of “The Voice of America” which she saw, in part, as an opportunity to bring Hawaii’s spirit to the rest of the world.

 

And so a door of opportunity opened to become the youngest and the only woman ever to serve as director of The Voice of America, and all because the people of Hawaii gave me the opportunity. And I worked very hard at The Voice, and really tried to introduce the aloha spirit to a larger audience. We really opened up our relationship with China, we arranged for the first exchange of broadcasters between The Voice of America and China. We had some wonderful, wonderful days and, as you can imagine, it was my work at Hawaii Public Television, Koji Ariyoshi, the trip to China, that I already had contacts with Chinese broadcasters, and with the Minister of Propaganda in China. So that when I went to The Voice of America, I was able to build on some of that, and arrange for these exchanges.

 

And by the way, was that the actual title, the Minister of Propaganda?

 

Yeah; yeah. Dung Lee Chun.

 

If we could skip ahead just a little bit. I think you were recruited for another job at a Public Television station.

 

Yes.

It was another distressed station, but much more distressed, much larger jurisdiction.

 

Yeah. And that was an opportunity which arose in 1993, and it was in distress, it was in a near bankrupt situation.

 

And the viewers were extremely upset that local programming had been yanked from them.

 

Local programming was gone.

 

Which is something you had brought back to Public Television in Hawaii.

 

It also had a recent labor strike, and there were very antagonistic feelings between union members and the management of the station. There were a huge number of problems.

Your good relations with unions must have helped you in—

 

It helped me a lot.

 

—San Fancisco.

 

Because before I went there, people on the KQED staff had called people in Hawaii at HGEA, Charlotte Simmons, other people, saying, What is this person like, and so on and so forth. So that was enormously helpful. But at KQED, what I tried to do was two things. One, to put the stations back on sound financial footing, and we would be responsible stewards with the community’s investment in us, and we would deliver the greatest possible content.

 

Years after reviving the San Francisco PBS station, KQED, Mary Bitterman became the president of a funding organization that helped her rescue that station. the Bernard Osher Foundation is one of the nation’s largest supporters of higher education and the arts. It’s given millions of dollars to the University of Hawaii. At this time in 2009, the Osher Foundation is Mary Bitterman’s paying job. But she has never stopped contributing to PBS, serving in many unpaid leadership positions, including National Board Chair and head of the PBS Foundation. I’d like to thank Mary Bitterman for joining us on Long Story Short, and for upholding traditions of teambuilding and excellence here at PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

History was biographies of admirals, generals, and kings and queens. But the real richness of history are all of these other people, and the way in which they shaped our lives. And I think Public Broadcasting’s niche is in bringing more people on the stage, and letting them all be heard.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Christine Camp

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Christine Camp

 

Original air date: Tues., Jan. 11, 2011

 

Living the American Dream

 

Korean Immigrant Christine Camp rose from poverty to create her own development company, the Avalon Group, of which she is President and CEO. Leslie Wilcox talks with Christine about the struggles of adjusting to America and growing up with “tough love” from her mother, which led to her running away from home at age 15. Christine also discusses working for several well-known companies where she gained the experience to launch her own business.

 

Christine Camp Audio

 

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I love this country. I love this country only in a way an immigrant can say it. I’m a first generation American, I came to America, I’ve seen what it’s like on the other side. And America is a beautiful country, and I love it for all that it stands.

 

Patriotism for the United States is sometimes intensified when your country of origin is a foreign land. Our next Long Story Short guest began life in South Korea, immigrated to Hawaii as a young girl, and grew up to become a successful real estate developer. The contrast between her life before, and after her move to Hawaii, is enough to make anyone believe in the American dream. Meet Christine Camp, next.

 

Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. At the age of thirty-two, Christine Camp launched Avalon, a real estate development company in Honolulu. Now, that may sound young, but by then, Christine Camp had experienced a lifetime’s worth of lessons. Her school of hard knocks education began at birth.

 

Tell me a little bit about your very early life in South Korea.

 

We had very little. We came from the poorer side of, I guess everybody was poor in those days in Korea, because we were a nascent nation in the sense that we’d just come out of the war. I was born in 1966, so it was a few years after the war, but still, there was very little resources.

 

How big was your family?

 

I have four siblings. There were five of us, and my mother and my father. And they were searching for a better opportunity for us. And they left the five children in Korea, and came to Hawaii for two years when I was I was only eight years old. From between the time, eight to right before I turned ten, my sisters raised us, and we lived with various relatives while they were setting up a home for us here.

 

Did you feel adrift at that point, with your parents away?

 

Well, it was very confusing, because I was fairly young, and no one really explained. My sisters are eight and six years older than I am; so older. And they were in their teens, and they really took care of us. Both of them dropped out of school to take care of the younger kids and studied from home. So we were home schooled, while we were waiting for my mother and father to bring us to Hawaii.

 

Now, when you say you were poor, what does poor mean?

 

Very little resources. I think my mom sent some money to help take care of us. But we didn’t have much meat. We ate mostly vegetables. We didn’t have running water. [CHUCKLE] And we lived in one room and the five kids stayed in one room in apartment house. It was part of a section of a house of our relatives. And there winters when we had to go to the pump house to pump water, because our well wouldn’t work. And we’d walk five blocks and down the hill on the mountainside to get water from the common pump well. That’s how poor we were.

 

Did you worry that your parents wouldn’t be seen again? Or were you looking forward to joining them?

 

No, we just didn’t think that it would take that long to get the immigration done. I think everyone thought that it would be just a matter of a few months, and it ended up being a couple of years. When I think back, I think of how resilient all of us were. Because I think for us, were hoping for a better life, and so we didn’t know what we didn’t have. Because the people around us kind of had the same means. And so we enjoyed our times, but without parents were a little difficult.

 

I can see a big culture shock coming, because your—

 

M-hm.

