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Returning Home to Hawaii After Years Abroad

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Expats who returned to the Islands offer 10 ways to ensure you do it right

OK, so you grew up in Hawaii. You know your spam musubi and hula kahiko. Then you moved away – for education, for work, to prove yourself. You’re having a great time. You visit often, but never stay.

Then, maybe, you surprise yourself by tearing up as the flight lifts off from the tarmac at HNL. Or you find yourself late at night, idly trawling the Web for Hawaii-based jobs while another blizzard rages outside your window. Maybe, when your kids are born, you realize that you want them to have the same experiences you did. Maybe, even after a decade or two, you never stopped calling Hawaii “home.”

Move home? But how would I find a job? How do I really know it’s time? Will I be happy? Will it be worth it?

Do people actually do this?

Yes, they do. We talked to 11 of them – smart, interesting, accomplished people – to ask how, and why, it’s done.

1. Make sure it’s really what you want, says Lori Teranishi (Saint Andrew’s Priory, ’87), who left her corporate job and founded the multicity public relations firm IQPR in part so she could move back to Hawaii. Teranishi says she has “never regretted” her decision to base herself in Honolulu, but knows it’s a big step. Ask yourself whether a Hawaii community in your mainland or foreign city, or frequent visits home is enough. Punahou and Cornell graduate Meli James, who returned to Hawaii in 2012 after 16 years on the mainland and abroad, says that seeing a career or life coach can help you set clear priorities. “It’s kind of a SWOT analysis of yourself.”

2. If you can, plan ahead.
Dave Kozuki, founder of Global Pau Hana, a Hawaii-expat networking community that began in Silicon Valley and eventually spread to New York, Shanghai and London, has seen “thousands” of Hawaii expats. He says that many in the generation now entering their 30s have a “strong sense” that they’ll move back to Hawaii. “They go away for school, they do their thing, but it’s part of the plan.”

Lori Teranishi founded a multicity public relations firm in part so she could move back to Hawaii.

Photo: David Croxford

That plan can mean choosing a portable career, or making sure your life partner is open to the idea of a move. “It can be hard to uproot yourself when you’re dug in” somewhere else, says Ilima Loomis (Iolani ’96), who graduated from Dartmouth and joined the staff of The Maui News: “If you have a spouse, they have a say.”

3. Maintain your existing network.
Leilani DeCourcy (Molokai High ’90) lived on the East Coast for 10 years, earning a J.D. and working for a think tank before coming home in 2000. She returned to a local legal community whose members often had a “built-in network” because they had remained in-state for their education and early career. DeCourcy, now a partner with Chun and DeCourcy LLC, urges potential returnees to remember that their network isn’t just close friends and family. “It’s their parents, their friends, their cousins and everyone those people know, too.” Keep in touch, and when it’s time to think about a move, send out feelers.

4. Grow your network, too.
Visits back to Hawaii are a prime opportunity to make new connections. With a trip to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding on the calendar, Jared Kashiwabara (Iolani ’00), who moved to California for college and stayed for 12 years, asked Hawaii-based high-school friends to help him arrange a series of corporate “meet-and-greets” to expand his professional presence. That week, Kashiwabara introduced himself to six institutions. “It was a productive trip.”

These days, network-building can also be digital. In 2007, Brian Dote (Waipahu High ’90 and UH ’95) returned from eight years in Silicon Valley with zero contacts in the Hawaii tech industry. Dote turned to Twitter to build a tech-savvy Hawaii community that led to his first full-time Hawaii job. “You listen to (Twitter) conversations, you add value to those conversations and, the next thing you know, the followers of your follower, follow you. In no time at all, I had hundreds of people in Hawaii that I was talking to.”

5. Keep in mind that Hawaii employers want to hear from you.
“When I hear (job applicants were) raised here, or they want to return home, that’s a big-time benefit, to me,” says Carl Hinson, director of workforce development at Hawaii Pacific Health. Not only do returnees bring new skills and knowledge, but, if they were raised in Hawaii, they are more likely to stick their landing, says Hinson. “They’ve already got support systems – family members, friends – to help them through some of the tough pieces of making a transition.”

Brian Dote used Twitter to build his network in Hawaii’s high-tech sector when he returned after eight years in Silicon Valley. “You listen to [Twitter] conversations, you add value to those conversations and, the next thing you know, the followers of your follower, follow you. In no time at all, I had hundreds of people in Hawaii that I was talking to.”

Photo: David Croxford

6. Independent or nontraditional? Build a bridge.
There are plenty of ways for independent or flexible workers to get a foot back in Hawaii’s door. Dote, who worked at Apple on the first-generation iPhone and related products, asked the company to allow him to keep working remotely from Hawaii. He doesn’t recommend remote work as a long-term solution if you are passionate about your career, but it eased his family’s transition to Hawaii.

Teranishi, of IQPR, began taking on Hawaii clients three years before she made her big move, both to build clientele and to test the waters: “I had a strategy, so I was able to see: ‘Can I work with clients? Have I become too mainland? Can I function?’ ” James, who helped create the first wine-ratings app in Silicon Valley, engineered a “soft move,” retaining consulting work in the Bay Area while helping launch a company called Hawaii Apps in Honolulu.

