Young Leader Remakes Impact Investing in Hawaii
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.
“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.
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.”