 

—parents did send the money for you to—did you all come over together?

 

We did. Five of us came here. And boy, was I sick on the airplane the whole time. [CHUCKLE] But we came here, and I remember smelling the air.

 

And you’re nine years old.

 

I’m nine years old, and smelling the air, thinking, my goodness, this is what Hawaii—I didn’t differentiate Hawaii as an island. I thought this was America, this is the big country. And I thought, wow, where are the buildings? I mean, this is not America. Korea is much more developed with high rises and everything, which I saw very little. But all the lush tropical jungle-like places. Because we came from concrete, not a lot of landscaping. And for me to see all these trees and flowers; oh, my gosh. It was amazing.

 

Could you speak English?

 

My name is. [CHUCKLE] My name is Hyun Hee Camp. Hyun Hee was my Korean name. And, I am hungry. I am hungry. [CHUCKLE] I am hungry. [CHUCKLE] And those were the only things that I could say. And I could say the ABCs.

 

When Christine Camp started classes at a public grade school in Kaimuki, she recalls that students threw rocks at her, and called her an FOB, or fresh off the boat. Picking up more of the language, and moving to a different public school in the same district gave her a chance for a fresh start.

 

And we moved to Wilson Elementary right before we ended the fifth grade year. And so I had an opportunity to recreate who I am, not be so foreign, and meet friends. And I made some really good friends, and I was able to blossom in there, and did very well in school. I had some really amazing teachers. In that school, I remember Mr. Kosasa, who basically spent extra time with me, letting me know what my assignments were. And that was my fifth grade homeroom teacher. My sixth grade homeroom teacher was Mrs. Hasegawa. And everyone didn’t like her, because she was really tough. And I was afraid of her; she had a reputation. But she was the one that made me feel so accepted, that I was smart. We had to write some poems for an English class. And I wrote about maile lei, and it was about maile lei, it’s long, it’s beautiful, and you can see the leaves, green leaf after green leaf. I don’t remember just precisely what I wrote. I think I must have had a lot of spelling errors. But she picked it out, and she said, This is one of the best poems I’ve read, and I’m going to read it out to the class. And she read it out. And it made me feel so special. It made me want to do more.

 

What were your parents telling you about how to behave in this new world?

 

Well, by then, my father was very ill, and wasn’t really cognizant of what’s going—he was dying of cancer. And my mom was busy working. So it was really up to us to kind of find our own way.

 

How were finances in the new land, after finances had been so rough in Korea?

 

When we first came here, we lived in what I thought was a mansion. It was a beautiful spot. It was a two-bedroom walkup. When I look back and I still see the building on Waialae Avenue, I think, Wow, we all squeezed in, five of us in a little room. And then my mom saved up enough. She felt that she had four girls, so she wanted us to live in a community where there would be no other Koreans, where we would be speaking English, and that we would have the best public education possible. So she found this house on Ainakoa. I mean, talk about every house was white. This one was brown from no paint. [CHUCKLE] On the hillside, dilapidated, with termites, but it was the only one she could afford; leasehold house. And we went there, we fixed it up, we spent all of our free days and nights working on this house.

 

That’s quite an accomplishment.

 

Yeah.

 

She was a—

 

It was.

 

—waitress, and worked different waitressing and minimum wage jobs with tips.

 

Koreans, they kinda help each other out. And I think Vietnamese, they’re the same. And Japanese, when they’re here, it’s the same. Koreans call it kei; I think Japanese, they call it tanomoshi. They put into a pool, they bid for the money, and they can have access to a pool of money. Ten, twenty thousand dollars, and there are twenty, forty people putting into this pool. And my mom was in one of those. And she was able to secure the down payment needed to buy the house, and she bought it on an agreement of sale. I’m not even sure if they have agreements of sale anymore.

 

And had to make the payments every month.

 

Right. And so, we were expected to help out. I worked from the time I was twelve years old. I worked as a babysitter. God, in those days you could babysit four kids, and people thought nothing of it. I was babysitting six, seven-year-olds when I was twelve years old. Can you believe that? [CHUCKLE]

 

I remember that. There were even certificates for twelve-year-old—

 

Yeah.

 

—babysitters.

 

Yeah. I remember my first new clothes was for my father’s funeral. We didn’t have anything black, and someone said that we had to wear black. And someone gave us twenty dollars each and said, You guys go to JC Penney’s and buy clothes. And we didn’t even know how to shop at JC Penney’s, what to do, because we’ve never been in these stores for us. And so it was exciting, and sad at the same time.

 

Terribly sad.

 

It was so unfortunate that it was that time in which we had a chance to actually go to Kahala Mall. ‘Cause we’d been to Kahala Mall, and we went to McDonald’s, once every three months or something and had a hamburger. But to go into JC Penney’s to buy something; that never happened.

 

Christine Camp later excelled at intermediate and high school, held down several jobs, and became a cheerleader. But Christine’s mother, ever the disciplinarian, prohibited her daughter from taking part in extracurricular activities that would take her away from household chores. So, at age fifteen, Christine decided to run away from home.

 

And I thought, as long as I had all straight A’s, she should have nothing to complain about. But she did. And she was so tough, and my sisters were so tough on me. I was getting spankings all the time. And I felt that I could do better, I was making my own money. So I packed up my bags in a little pillowcase.

 

Pillowcase?

 

Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I said, I’m done with you. I ran away from home.

 

How could you make your own way at age fifteen?

 

Isn’t that amazing? I did. And I can’t … my rent was hundred and seventy dollars a month.

Where did you live?

 

On Harding Avenue, in one of these old Chinese schools that became an apartment house. Little sections of classrooms were apartment house, and I had a little apartment house next to the sewer line where the cockroaches gathered at night. [CHUCKLE]

 

And what about your neighbors; what were they like?

