Envision Hawaii Social Entrepreneur Series: Pono Shim, CEO of Enterprise Honolulu

Screen-Shot-2013-05-07-at-12.59.23-PMSocial entrepreneurs change the world for the better. Envision Hawaii, a Hawaii nonprofit aiming to connect and encourage social entrepreneurs with supportive people in their community, features a monthly “First Tuesday” gathering with a local changemaker. Today’s speaker was Pono Shim, CEO of Enterprise Honolulu, an organization that has been working on economic development issues, especially in low income communities across Honolulu.

From his bio, “Pono was selected as one of Hawaii Business Magazine’s 2010-20 for 20 and identified as one of Hawai`i’s top 20 Break Out Leaders for the Next 20 Years. In 2012, Pono successfully led the efforts of Punawai O Puuhonua’s New Market Tax Credit Application and was awarded a $40 million allocation for economic development in low-income communities for Hawai`i.”

Seeking relevance

Shim said his beginnings in social entrepreneurship came from his Aunt, a woman who was concerned about what we were doing to our world, our culture, our society. She said, when it boils down to it, what we are all seeking…oil barons and bakers alike, is relevance. It manifests itself in the cars we buy, the education we seek, the company we keep.


Shim’s father was an instrumental part of the Democratic renaissance in Hawaii. After fighting in World War II, Shim’s father returned to Hawaii to find a society in the midst of big changes. Hawaii, at the time, was transitioning from a large plantation agriculture society with an oligarchic structure of several dominant families that controlled all the wealth. The people had voted and shifted the politics substantially. They were ready for change, but there was no infrastructure. Shim’s father became the attorney serving the new government and instituted some of the most basic social safety nets that still exist to this day in the state.

Shim says he and his 6 siblings always loved their father, but never knew what he really did, or how big an impact he was having. They were much more interested in surfing. But one day, Shim had an accident and did permanent damage to his wrist. He was unable to surf any longer, and, instead, “started hanging out at the office with dad.”

Shim’s transition to a powerful force for economic development started by learning through osmosis at his dad’s office. He showed his capabilities quickly, and soon began receiving job offers. But Shim had a different path. He managed to convince his wife that, despite having no investment money, he should start a business. He started a business 3 days before September 11. (So the next time you think, as a social entrepreneur, that your path is not a smooth one, I hope Shim’s ultimate success despite that beginning will give you faith to power on.)

Turning around a sinking ship

In 2008, Shim was recruited to take over the ailing Enterprise Honolulu. The organization was essentially bankrupt, facing shutdown and encountering gridlock at the state capitol. The public had lost trust in the organization. While Enterprise is a 501 (c)3, it is primarily funded by private money. Its vision is a thriving economy and society in Honolulu.

So how do you turn around an organization facing the challenges of bankruptcy, political stonewalling, and public distrust?

About the Author

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride. Find Scott on