Cultural Entrepreneurship in Action

Kaua‘i Community College Putting Theory Into Practice

The distance between Kaua‘i Island, Hawai‘i and the country of Jordan is just over 8,600 miles. While it may seem like worlds and cultures apart, students at Kaua‘i Community College (Kaua‘i CC) have managed to bridge that gap with a remarkable virtual collaboration on sustainability and entrepreneurship.

As participants in the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge, a virtual exchange initiative that supports workforce development in the U.S., Iraq and Jordan—Kaua‘i CC international business students joined forces with their counterparts from Al-Balqua Applied University in Jordan to address the following challenge: The technology industry requires sustainable development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations. How can we create greater sustainability in the technology industry through the three pillars: people, planet and profit?

Team Jordwaiian, as they were aptly named, developed a pitch to address the problem of e-waste and the growing digital divide though the creation of business concept company called E-Waste Not, Want Not, Inc. (EWNWN). Under the plan, several for-profit divisions of the company would extract and resell precious metals in the electronics, create and sell 3D printer filament and process repurposed materials to the construction industry for building materials and road paving. Concurrently, EWNWN’s community benefits division would provide refurbished mobile phones, computers and youth-led training programs to ensure that seniors and the less-fortunate individuals have access and knowledge to stay in touch with the rapidly changing technological world.

The team advanced through the first round against 17 bi-national teams and was one of six selected to make their final pitch this past April in a virtual business exposition, placing third and receiving the audience favorite award. Although Team Jordwaiian did not win the competition, the Kaua‘i CC students were able to share with their Jordanian teammates and fellow competitors the concept of pono, the Hawaiian term of being in a state of harmony or balance with oneself, others, the land, work and life itself.

The driving force behind this group of talented and highly motivated social entrepreneurs is Assistant Professor and Business Program Coordinator Dirk Soma, who is himself, a lifelong entrepreneur in the fields of hospitality, economic development, education and career planning. Soma lives his life by the motto, “In life it’s not what you acquire, it’s who you inspire.”

The Kanaka Kanvas© created by Dirk Soma serves as a platform to teach entrepreneurship.

 The true iteration of cultural entrepreneurship came to him when he asked to review a white paper on benefits corporations and the premise to achieve the 3Ps. “I realized there was a fourth P missing—it was pono,” said Soma, who is of Native Hawaiian ancestry. “For me, cultural entrepreneurship has to incorporate preserving and perpetuating a set of values, norms and practices of a distinct community and/or place—whether it’s Kaua‘i, Jordan or someplace in between.”

By incorporating the value of pono into the standard 3P sustainable business model of planet, people and profit used by benefits corporations, Soma’s tweak to create a 4P model closely aligns it with the ancient Hawaiian land management system known as the Ahupua‘a, a system of land division that runs from the mountains to the sea, that created an equitable, self-sustaining ecosystem for each ruling chief. As a result, the existing business model canvas was transformed into the Kānaka (Native Hawaiian) Kanvas (see graphic).

“On Kaua‘i, and to a certain extent in Hawai‘i, there is a sort of mindset that we have to look to the mainland or other countries for best practices and new ideas,” said Soma. “The creation of Kānaka Kanvas has helped our students to shed that particular point a view and to take a deeper look at the great resources we have on island and in our state.”

As a result, a small but important startup ecosystem is beginning to take root in this sleepy island community of just over 71,000 residents—one that has recognized that it must develop a diversified and sustainable economy to weather tourism fluctuations, including the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the current COVID-10 pandemic, to ensure that there are sufficient jobs at living wages to prevent its youth from leaving to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

The following highlight some of the recent accomplishments and national entrepreneurial awards earned by Soma’s program and students:

HI Joe!

Introduced in the fall 2019 semester, students from Soma’s entrepreneurial classes worked together to create a pop-up coffee tent at the Kaua‘i Community Famer’s Market to provide only 100 percent Hawai‘i grown and roasted coffees that will perpetuate sustainability and provide incremental income to local coffee producers. Biodegradable coffee cups, lids and stirrers are used and all coffee grounds are added to the campus compost bins. Students staffed one of three teams that included—Marketing and Promotions, Operations and Logistics, and Finance and Accounting.

“Professor Soma was great to come up with this idea of business, because it was relatively simple to start, had all the difficulties of a business and we were able to learn a lot practicing what we learned in class,” said student Anna Lammotte. “It also showed us the need that Kaua‘i has for more entrepreneurs and small businesses, as people want to be able to spend their money in great products and experiences.”

Success has come rapidly to the startup, as the farmer’s market wants HI Joe! to be a regular vendor, Kaua‘i CC has asked them to consider an on-campus kiosk, team members are considering a brick and mortar location in a shopping mall, and Intuit Education has express interest in rolling out a hands-on HI Joe! component to their financial management curriculum project to give students across the nation access to this experiential learning opportunity.

Alaka‘i Initiative

As participants in the Student Entrepreneurship Challenge: Solutions for a Sustainable Life competition sponsored by HP Life last October, students were tasked with providing a solution to a local challenge faced around the UN Sustainability Goal 14—Providing Quality Education. With their proposal to provide free housing for up to two years at Kaua‘i hotels and condos as an incentive to help recruit and retain local teachers, students Meagan Luoma and Meghann Matsuda-Blaylock from Soma’s marketing class captured second place and the audience favorite award at the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) national conference.

“This was an innovative and out-of-the-box solution to reduce the main barrier [high cost of housing] to keeping our teaching talent home,” said Soma. “By utilizing existing lodging inventory on island, this plan could be rapidly deployed and just as rapidly, make an immediate impact in both the classroom and in the community.”

Remarkably, six student teams from Soma’s class entered the competition and all six teams made it to the top 20, with the team of Luoma and Matsuda-Blaylock making it to the final five.

Ratcliffe Pitch for the Trades

At the same NACCE conference, Kaua‘i CC’s Sustainable Building Construction Technology proposal was awarded $15,000 from the Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation as part of another nationwide contest, the 2019 Pitch Competition for the Trades.

Developed by Soma, Kaua‘i CC Trades Division Chair Gordon Talbo and Carpentry Program Instructor Duke Lang, their “Back 40” Smart & Sustainable Community (B40 S&SC) proposal created a model for a sustainable community using smart technologies and indigenous knowledge that can be replicated locally, nationally and globally.

In addition to focusing on exposing students and existing tradesmen to new construction techniques focusing on sustainability, Kaua‘i CC’s project also incorporates entrepreneurship skill sets to enable students to become business owners. The project envisions using a 40-acre portion of the campus to allow students to design and develop a community that incorporates sustainability in every stage from building materials, to renewable energy, aqua- and hydroponics and a zero-waste management program.

One of the competition judges has already reached out to link Kaua‘i CC’s project with international partner and in January of this year, Kaua‘i CC received $16,000.00 for the project from a donor on the island. “Dirk Soma and his students have really put together quite an amazing cultural entrepreneurship program that emphasizes the importance of incorporating a sense of place and local values to increase its relevancy and connection to the community, “said Kaua‘i CC Chancellor Joseph Daisy. “The awards, accolades and attention that the entrepreneurial program has recently garnered is a source of great pride for our campus, our island and the state.”