 

Six families. I have to say, I saw what I felt was to not have hope, to feel a loss in what our life would be. There was a welfare mom who dropped out of high school, had several children, and still within high school age. There was a woman who had two kids, and she was a prostitute. There were—it was just kind of like that. An alcoholic woman, another woman who couldn’t afford to eat regular food, and she was sharing her cat food, what I found out, and I would try to give her what I could. And the only bright light in that whole place were two college students who were a couple, and they were happy people. They were clean, and they were smart, and they had a hope of future. I mean, they had hope for their future. But I internalized this when a traumatic accident happened with me. I couldn’t afford electricity, so I didn’t have power, but I had a little gas oven. And these kids were running around without adult supervision, and I felt like I was the den mother. Whenever I had free time, I would have them come over to my place. And it was a child’s three-year-old birthday, and her mom was out. So I decided, I’m going to bake her a cake. And I’d never used the oven. Turned the oven on; nothing. It was a gas oven. And I realized, Oh, it’s a gas oven, I have to turn the match on. Turned on the match, and the whole thing blew up on my face. I had no hair on my face. Anyway, the emergency medics came, and they called the emergency and everything. And at that moment, while I was cooling off, they had ice on me, I’m sitting there, and I had an Aha Moment. All these images came to me of the people that were living around me, and the little kids. And the only bright spot that I saw were these students who had a future. And I felt that education was my future, I didn’t want to be there, and that I wanted to have hope. I didn’t want to lose hope like these people. And they’re wonderful people, but they lost hope for their future, and they weren’t taking responsibility for themselves. So I packed up my ego, packed up my things; I went home that day, the next day.

 

What was that reception like for you?

 

What was amazing is, my mom never asked me a question. I had called my sister and said, I’m coming home. And she didn’t go to work. She went to work seven days a week; she didn’t go to work. She was there folding laundry, she acted like nothing happened.

 

Through all of this, Christine Camp managed to graduate early from Kalani High School, and enrolled at Kapiolani Community College.

 

You’re going to community college, and working your way through school. Where did the idea of developer emerge?

 

The developer image; it comes from my first job, my first real job, my first fulltime job. All right. I think people say that, you have to have luck. And I’ve been very lucky so many times. And my luck comes in having my first job with a gentleman named Rex Kuwasaki. He has a development company, Arcade Development. And I went to work for him as his Girl Friday. And when he realized I can take on more, he gave me increasingly more and more opportunities to do different things, and he taught me so much. And that’s where I realized what an impact I could have in the community, and how meaningful it would be to be a developer, to create communities, from an idea on a piece of paper, to see buildings, to put people in homes. I just loved that idea. So I wanted to have my own company, and I wanted to be that, what he was doing.

 

So you worked for RK—

 

M-hm.

 

—Development?

 

RK.

 

RK.

 

Rex Kuwasaki Development; yeah.

 

And picked up some very good basic—

 

M-hm.

 

—skills. And then, what?

 

Well, five years there. And Castle and Cooke was hiring, they had just gotten their zoning for Mililani Mauka. And they were hiring a brand new team, so I went to work for them. I started as a project coordinator in their planning engineering department. And did a lot of permit processing and planning with engineers and architects for homes. And I became such a budget cruncher, and I had such a love for affordable housing that I did a lot of affordable housing there, and had a lot of fun. So I did that for five years, and ended up being a senior project coordinator for the project department, and—

 

Okay; I’m noticing two five-year stints. Was that on purpose?

 

Yeah. I like five-year goals. I always believe that people need to see short-term goals, but you need to look out five years ahead. So that it gives you kind of a guiding light as to where one should go. So I had a five-year goal. I worked five years, and I thought okay, five years is enough. Went to work for Castle and Cooke, worked five years, and so it was to the month of five years, I went to work for A and B, Alexander and Baldwin as their project manager, and then ended up as VP of their development. And almost five years, but I found some opportunities where it made me want to leave a little earlier. So I think it was four years and ten months, or something like that.

 

What were the opportunities?

 

I found a couple of projects that I wanted to work on, that I thought I could do. Ended up becoming not a project, but it did give me the courage to move on to being my own developer, my own company, having my own company.

 

And how did you decide to focus your company?

 

I wanted to be my own developer, but I realized it was a lot harder in raising money than just doing projects. I had to not only do the planning and engineering, and design of the projects, the marketing of the projects, but I actually had to raise the money. And the capital was what was my obstacle in being my own developer. So I decided that I would have an advisory services company in leveraging my expertise. And that was a very profitable business. And then moved onto doing the projects. And I realized it was such a successful advisory services and doing brokerage, I wasn’t spending any time looking for my own projects. So I had to make sure I had a five-year goal to guide me again to say, okay, five years, I’m going to have my own projects. Right now, the mix was eighty/twenty; twenty percent of my projects, eighty percent other projects, other people’s projects. And I’m going to change that ratio in five years. And in five years, I was able to do that. I had my own development projects. And so I said, Okay, well, that’s good. Now what, for the next five years? And so I put some monetary goals. Like, if I could only make a million a year. If I could only do ten million, if I could only raise twenty million dollars. So those were kind of the goals that I put into place for five-year goals. And we finished our five-year goals. It’s been eleven years, and so we’re now looking at what we’re going to do. We, because our company has grown beyond just myself, and we are looking at our next five years.

 

Now, it’s very hard to do a five-year goal when a recession comes along, and just knocks the bottom out of budget.

 

M-hm.

 

Do you add two years there, three years?

 

Of course. I mean, the goals are just that; they’re goals. They’re not set in stone, and you don’t get depressed over it. You just adjust to the changing times. But there’s a guiding principle that carries you from one end to the other. As long as you have a goal in mind, I think it makes it easier for one to make a decision. ‘Cause isn’t it what it is; it’s always a series of decisions, how do you decide.