7. For those in traditional employment: Line up your ducks and get ready.
A move to Hawaii can be fantastically complex, involving two jobs as well as school, child-care and housing arrangements. When one of Jared Kashiwabara’s meet-and-greet appointments led to an offer from Bank of Hawaii, he and his family had to think fast. “We weren’t intentionally trying to find a job (in Hawaii) yet,” he says. “It actually forced us to make a decision: ‘Should I take this and we’ll go, like, right now? Or do we just hang back and continue as we were?’ ” Because other family arrangements had already aligned – and because, like many returnees, they could “eliminate one big variable” and stay with family in the short term – they could make the leap.

8. Be prepared to make adjustments.
If you’re coming from a specialized career in a coastal metropolitan area, salary cuts of 30 to 50 percent are not uncommon, and food and housing in Hawaii will likely cost just as much as, or more than, the place you left.

If you’ve spent your formative career years elsewhere, your style may need to be tweaked, too, says Teranishi. “I definitely had to change my approach.” Now, she says, “I don’t just say whatever I think. That’s what you do on the mainland, but here, you don’t know if the person you’re talking to is somehow related to you! Situations come up that you would never have to deal with on the mainland,” she says.

It also helps to expect some of what Realtor Kai Brown (Punahou ’93) calls “reverse culture shock.” Brown, who spent a decade on the West Coast, tells returning friends, “The first year is hard. Remember, you’re moving to a new place; you’re not just moving back home. You think it’s going to be easy, all rainbows and waterfalls, but when you’ve lived someplace else for 15 years, Hawaii is someplace new.”

Leilani DeCourcy says expats who want to come home should remember that their network isn’t just friends and family. “It’s their parents, their friends, their cousins and everyone those people know, too,” she says. Keep in touch while you are away, and when you start thinking about a move, send out feelers.

Photo: David Croxford

9. You’ve gained something invaluable in your time away.
Figure out what it is and share it. James, who is now the program manager at Blue Startups and a co-organizer of Honolulu New Tech, loves “the feeling that you’re bringing something else to Hawai‘i, that you’re enhancing it.” For independent videographer Vanessa Kaneshiro (Kamehameha Schools ’95), the transfer goes both ways: “I still work for Time. I still pitch to The New York Times. But now I get to help local businesses, too, and I can show off Hawaii to the rest of the world.”

If your timing and skill set are right, you might be able to move home while moving your career forward. After two decades in Southern California, which included an MBA and a managerial stint at Disney in technology-dependent interactive marketing, Robert Gelber (Punahou ’92) applied cold for a Hawai‘i posting he saw on an online job board, “never thinking I would hear back.” The application led to a position as the director of interactive marketing for Hawaii Pacific Health, a significant step up in both title and salary.

10. Give it time.
Some people can slip back into a Hawaii life like it’s a comfy pair of slippahs (Gelber says he “couldn’t be happier”). But many find the transition tough – and that’s OK. “Give yourself two to three years,” says Brown. “Know, coming in, that you’re giving yourself that amount of time. That’s how long it takes to settle in, not just to Hawaii, but to any place you move.”

When Dote returned to Hawaii in 2007 after eight years in Silicon Valley, he says, “I felt like an outsider, and I actually wanted to maintain that view. I had done great in Silicon Valley, and I was going to continue to be that guy,” while his wife and children enjoyed the benefits of nearby grandparents, warm weather and the beach.

But, as time passes, says Dote, “It just kind of chips away at you. When I came back, it was ‘me’ as a person and ‘them’ as a community. Then, over time, it (became) ‘we,’ as a community. One day you wake up, and you’re a local again.”

Hawaii Business magazine invites you to comment on our articles and the issues they raise. Comments are moderated for offensive language, commercial messages and off-topic posts and may be deleted. Some comments may be chosen for inclusion in the magazine on the Feedback page.

Old to new | New to old
Jun 14, 2013 05:41 am
 Posted by  Kalena6Girl

I am that ex-pat who's returned. I came back to be near my aging mom & be around other family. I also wanted to reinvent myself. Transition has been difficult, but there are many great people & networking opportunities out there.

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Jun 17, 2013 03:34 pm
 Posted by  Kyle Oura

Great article. I think about home often and in phases. Aging parents back at home was my biggest regret since moving to the Mainland, so I finally moved my dad to the Bay Area to live in assisted living. It's been a nice transition, and I got to spend father's day with him and every chance I get. Also, having my future kids "be from Hawaii" is important to me. I always dream about making it in Hawaii nei, but I've seen some folks up here work a week in HI every few months. That's nice.

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Dec 3, 2013 03:55 pm
 Posted by  LizKerrigan

CASTING CALL for new RESTAURANT OWNERS in Hawaii to appear on Major Cable Network!
A Major Cable Network is looking for people who are moving from the hustle and bustle of a busy city to the Hawaiian tropics to open a food related business!
To apply: email your contact info (phone, email, city of residence, and location of restaurant), along with photos of the business and you and your family or you and your business partner to: please submit your info ASAP!!!!

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Dec 31, 2013 07:10 pm
 Posted by  johnsonwkchoi

Best to make your first bucket of gold or with a supportive well to do family (rich) before heading back home to Hawaii. For every success profile here 90% who left us say NO thanks and they are very happy to stay put, willing to work at any place, but Hawaii. For those that has the skill and continue their successes coming home, congratulation.

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