Joe Kūhiō Lewis | Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

A vision for possibilities that benefit everyone

Young Leader Remakes Impact Investing in Hawaii

Joe Kūhiō Lewis – Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (Photo by Marco Garcia)

Joe Kūhiō Lewis leads the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, an organization fighting for his Native Hawaiian community to gain better access to capital, housing and human services. He’s managing the state’s biggest community development financial institution and helping to remake the state’s impact investing profile along the way.

He’s doing it all as a single father who, 20 years ago, was a high school dropout.

But those who know his full story know not to underestimate him.

“Kūhiō is an intentional leader, whose experience demonstrates a remarkable ability to bring together a wide range of stakeholders and allies to address the most entrenched problems facing the community,” says Jeff Gilbreath, executive director of Hawaiian Community Assets.

Breaking the Cycle

As a teen, Lewis dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He ran away from home, following the path he says he saw so many men in his community follow.

Opposite page and left, Joe Kūhiō Lewis leads the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement. The organization works to enhance housing opportunities for Native Hawaiians by drawing on resources from The Kresge Foundation to provide loans to individuals and native-serving organizations, and to also seek other philanthropic support. (Photos by Marco Garcia)

“My mom’s brothers are all in prison, and that was kind of the cycle in our family,” Lewis says. “I was headed down a very dark road.”

Lewis fathered a child at age 16 and another 18 months later — a boy and a girl. Along the way, he dropped out of high school. Then, at age 18, he and his children’s mother split, and he became a single father.

“Some lightbulb went off in my head that said I had a chance to break this cycle that has been prevalent in our family,” he says. “I have the opportunity to provide for my kids and give them things that I never had growing up — love and compassion. So, I started turning my life around by first going back to school.”

By the time he decided to go back to school, Lewis was 20. He wanted a diploma, but Hawaii would only allow students to complete a GED at that age.

“I wrote to the principal of the high school,” Lewis says. “He told me, ‘No, you’re too old.’ I went to the district superintendent, and that person backed up the principal. Then I went to the deputy superintendent of the Department of Education in Hawaii.”

“He brings a focus on the big picture and a willingness to find ways to work that benefit everyone. His experiences, his connections and his vision have opened a whole set of possibilities about the future of CDFIs in Hawaii.” —Joe Evans, Kresge Social Investment Practice

Again, the answer was no. He tried next to schedule a meeting with the superintendent, who refused. He decided he needed a new strategy. So, with his daughter in tow, he waited on the steps outside the building where the superintendent worked. When she emerged, he approached her.

“I introduced myself to her,” Lewis says. “I told her, ‘All I want to do is go back to school. I just want to finish up the 13 credits that I’m short, and nobody’s giving me the chance.’”

She agreed to a meeting the next day, when Lewis shared his story with her. She personally called the principal and asked him to let Lewis back in.

“I felt so empowered in this moment,” he says. “I realized, ‘Wow, I actually won this battle.’ Most people would have given up.”

Young, Scrappy and Effective

That was the beginning of the rise that brought him to his current role as head of CNHA, an important advocacy organization and one of the state’s few CDFIs.

First, he enrolled in classes and walked across the graduation stage at age 21, with his son watching and cheering. He then went to a community college before finishing his education with double bachelor’s degrees from the University of Hawaii. There, he served as student body president, which sparked his interest in public service.

A tiny home in Hawaii is under construction; and plans for a new home. Kresge’s Social Investment Practice supports the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s work developing housing for native residents. (Photos by Marco Garcia)

After graduation, he ran for the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), a $600 million trust. He didn’t win, but 46,000 people voted for him, and the publicity he attracted brought new mentors into his life.

One offered him a position at OHA as the community engagement manager.

“I had 22 staff,” he says. “I was the youngest manager working over there. I really got to know the Native Hawaiian community in that role. The good, bad, the ugly. It helped me develop as a leader.”

After eight years, the former leader of CNHA recruited him to succeed her, telling him, “If you can pass this challenge, you can do anything.”

Now at CNHA, he’s taking the organization to new heights. He’s raised more than $500,000 in new support in under a year. He’s achieved historic highs for CNHA in terms of loan dollars out the door, restructured the staff, and brought greater focus to managing the loan fund and the organization’s financials.

“Our staff are getting trained, they’re getting updated on new housing rules, compliance-related matters,” Lewis says. “We’re using the resources from Kresge, and Kresge’s public vote of confidence, to go after new funds.”

In short, “Joe has vision,” said Joe Evans, from Kresge’s Social Investing team. “He brings a focus on the big picture and a willingness to find ways to work that benefit everyone. His experiences, his connections and his vision have opened a whole set of possibilities about the future of CDFIs in Hawaii.”

Joe Kūhiō Lewis

An Interview with Joe Kūhiō Lewis

Why does your community need strong leadership now?

The native Hawaiian community, our beneficiary, faces a lot of scoio-economic challenges. The type of leadership that's needed right now is one that can help bring people together - to problem solve, to look at solutions, to help have conversations that are meaningful and very direct about where we want to go as a native Hawaiian community. We need leaders who listen and are responsive.

How has Kresge supported your leadership development?

The resources that we have received from Kresge have allowed me to move projects forward that would not be possible without their support. For example, we're building homes for Hawaiians that just wouldn't have had them... Nobody would have invested in them otherwise. The capital resources that Kresge has invested is helping house Hawaiians and is helping to address their economic situations. It’s helping on workforce development. And it's also helping us to just build up our overall program. The resources have helped us strengthen our loan fund, the operations that support the loan fund, and, again, workforce development, housing.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming leaders?

I like to lead by example. As far as what I would say, it's all about confidence. You know, to be a leader you have to be confident, and you have to feel that people are confident in you, in your abilities.

Kresge's Take

Clearing the Way for Investing in Housing

The Kresge Foundation made a $500,000 program-related investment loan to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) in 2017.

CNHA works to expand opportunity for Native Hawaiians. (Photo courtesy of Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement)

Kresge invested $30 million via community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and development financial institutions through Kresge Community Finance (KCF). CNHA earned an investment with Kresge’s Human Services team because of its advocacy and policy chops, reach as a membership organization and barrier to capital.

The CDFI sector in Hawaii is underresourced, says Joe Evans, who led KCF.

“They get little to no grants from the CDFI Fund, banks don’t lend to them and their balance sheets are small,” Evans says. “The need is great.”

CNHA also tackles issues that expand opportunity for people with low incomes in the Native Hawaiian community. CNHA works to improve access to capital for homeowners with challenges obtaining traditional mortgages to build or repair homes on homestead properties owned in trust by the government.

Helping to provide housing is one of CNHA’s initiatives. (Photo courtesy of Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement)

The KCF investments came with a grant worth up to 5% of the loan amount. Kresge’s additional capacity-building grant enabled CNHA to train a loan officer.

The results? CNHA loaned $250,000 to Hawaiian Community Assets, which then financed a facility to house a LISC Opportunity Center providing financial counseling services to residents. Since Lewis’s arrival, CNHA deployed the second $250,000 to a homestead in Honolulu for rehabbing about 12 dilapidated, vacant homes.

“We need strong leaders who can assemble the right tables and pull off the relationship side of the work,” Evans says, noting CNHA CEO Joe Kuˉhioˉ Lewis is doing that. “Kuˉhioˉ has opened a number of new doors to investors in CNHA and its lending programs.”

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