 

Do you have trouble deciding the decisions?

 

Never. I sleep well at nights. [CHUCKLE] Of course.

 

Because they provide the security of knowing, okay, here’s where I’m headed

 

Knowing where I’m headed, it makes it easier. But the last few years have been difficult decisions. I mean, to walk away from millions of dollars invested in a piece of property … difficult. To lay off half your staff … difficult. ‘Cause I felt that, the way I justified it to myself is, I had to cut off one arm to keep the rest of the body alive. And a lot of people say that. But cutting that arm off was so painful. Walking away from the millions of dollars was easier than laying people off. It was that difficult. Because I knew it was their livelihood. I knew they had a mortgage to pay, and family to support. And so it was really, really hard.

 

So you chose to name your company Avalon.

 

M-hm.

 

Why?

 

My love of books. I love reading books, and I love two genres. I have a hard time with nonfiction, but mystery novels and mystical fairytales. And fairytales, King Arthur stories fascinates me.

 

Now, Avalon was where King Arthur pulled Excalibur out of the stone, isn’t it?

 

Well, no; it was the Isle of Avalon where all the power came. And remember when he died, he went back.

 

Oh, and he recovered there.

 

And Isle of Avalon, they took his power back, they took the sword back. So the way I saw Avalon, aside from the fact that it starts with an A, so it will be the top of the alphabet [CHUCKLE]—

 

That’s a good one.

 

But we live on an island, as Avalon. But really, what it was, it was about king makers and the source of power; source within. And I liked that. And the recent books, the recent renditions of this fairytale, there’s a mist of Avalon where all power comes from the priestesses, which is the women. So even more so, I thought, very apropos. And that’s why I named the company Avalon.

 

During election years, some developers try to cover their bets. They give equally to all political candidates in order to be in the good graces of the eventual winners, whoever they may be. Christine Camp has other ideas. For example, she openly and enthusiastically supported Mufi Hannemann, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010.

 

You’ve had some leadership positions in government. You were—

 

M-hm.

 

You were heading the Police Commission, you—

 

I was.

 

You’ve been active in different political campaigns. Must be a little tricky, when you’re looking for approvals as a developer.

 

M-hm.

 

And you are also wishing to participate in government. I mean—

 

M-hm.

 

—those are tricky currents you have to navigate.

 

Absolutely. A lot of people said, Are you nuts? You’re a developer, and you’re supporting a certain candidate. And I always believed an election is just that. You have to make a choice. You vote. And if you really believe in something or someone, then you need to stand behind it. And people who are elected need to understand that it was just an election. Now that they’re there, we as the constituents will stand behind them because they are our elected leaders. But during the election period, I don’t believe in kind of walking the middle line all the time. That’s not America. America is about making choices, to protect your freedom, and protecting your views.

 

Any issue coming up that you’re scratching your head about how to solve?

 

One thing that really affects me is the homelessness. I’m a developer, and yet, it’s so difficult to develop homeless housing first; I believe in that. I was homeless for a few days. I actually slept in a park when I ran away from home. And I’ve been poor, and I was that close to being homeless. And when I opened my own business, and when I didn’t have enough cash flow to pay the payroll, I thought about being homeless. We’re that close to being homeless, a lot of us. And there are so many people in such vulnerable positions, we’ve gotta do something. We’ve gotta do something.

 

But why doesn’t it ever get beyond, we’ve gotta do something? I mean, it just never seems to materialize into something that sticks.

 

‘Cause people don’t—can I just say. I cannot understand why people say this is a state problem, but yet, they want the funding to come from the people who are buying homes, or the funding to come from the developers. They don’t believe that this is a state problem. If this was a state problem, it should come from our tax base, not from people who are buying homes to stay away from being homeless. It’s adding to the cost of buying homes, to sheltering these people. By taking it from the developers when they’re doing affordable housing, or just adding more housing stock so that it becomes affordable, it just adds to that burden. It ultimately has to be paid for by everyone else. Why do we think it’s so expensive? So people are scratching their head thinking, we’ve gotta do something, and yet, there’s no funding from the general fund. Of course we’re not going to solve that problem.

 

What’s your current five-year plan?

 

My current five-year plan is actually looking at—I created a company, a holding company, Avalon Group. And we’re expanding in our development services business, but we’re also buying other companies, and really believing in Hawaii, and growing other businesses. So the next five years is really diversifying, and creating the next layer of managers. That it’s not about me, but it’s about having managers manage the projects and companies.

 

What does your mom say? I mean, I know your mom hasn’t been a big talker. She’s a doer.

 

She’s a doer.

 

But now, she’s seen you make this wonderful transition to American life, and be extraordinarily successful as a professional, and a mom. And what does she say?

 

She still treats me like I’m thirteen years old. [CHUCKLE] She wants to comb my hair, and [CHUCKLE] make sure that I’m wearing the right color. No, she’s extremely proud of me. She’s very thankful. She took care of me, so now I take care of her. And she helps me raise my son. And it’s come full circle.

 

What happened to that leasehold, termite-ridden house in Ainakoa?

 

She sold it. But I remember the Aha Moment of when I thought, I’ve finally made it, is she was buying the leasehold into fee, and she didn’t have enough income to qualify for a mortgage. And I remember co-signing her mortgage, and thinking, Wow, I really made it, I’m co-signing a mortgage for my mom. And so that was …

 

That’s worth more than money.

 

Yeah. I remember how proud she … I’m choked up now, ‘cause I remember seeing her, and I’m feeling, wow, I did it. I really did it. And she was so proud of me.

