Hokule'a Lands in Charleston: Interview with Dan McInerny

As we all know, OluKai has become of the most successful footwear giants in the retail marketplace. This isn’t just due to exceptional design, creative product development and excellent marketing. For over 10 years, and since day one, OluKai has made a point of giving back to the community and supporting Hawaiian culture. OluKai does this with their deep respect for the Hawaiian Islands through many diverse giveback campaigns, community donations and the desire to be more than just an ethical manufacturer. Dan McInerny is not only one of the founding partners of the OluKai brand, but he is also the Executive Director of their 501 (c) 3 non-profit foundation, the Ama OluKai Foundation. We recently had the opportunity to interview Dan about OluKai’s community and cultural outreach programs, country-wide events and the mission of Ama Olukai. OK: The Ama OluKai Foundation was founded in 2014, but OluKai has always found it important to give back to Hawaiian communities. Can you provide a little background history about this, and tell us why this is so important to OluKai as a brand? DM: When we founded the company in 2005, we had a deep affinity to Hawai’i from our own personal experiences and relationship to the islands over the years. One of the partners, Bill Worthington, grew up in Hawai’i. I spent many years in Hawai’i from my days at Quiksilver. Giving back to the communities was easy for us because it was our kuleana to do so and it became one of our brand tenets while building the company. Before establishing our Foundation, we started giving back on a more informal basis when we started the company, even before we were turning a profit. One of our first products was the Rabbit Kekai slipper. A percentage of the proceeds from each sale went back to the Rabbit Kekai Foundation, introducing underprivileged keikis (kids) to surfing and the ocean. Giving back has always given us a lot of joy because it is what we genuinely believe in and the right thing to do. OK: On Ama OluKai's website, there’s a list of non-profit groups that are inaugural beneficiaries to The Foundation. As a group, they seem to be a complete representation of Hawaii’s oceans, land, sky and cultural efforts. Can you discuss the connection with the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association, and give us some more information about why this relationship is so important? DM: Archie Kalepa was the head lifeguard in Maui for 31 years and is now a very important member and Konohiki at OluKai. He taught us that to be a lifeguard in Hawai’i is a big deal. It is like passing the test to become a paramedic or fireman. It is a profession that requires hard work and dedication. We recognize and honor each lifeguard for what they do on a daily basis protecting the shores of seven Hawaiian islands. We view them as our Olympic athletes. We have a deep respect for Ralph Goto and Jim Howe, who founded the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association (HLA). Unlike on the mainland, the lifeguard association does not receive public funds. The HLA is a private entity. Our support for the HLA has been dedicated to their Junior Lifeguard Program, which is the feeder program for so many keikis around Hawaii in becoming highly skilled lifeguards. Our love for the ocean and the need to create a platform for the next generation of kids to excel in Hawaii is why this relationship is so important. OK: Even before the Ama OluKai Foundation was created, OluKai as a brand has always been a huge supporter of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and the incredibly profound journeys of the Hokule’a. Can you share with us more about how this all came into fruition? What do you believe is the most important message that the Hokule’a brings to our world? DM: Honor, Respect and Celebrate are the cornerstones of our Ama OluKai Foundation. Our relationship and respect for Nainoa Thompson, Bruce Blankenfeld and the many crew members and staff of the Polynesian Voyaging Society over the years runs deep. After statehood in 1959, a generation of Hawaiians lost many of the values and traditions that made this island culture so special. It wasn’t until 1976, with the launch of the Hokule’a, that revitalized Hawaiian culture’s important connection to its ancestral past. Wayfinding without instruments in the open ocean is an important part of Hawaiian history that must not be forgotten. Our company recognized the importance of supporting this renaissance for Hawaii’s next generation and this is why we support organizations like the Polynesian Voyaging Society, ‘Imiloa and Na Kalai Wa’a, who are all dedicated to the traditions of celestial navigation and how important the wa’a (outrigger canoe) is to the community. The most important message that the Hokule’a brings to our world is Malama Honua, care for our island earth. Every nation has a role and responsibility in protecting our valuable natural resources. Our planet is like our own island — it is smaller than we think with limited resources. Let’s take care of it properly. Hawaiian astronaut Lacy Veach taught us this while hovering over earth from his Nasa spacecraft back in 1992. The Hokule’a world wide voyage is dedicated to this message of Malama Honua, and we are as well at OluKai. OK: The Hokule’a recently reached the East Coast on their Worldwide Voyage, and was welcomed at the 26th Annual Charleston Outdoor Festival. How was OluKai involved in this event? Secondly, what do you believe was the largest significance of the Hokule’a as a guest in Charleston considering the American Civil War history of this community? DM: Nainoa Thompson