20 for the Next 20 2015

March, 2015
Photo: Mark Arbeit

Photo: Mark Arbeit

Director, Hawaii Department of Human Services

RACHAEL WONG

Age 43

The secretary-makes-good movie classic “Working Girl,” with its closing panorama of Manhattan from the heroine’s office window, had just finished when young Rachael Wong told her parents, “One day that will be me.” Accomplished and ambitious, she was headed to Princeton for college. “Hale and hearty and utterly naïve,” she says now.

Wong this year is indeed celebrating a career triumph, but not on schedule and definitely not on Wall Street. Instead she’s taken over as director of the $3-billion-a-year state Department of Human Services, after an unpredictable, at times unimaginable, recovery from decades of personal health struggles, including a lifesaving kidney transplant in 2002. Now the social well-being of the entire state is her kuleana.

She comes from a two-and-a-half years as VP and COO of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii, an umbrella organization for the majority of the state’s acute-care hospitals, long-term-care facilities, home-health agencies and hospices. Association president and CEO George Greene recalls why he picked Wong for the job: “From the moment anyone meets her, you are struck with her intelligence. She’s such a vivacious person; her integrity just shines through in any conversation.”

Wong previously worked at Hospice Care Hawaii (now Kokua Mau) with its president, Kenneth Zeri. “When we worked together it brought out the best in both of us,” Zeri says. “I could bring the contact expertise and she would bring the new and thoughtful way to approach the problem. She truly can build those bridges together and connect the dots, and let people come together to connect their own dots.”

At DHS, there are a million dots to connect. “DHS overall is certainly comprehensive,” says Wong. “It covers almost all of human experience, especially that of our most vulnerable neighbors.” Her list includes foster children, the homeless, immigrants, the disabled, seniors and the poor, and the services include welfare, food benefits, Medicaid, public housing, youth corrections, and the commissions on the Status of Women and on Fatherhood.

Wong feels she’s in the right job at the right time. “By nature I’m a connector. I feel affirmed by interconnectivity. I’m alive because of someone’s gift. … I love it when people bring the resources they bring.”

– DON WALLACE

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