On Pono Shim

ON FRIDAY THE 8TH OF APRIL, posts started showing up on social media announcing that Pono Shim, the CEO of the Oahu Economic Development Board (OEDB) passed away after a time of illness. The event passed quietly, without much fanfare in the press or the television media. Probably a way that Pono wanted it.

His passing was felt across the length and breadth of the political arena that knew him, interfaced and listened to him, and learned from him.

For this writer, the news of him being ill (he’d post updates on his Facebook page)was alarming how fast things happened. A person like Pono took the developments in his unique philosophical way, with words that sewed together a philosophy of life that he adhered to. So one was comforted to know that while he was sick, it didn’t feel like it was the direst of things.

His philosophy, touch, and interface with so many will be missed.

Let me explain.

The post by Ryan Ozawa (L) of the passing of Pono Shim (R) was the first signal that Hawaii lost an extraordinary person.
PC: “C of C: Building Relationships” by Bytemarks is marked with CC BY 2.0.

GOING BACK 12 YEARS, in late January 2010, I found myself as part of a delegation from where I worked, the State of Hawaii Workforce Development Council, going to a meeting at the OEDB offices in downtown Honolulu. My boss, at the time, was working on  a workforce development grant our office was applying for

It was a substantial amount – $6 million over three (eventually four) years to help train people in “green jobs”. The application required partners and OEDB had signaled interest in the potential.

So off we go.

In this small conference room bordered partially by bookcases, four of us sat down, two from our office – my boss and I, and two from OEDB. Having been recently named CEO, Pono Shim was one of the two.

As part of our delegation, and not knowing what we would need to remember from this meeting, I decided to record it, just in case some agreement that I would have to write up, was made. Turns out I would hold onto that recording not because of any agreement, but the profound things that Pono said in that meeting.

At first, my boss made a presentation on the grant and what he envisioned it would do – train people in green industries that were identified as high demand. There was some back and forth with the other OEDB person there (I forget his name) on some of the nitty-gritty dry details that these grants have.

And then Pono started talking.

At first, I didn’t think much of what he was presenting. As this was the first time I ever met him, I just figured he had a thing to say as the leader of the OEDB, and that would be that.

But as he continued to talk, a much richer dialogue from him emerged. Like a movie that starts slow but you get sucked into the plot right around the middle, I found myself a bit transfixed after hearing what he had to say for about 15 minutes, give or take.

He talked about a higher level of awareness that this grant would provide to Hawaii. He talked about the promise and how this grant would be good for Hawaii if executed right. He was realistic in how he presented things, even telling the story about how he got hired as CEO of OEDB.

By the 16th minute, one could wonder “how does a guy like this get a job like this?”, I have to admit the thought did cross my mind a couple of times.

And then, around the 45-minute mark of the recording, he laid out what I consider to be the clearest definition of how politics are in Hawaii. This is what Pono Shim said.

When Mike Fitzgerald* came to Hawaii, this is what he said, ‘this is where we are, and this is where we want to be’.  Now where he wanted to be is a little different than mine, but that is what he said. And everyone who has run for political office in Hawaii has said ‘this is where we are and this is where we want to be’. We’ve had fifty years of people saying ‘this is where we are and this is where we want to be’. Big question, we ever go where we want to go?


Because we expect the bigness of the person saying it to be the thing that brings us all together, to go. Or we expect the bigness of the project to be the thing to bring us all together, to go. Does it ever do? Never. Because nobody is that big no project is that big. Nothing is that big to do that.

There is another question that has to be asked. And that question is ‘Who we are?’. So who are we? Are we the kind of people who only care about those of us who share the same perspective on marriage? And I threw that right on the table yesterday, and everybody got ‘whoa!’ Or are we the kind of people who only care about those of us in the same race, same educational level. blue or red, donkey or elephant, same religious perspective, same perspectives on labor, same perspectives on policy, agreements! Is that who we are?

Everybody said ‘no’. We are the ones who care about each other.

Then why do we let all these things get in the way of moving ahead?”

*Mike Fitzgerald, at the time, was the President and Chief Executive Officer of Enterprise Honolulu.

SAYING THAT I WAS BLOWN AWAY by that very statement, in which he laid out why things are in Hawaii, is an understatement. I realized that Pono was way more than what his resume said he was capable of. This guy was a deep thinker and had a very tuned ear as to how things were in Hawaii above and beyond so many others in various leadership positions.

Later when I heard this part again, I said “I need to get him in front of more people”. At the time, I was just coming in as the 67th President of the Hawaii Junior Chamber (Hawaii Jaycees). Pono’s message was what I thought the members needed to hear.

So a few weeks later, I called on Pono and asked him if he’d be the keynote speaker at our first statewide convention of the year, with the dinner being at Dave and Buster’s indoor event space.

He asked me what to speak about, and I simply told him “Tell them how to story tell”. At the time the Jaycees were challenged in explaining themselves to the community. I thought what was needed was a master storyteller to talk to them about how they can tell the Jaycee story.

He came, spoke, and supplied his mana`o on storytelling, he encouraged and, as told to me by someone who attended that speech, years later, “dropped some knowledge bombs”.

Among other things Pono did, he donated his kidney to HPD Officer Malcolm Lutu in 2014. Lutu is now the President of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO)
PC: Screenshot from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eiynV6BT8D0 – a KITV report on Pono’s donation.

TO HAVE THAT LEVEL OF TOUCH WITH people when you just met them is the equivalent of printing money, making your gold, and writing your check. You meet a few that have that touch, but you meet only one that sticks with you as long as Pono did with me.

That is why when I heard of his passing on the 8th, I sat back and just let the news settle in my mind. This impression was left with so many when I saw the messages from friends on his Facebook wall. Their stories were of a man that reached out, touched the heart and mind, and left an impression on both.

Ironically, as this post was being written, I read John Donne’s poem “No man is an island” he says upon the passing of a person, “[A]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” 

There are those diminished today with Pono’s passing. But his imprint still stands, and will for the test of time, I predict.