 

Christine Camp’s mother has reason to be very proud. Her daughter is active in community organizations, and has received awards for achievements in her adopted country. At the time of this conversation in 2010, Christine is busy with a new accomplishment. The business owner says she’s keeping a work-family balance as the single parent of a two-year-old son. No more marathon weekdays, and no more long weekends at the office, she says. Family life does not keep her from continuing to set those business goals, though, five years at a time. Mahalo, Christine Camp, for sharing your story. And thank you for listening, on Long Story Short. For PBS Hawaii I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.

 

I live in the present. A very insightful friend told me, Christine, if I look at a life’s matrix for you and how you look at the world, your past like this, your future like this, and the present is like this. And I think I live in the moment, and it makes me happy, and doing what I believe is the right thing to do, making decisions that allows me to go to the future. As long as I have a peg, and I can see it, that’s my five-year goals, I know where to go.

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Richard Parsons

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Richard Parsons

 

Original air date: Tues., Jun. 23, 2009

 

Current Chairman of CitiGroup and UH Manoa Alumnus

 

Join Leslie Wilcox for a conversation with UH Manoa alumnus, former CEO of Time Warner and current Chairman of CitiGroup Richard Parsons. In the first of two parts, Parsons reveals the secrets behind his unique ability to lead companies and their employees through crisis. He also talks about being a brash, young African American from New York adjusting to college life in 1960s Honolulu.

 

Richard Parsons Audio

 

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It took me about a year to make the adjustment to Hawaii from New York. But once I did, um, probably the last three years of college were among the best years of my life. I really enjoyed Hawaii, I enjoyed the culture, and even though I did not knock the ball out of the park in school here, uh, I got through school, and I got through life, and I supported myself, and I … I made it.

 

Join us next for part one of a interview with University of Hawaii Manoa alumnus Richard Parsons, chairman of CITIGROUP.

 

New York native Richard Parsons came to Hawaii at age 16 to receive a college education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He would become became one of the most prominent figures in the business world and an advisor to five American Presidents, Republican and Democrat. At the time of this taping, in April of 2009, Richard Parsons was just a couple of months into a new job as chairman of the troubled financial services giant CITIGROUP. As busy as he was during the economic turmoil of the time, Richard Parsons returned to the UH Manoa for a week as promised…as the awardee of the 2009 Dan and Maggie Inouye Chair in Democratic Ideals. In this first part of a two-part conversation, we’ll start with Parsons’ upbringing. His middle-class African-American parents moved the family from Brooklyn to Queens and made it clear that a good education and good grades were building blocks of the American dream.

 

Uh, I didn’t consider rebelling, because, you know, parents and people have a way of um … of letting you know what’s non-negotiable, right? If you—if—if a kid senses a crack or senses a weakness or a pause and says, Can I do this?, and you go, Well, I don’t think it’s right, or something, then they’re all over you. If it’s non-negotiable, you might as well move on, because you’re not gonna move ‘em. So this was a non-negotiable subject.

 

You were expected to go on to college. Had your mother or your father at that time been to college?

 

Both.

 

Both?

 

Both. My mother hadn’t graduated; my father had. But both had been to college, and he—he really—and both of them sort of appreciated the importance of education.

 

And how far were you expected to go with your life?

 

Well, that’s a good question. I’m not—I’m not sure I can really answer. I think that what they would say, were they still here, well … they would hope that you would go as far as your potential would take you.

 

And did you have an early sign of your potential, where you would go, or how you would get there?

 

Um, that’s a debatable subject, you know. I—I uh, I came back uh, on this trip and I had a birthday; I had a birthday couple days ago. And uh, I saw my old fraternity brothers … got together to do this birthday party for me. And several of them, I hadn’t seen for forty yeas, right? And one of them said to me, Jeez, I had no idea that uh, that—that you were smart, and that you would go this far. And the other one—another one of my fraternity brothers, without missing a beat, said, Oh, Rich isn’t smart, he’s just uh, you know, he just doesn’t … piss people off.

 

Ah, but I’ve heard—um, I think it was a former next door neighbor of yours uh, who came along later in your life, and he said, People—uh, he said you uh, actually liked people to underestimate you, and you—you work at it.

 

Uh, I don’t have to work at it; they just seem to. So if that was a sign of potential, maybe yes. Um, I did okay in school. I did okay in school, but—

 

I mean, you—you’re smart.

 

I was clever enough. But I was not—for example, I was not the smartest kid on my—on my block. And I certainly wasn’t the smartest kid in our school.

 

And yet, later, you would be, I think, one of thirty-six hundred law school grads applying for the New York State Bar, and you would score the highest number?

 

Well, that was a—that was a fallow year.

 

See, you underestimate yourself. Or you want me to underestimate you, right? [chuckle] Okay; so you’re—you’re growing up um, with parents who—who expect you to do well and get—

 

M-hm.

 

–get educated.

 

M-hm.

 

Um, so um, actually, you went through school quickly, didn’t you?

 

M-hm.

 

Well, by the—were you living in a rough area, or was it the suburbs?

 

Well, I was born in um, in Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And that was pretty rough—I think that’s one of the reasons my father moved the family. It just was getting not better, it was getting worse in the 50s. Uh, and then we moved to an area, uh, which at the time, as I said, was almost bucolic in terms of its rural splendors, but over time, um… became in a sense, um, uh, a somewhat rougher area, so that for example, the junior high school I went to was considered one of the worst in the city by the time I got to junior high school, because it had gotten violent. So it was—it was uh, it was the city, you know, it was urban America.

 

How did you navigate that? Did you get into fights?

 

I did, until I realized I wasn’t very good at it. I must have lost fifty fights by the time I was in the sixth grade, so I thought—

 

These are fistfights?

 

Yeah; so I thought, there has to be a better way, right?

 

What’s that?

 

Well, you learn to um… y—you learn to deal with people in—in an non-confrontational fashion or format. I mean, there’s always—there—there is—at least it’s been my experience, almost always an alternative to fighting.

 

So if a guy wants to hijack your lunch money, or just wants to fight you just because you—

 

You know, you were there, weren’t you?

