20 for the Next 20 2015

March, 2015

Each year, Hawaii Business selects 20 emerging leaders who have already made major contributions to Hawaii and whom we expect to have an even greater impact over the next two decades. Let us introduce you to Hawaii’s People to Watch, Class of 2015.

Photo: Courtesy of Melialani James


President, Hawaii Venture Capital Association


Age 36

Melialani James started her career on the mainland, never expecting to return. “There was this idea of brain drain – you have to do something on the mainland,” she says.

And she did do something on the mainland. A lot of things. Then she brought them home.

In early 2001, James arrived in San Francisco and was an immediate casualty of the dot-com crash. The job that brought her there was “basically a done deal. … Then they had a hiring freeze.”

Jobless in a new city, “I wound up having to be pretty scrappy,” she says, working as a private investigator doing background checks. She worked in sales. She worked in marketing. But when she landed a job in her field – hotel administration – it didn’t click with her like she thought it would. She consulted a career coach and was considering all kinds of possibilities, when someone approached her with the idea of a mobile website for wine. She pounced. “Six months from when we launched we became the No. 1 wine app,” she says. For three years, they were on top.

Despite that partnership collapsing, James had found her niche, and went on to help develop more companies, building entrepreneurial skills as she went.

“She’s a brain gainer. She grew up here, went to the mainland and gained experience, and is sharing that wealth of knowledge,” says Bill Spencer, immediate past president of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association.

When she decided Hawaii was where she wanted to be, James turned to entrepreneurship. “I couldn’t find a job, so I decided to create my own,” she says of co-founding Hawaii Apps, an application development company.

“I have a personal mission about growing the innovation economy here in Hawaii,” James says. Her roles as program manager for Henk Rogers’ Blue Startups and as HVCA president will help her fulfill that mission and, hopefully, draw more of Hawaii’s sons and daughters back home.

“It’s unbelievable how many people reach out to me on a weekly basis, who want me to talk to their kid or hear about the tech sector and entrepreneurial community here because they want to move home.”

The next step, she says, will be encouraging elected leaders to create a better atmosphere for the innovation sector.

“She’s keenly aware of the contribution of a thriving entrepreneurial sector and how the new global economy can help Hawaii,” says Spencer. “And she will have the ear of the politicians, governor and legislators in representing that potential.”


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