and I spoke back in January about the importance of spreading the message of Malama Honua. The Hokule’a is opening the door to the world with this message and it is important that companies like OluKai continue to spread this message. We have 2,500 retailers in America who support the OluKai brand. It is our responsibility to introduce them to the world wide voyage of the Hokule’a and its message of caring for island earth as it sails along the eastern seaboard and visits each port community. The Ama OluKai Foundation was in Charleston to help support the crew and their message with the community and our retailers. Leading up to the Civil War, 40% of all slaves that came from Africa to America traveled through the port of Charleston. Ironically, the significance of the Hokule’a’ visiting Charleston from my own perspective was that Hawaii’ has its own subtle tie to human rights challenges over the years. The Hokule’a was welcomed by several Native American tribes from the region, which was very powerful. The significance was the importance of respecting the value of indigenous people, their culture and values. OK: Why is it so important for OluKai to give back to the Hawaiian community? How did this become a part of the brands overall philosophy? DM: Giving back has always been a part of our DNA at OluKai. Not only do we focus on giving back in Hawai’i, but we give back in many mainland communities across the country. We have earned the designation of a B Corporation, which identifies for-profit companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. We are proud about this recognition. Giving back became part of our company philosophy because we wanted to build a strong culture of giving back that aligns with the morals and values of the partners, our employees and consumers. OluKai: As you stated, Honor, Preserve and Celebrate are the core values of the Ama OluKai Foundation. It’s so fantastic to see a brand have such a rich respect for Hawaii’s cultural history. How will OluKai continue to follow these values in the future of the foundation? Are there any current issues or projects in place that our readers should know about? (ocean, land, environmental) Dan: There is a very powerful movement underway in Hawaii centered around the preservation of Hawaii’s rich cultural history and traditions. This is especially evident among the younger generation of Hawaiians who are deeply proud of their roots and are working hard to revitalize these efforts. The Ama OluKai Foundation recognizes these efforts and will continue to seek grass roots organizations centered around language, customs, art, education and moral values in Hawaiian communities. We have established new partnerships on Molokai and Oahu with groups like Huli, The Movement and Papahana Kuaola who are dedicated to the education and restoration of the ahupua’a ecosystems and their corresponding fishponds that have sustained Hawaiian villages for decades. We are also working with Punana Leo schools that are revitalizing native Hawaiian language in the community classrooms at an early age. OluKai: If people in the Hawaiian community wanted to be involved in Ama OluKai events or any volunteer opportunities, what would be the best way they could reach out? Are there any current projects that the community could share involvement in? Dan: I encourage your readers to visit our Foundation website at www.amaolukaifoundation.org. They will notice that we have partnerships with families like the Lindsey’s on Maui who started organizations like Maui Cultural Lands, which encourages volunteer participation to restore an ancient Hawaiian village and its surrounding ahupua’a ecosystem in the Honokowai Valley. Na Kama Kai is an all inclusive ocean education program started by Duane Desoto, which was created for keikis in Hawaii from less fortunate communities. I encourage everyone to visit our friends at Imiloa, located in Hilo on the Big Island, who have created an amazing Hawaiian cultural experience via their science museum and planetarium. We are so proud of all of our partnerships that do so much to support education and awareness centered around cultural preservation in the islands. OluKai: With the 8th Annual OluKai Ho’olaule’a taking place on Maui April 29-May 1st 2016, what are your thoughts about how far this event has come? Did OluKai ever dream that this event would become so huge in the world-wide ocean sports community? Is there any specific part of the event that you are especially looking forward to? Dan: The Ho’olaule’a is a celebration of the ocean lifestyle and the cultures that surround it. What started as a grass roots gathering of paddlers, retailers, beneficiaries, employees and friends has evolved into one of the most popular events of the year. Over 600 paddlers sign up for our stand-up paddle, OC1 and OC2 race each year. These premiere athletes come from Hawaii and around the world. It continues to grow every year and we are humbled by its popularity and success. It is a terrific family experience if you have never been a part of it. On Monday, May 2nd, after the Ho’olaule’a weekend event, the Ama OluKai Foundation will be hosting a Giveback Day in partnership with Maui Cultural Lands. Over 100 volunteers consisting of OluKai employees, our retail partners, beneficiaries and friends will dedicate this day to help restore and preserve the natural vegetation and ahupua’a of the Honokowai Valley. We will be greeted by the Hawai’i Loa sailing canoe in the afternoon for our guests to experience what it is like to crew on the Hokule’a. It is quite a special day that creates a deeper awareness for our guests who have never experienced Hawaii quite like this.