 

[chuckle]

 

They used to do that. You know, you’d come out of the lunchroom, and you’d have the change on you; they’d take your lunch and your—there are some times when—when—when, you know, you have stand up to a bully. But frequently, um, you can use other techniques to get where you need to go.

 

For example, how do you diffuse a bully’s—uh, or uh, a—a fight—

 

Humor is—

 

–situation?

 

Humor is one way.

 

Well, you can’t make fun of the guy who’s—

 

No, no, you—

 

–challenging you.

 

You can’t make fun of him, but you can make fun of other things, where you can get people—you can get people to change their um, attitude, to change their approach, to change their sense of wellbeing.

 

How did you do it? Give me an example.

 

I’ll give you two; ‘cause there are two different techniques. One was … to self-effacing humor, or a self-depreciating humor, can frequently um, disarm somebody. Fre—a lot of times—I mean, there are bullies in the world, but most people um, fight for defensive reasons, not for offensive reasons. They—they feel cornered, or they feel uh, insulted, or they feel sort of that they’ve been confronted and have to defend themselves. Um, another thing that—that turned out to be um, very beneficial, when I was in high school I learned, that … you know, I went to school in a place where—where smart kids were frequently picked on. I mean, it was not… it—it wasn’t a cool thing to do well in school. Uh, but if you were an athlete, right?

 

M-hm.

 

If you played on any of the sports teams, and particularly if you played on the basketball team—‘cause we had a good basketball team, then the—the real toughs in the school would protect you, because you were part of the team, right? We gotta—

 

M-hm.

 

–stand up for the team. So I played basketball, and that—that was sort of a pass through high school, because nobody could pick on the basketball guys, or some really bad operators would come and upset your day.

 

Well, y—were you six-feet-four in high school?

 

Yeah, I was.

 

And were you a naturally talented athlete, or did you have to work at it?

 

Had to work at it. I had to work at it. Um, it turned out I, uh, I actually wasn’t all that talented uh, in the [INDISTINCT] time, I learned. I thought I was when I was in high school, but—but I had to work at it. But I did; I played a lot of ball.

 

Richard Parsons graduated from high school at the age of 16. He had dreamed of attending Princeton University since the 7th grade but the combination of financial constraints and wanting to break free of home led to his enrollment at the University of Hawaii in 1964.

 

And as a lark, I applied to University of Hawaii, because um, I sat next to a gal from Hawaii in my junior year in physics course, and she was the cutest thing I’d ever seen in my life. And I thought, There must be a University of Hawaii. To be honest with you, I didn’t even really know there—wa—was certain if there was one. But I said, There must be. So I put it down on the SATs as my third choice. Uh, long story short; I got wait-listed in Princeton, uh, which meant I wasn’t gonna get in any financial assistance even if I got in. I got into CCNY, but it was really time to leave home, it was time to go away.

 

M-hm.

 

And I got into Hawaii, and so I came out here.

 

And how did you pay for college?

 

Uh, I worked. My first year, I worked at the Pacific Biomedical Research Center. I don’t even know if it’s still out here. Basically, after school, washing test tubes and stuff; and then I had a night job at the Primo Brewery. You know, watching—in those days, they recycled the bottles, and you had to watch ‘em on the assembly line to make sure that there was nothing in them as they sort of came through. Pull them off if there was. And then um, my sophomore and junior year, I worked at Mark—a place called Mark’s Center Garage, downtown.

 

Just—

 

I was uh … first, I parked cars, and then I was the night manager. And then my senior year, I worked for Honolulu Gas Company, putting in gas pipes out in Hawaii Kai.

 

But you were also on the basketball team.

 

Yeah.

 

How’d you do all that?

 

Well, something had to come up short, right?

Yes.

 

Turned out—

 

[chuckle]

 

Turned out to be school. So I was not—I was—I was not … I didn’t make my mother proud, I’ll put it that way, in terms of the grades I got while I was out here.

 

And you were a history major?

 

Yeah; I started out as a physics major. But um … but that required more time and attention than … all these other activities afforded me.

 

M-hm.

 

So I became a history major.

 

Did you take anything from here that has um, stood the test of time in terms of values, people?

 

All of these… um, experiences are—are—are platforms for whatever you go on to next, right? And I think that uh, you find… most successful people um, they didn’t just go from nowhere to being hugely successful. It’s a step process, and they have—they have prior su—success platforms. And for me, Hawaii became one. Uh, not only ‘cause I got an education here, but because um, as you indicated, I was pretty young when I got out here, and I was very much on my own. And um, I survived. You know, I made it.

 

And very different culture.

 

Uh—

 

Expensive place to live.

 

It was different. It took me about a year to make the adjustment to Hawaii from New York. But once I did, um, probably the last three years of college were among the best years of my life. I really enjoyed Hawaii, I enjoyed the culture, and even though I did not knock the ball out of the park in school here, uh, I got through school, and I got through life, and I supported myself, and I … I made it. And … that was—that was um, confidence instilling, that was something that for the rest of my life, um … I never had to really stop and think about, well, can I do this, or—or—or what could happen to me if I fail, because I believed in myself.

 

What was the hardest thing about that first year?

 

Loneliness.

 

M-hm.

 

Loneliness. Um, it was my first time, really, away from home. Not—you know, I’d gone to camp for two weeks, or I’d go see—visit my grandmother in Virginia, but usually that was with family. Uh, this was the first time that I was out from under family, and friends, and relatives, and everything that was familiar to me back in New York. And uh … I did okay in the fall semester, ‘cause there was basketball, right? So the basketball team became my extended family and my friends.

 

M-hm.

 

But after basketball season, uh, I got lonely. And so that was—that was an adjustment.

 

Did you find this an open society? Did people let you in?

 

That’s a good question. Um … it’s a friendly society, but it—it isn’t—it isn’t necessarily as welcoming um … as the tourist brochures suggest. It’s different. And—and—and once you accommodate those differences, or at least are aware of those differences, then people let you in. But … but it isn’t as though they come up to you on the street and drag you and say, Come with me, let me show you how to be a part of Hawaii. You have to find your way in.

 

How did you find that way?

 

Uh, ultimately, I sort of stopped resisting; that’s always the first step, right? You stop trying to pretend that this is still New York, or … and you—you acknowledge that there are some difference, and then you kind of give in to the … aloha spirit. And for me, I ended up uh, joining a local fraternity, um … making a lot of local friends. Most of the guys on the basketball team were not from Hawaii.

 

M-hm.

 

Uh, they were from other parts on the mainland. And so it was—it was a kind of a cloistered community.

 

M-hm.

 

And so I sort of had to give that up, and go local. And when I did, everything clicked.

 

Were you um—okay, we have a stereotypic New York, right? Loud and aggressive—

 

Whoa.

 

Were you that way?

 

Whoa.

 

[chuckle]

 

Whoa. I—

 

You can say stereotypes about—

 

I regard myself—

 

–Hawaii, and I can deny them.

 

–as the stereotypical New Yorker. Relatively sophisticated, urbane, witty, and … charming.

 

And that’s how you always were, even in beginning of college? [chuckle]

 

Yeah, actually, true. I’m—you know, the one thing most of the people who’ve known me for many, many years, going back to high school, but certainly in college would say, Jeez, you haven’t changed; you’ve gotten older, a little balder and fatter, but basically—

 

[chuckle]

 

–you’re still you.

 

Y—your friends seem to speak really frankly with you.

 

Yeah, well, they do, they do, they do.

 

You know, um, one of your friends has said that you’re very smooth, and you’re—you’re a diplomat, you’re a charmer, but you’ve got a killer instinct. Now, I bet you had it in basketball, and I’ll be you have it in business.

 

What I would say is that I’m competitive, as opposed to killer instinct. That sounds too much like uh, the kid who lost too many fights when he was—

 

M-hm.

 

–in grade school. I’m competitive; I don’t like to lose. Now, what’s interesting is—‘cause I’ve—I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t mind um, if everybody wins, right, if we all get to the finish line simultaneously and we’re all winners. But I just don’t like to lose.

 

At the UH Manoa, Richard Parsons met his future wife, Laura, and Rainbow Warrior basketball coach Red Rocha.

 

I think I was frustrating to him. ‘Cause I had talent, um … but I was young. And I hadn’t—I hadn’t fully grown into my own body, and I hadn’t developed the—the sort of discipline and—and … focus and sense of real purpose that uh, a coach like Red requires, you know. I was still goofing off, right? You know.

 

M-hm.

 

And so whenever I’d get into goofing off, boy, he’d get on me. But he was—he was a good man. He was—he was sort of like almost … the father figure. I didn’t realize this until many yeas later, but—but when you’re young and you sort of pull yourself away from the family and throw yourself out into the world, the team became like my family, and—

 

M-hm.

 

–and Red became the father figure. So he certainly took to the role, yelling and screaming—

 

[chuckle]

 

–and carrying on.

 

[chuckle] Um, well, you also had another kind of figure; you—you met your—the woman who would become your wife here.

 

M-hm, m-hm. That was another part of the transition to uh, um … this becoming a place that—for which I have the fondest memories. I met my wife in my—my sophomore year. We were in an English class together, and you know, we dated … um, pretty steadily for our sophomore year. We then kinda broke up … ‘cause she went back home, um, and I didn’t that summer. And when she came back in our junior year, we sort of dated off and on, but we didn’t really um, get back together seriously ‘til my senior year. And then at the end of my senior year, we got married.

 

Young again; still young.

 

Very.

 

How old were you?

 

Twenty.

 

Twenty years old. And she’s from Oklahoma, you’re from New York, and you meet and marry in Hawaii?

 

M-hm.

 

Where’d you get married?

 

We got married right down the block at uh, the … church. Um—

 

Church of the Crossroads, in Manoa?

 

Yeah. Right down the block.

 

My parents did too. So—so now you’ve graduated, and uh … actually, you  didn’t graduate—

 

No.

 

–did you, from the UH?

 

No, I was six credits shy at the end of my … four years. And I was supposed to go to summer school to get those six credits, but I just um—other things came up, and I never got around to it. I’d applied to and gotten admitted to law school in—back in New York. And [CLEARS THROAT] I found out … on the way to signing up for those two classes that summer, to finish up, that I didn’t really need to; that—that I … got what was called the law school qualifying certificate, ‘cause I had enough college credits and I’d done well enough on the LSATs and all that sort of thing, that I could just go off and go to law school. So instead of um, instead of going to summer school, I worked. Law school was—was relatively easy for me. Because the law um … the laws are purely—particularly in those days, almost a purely logical exercise. It’s built on, you know, eight or nine hundred years of sort of human experience built around a few simple rules. And it turned out that—that apparently, my brain works the same way that um … that human experience over time works.

 

M-m.

 

And so I didn’t have to—I—I just knew the answers. And so I did very well in law school, without having to work too, too hard.

 

And you worked hard on the side; you were a janitor part of the time, right, to pay—

 

Yeah, that was my—

 

–your way through.

 

That was my first job in the law. I was a—I used to clean up the law school after everybody went home.

 

Wow. Humbling experience?

 

Well, you know, humbling—uh, you know, it was a job. My mother always told me, All work has dignity. So I didn’t—in fact, my to this day best friend—that’s where I met him. He and I were—we worked in the bookstore uh, initially, and then we—we talked the sup—the superintendent of the building—

 

Ah.

 

–the law school building into letting us work part-time as janitors at night, ‘cause we needed the money.

 

Immediately following law school, in 1971, Richard Parsons was offered the job of assistant counsel to then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He continued as a much-trusted advisor when Rockefeller was appointed Vice-President to President Gerald Ford.

 

I didn’t know Nelson Rockefeller as a—as a … political figure. Um … and I liked him; I liked him. But no, I didn’t consider myself a Democrat or a Republican. I was—you know, I was a guy who needed a job. Uh, over time, um … I found out that I—I—I agreed with a lot of his political philosophy and leanings, and I would still call myself a Rockefeller Republican. There aren’t many of us left.

 

What is a Rockefeller Republican?

 

Well, I think a Rockefeller Republican is somebody that’s—uh, who is more conservative on fiscal matters, um , but understands that government has a role in terms of making lives better for people. So many people call that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism.

 

Now, in—in all this time we’ve been talking about your um, early experiences, you haven’t once mentioned racism.

 

Nope.

 

Did—have you experienced it?

 

Yeah. But uh, but … certainly not in um … in its most virulent form. You know, I was born in the North, not in the South, uh, back in the 40s and 50s, and early 60s when—when uh … and I know this because my grandmother lived in the South, and we’d go visit with her in the summertime, when life as very different in the South for Blacks. Uh, in the North, it was … not easy, but it was not so stark, right? And then secondly, um … you know, I went to school in Hawaii, right, undergraduate school, and that was—uh, this was, at least in those respects, a more tolerant, open, embracing, and—and—and—and less stratified society. Still is. Uh, and then I got married, and my wife is White; and so we wondered a little bit when we went back to New York in 1968, right, uh, as an interracial couple. But I think in part because of our respective personalities, it just never bit. Um, you know, all those skills that one developed as a kid trying to avoid fights paid off, in a way that I wouldn’t have not—would not have inte—in—in … te—uh, expected.

 

Same principles apply?

 

Yeah. I mean, you know, it’s—it’s how you approach people. If you can—if you can disarm them, right, if you can cause them not to feel threatened, not to feel defensive, not to feel challenged, um—

 

Sounds like you don’t take offense easily.

 

I don’t. I don’t. Because—

 

You just let it pass?

 

Because y—you know, what happens is, first of all, most things aren’t intended.

 

M-hm.

 

–um … at a personal level. Mostly—and uh, I didn’t, by the way, realize much of this until I had my own children, and I saw in my son—my son is—is probably the world’s most secure, at least he was—you get older, some of it gets chipped off—but the most secure kid. He just assumed that uh, he was going to be accepted.

 

M-hm.

 

Even as like a one-year-old, one-and-a-half-year-old, we’d let him out in the yard, and other kids would be out there, and he’d just wade in as if, you know, I’m here, right? You know, who isn’t gonna accept me? And—and so he had no kind of defensive chip on his shoulder that he had to defend. And then secondly, he—he was secure enough to almost mold himself to whatever circumstance that he had to, to accommodate somebody else’s peculiarities or—or—or—or—or vulnerabilities, so that he made other people feel like they didn’t have to be defensive either. And I watched him, and I realized that I have some of those skills.

 

Of course, when the racism is deliberate, I mean, it is racism.

 

M-hm.

 

It’s not uh … ignorance or misinformation about what’s going on, it’s you know, I’m focusing my racism upon you. That—y—you can’t slip away from that very—

 

No—

 

–easily.

 

–you can’t. You can’t. That doesn’t happen nearly as much as people think it happens. Um, there is such a thing in America that I call structural racism. Um, it’s just—it—it—it sits behind the consciousness. People have—they’ve been—they’ve been raised with, and they’ve been reinforced by their experiences in life. They have … understandings um, and perceptions about people who are different than them. And that’s just a reality of life. That—again, that too isn’t intended as personal. I actually—I had an experience once uh, when I was … this was years after I left Hawaii, when I was in a law firm, I was a hiring partner, and I was talking to one of my pals who was on the hiring committee, and who was complaining about the fact that … that—that, you know, we weren’t hiring um, a certain kind of person. Because we—I’d made a big deal about being diverse, and we started recruiting at—at—at you know, uh, historically Black colleges and universities for lawyers, we started hiring a lot of women, and he … said to me once, um, he said, You know, well, but—but like I introduced so-and-so, and he’s uh, he’s the kind of person—you know, he’s the kind of person we need to hire, ‘cause that’s what our client is looking for; you know, he’s six-foot-two and he’s blond-haired and blue-eyed. And he looked right at me, he said, A real White man. And then he caught himself, and he went—he said—he said—[GASP], he said, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. ‘Cause you know, this was a pal. But what he was reflecting was a deep seated perception of the—the way the world is supposed to work. And that—that exists—probably always will, but you can’t let that—it’s—that’s not the sort of overt racism that you were talking about, but it’s—it’s every bit as pernicious. But you can’t let that uh, embitter you or cause you to um … take on more of a burden than you need to, to get to where you want to go. Right? You just gotta … it—it’s like a boulder in the middle of the path; you just gotta figure out how you’re gonna get around that.

 

And at that time, you were the hiring partner, so you were in the catbird seat anyway.

 

Yeah; right. I mean, most of these things, uh, uh, I—I—I think, to the extent of about eighty percent … people bring a lot of this on themselves, things that they could negotiate around, if they were—if they put themselves in the right mindset to do it.

 

M-hm.

 

Now, every once in a while, you do have to do stand and fight. And when you do … I don’t like to lose that either.

 

Have you done that? Have you stood up to racism?

 

Yeah. You know. But you know, I haven’t—I haven’t punched anybody. But I haven’t had to punch anybody. But you—sometimes you just have to … do what you gotta do, as they say.

 

Join us next time on Long Story Short for more conversation with Richard Parsons who reached the highest ranks of corporate power.  I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.