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Hawaii Business Magazine’s 20 for the Next 20: People to Watch 2012

20 emerging leaders in local businesses, nonprofits, government, education and law

(page 20 of 21)

Photo: David Croxford


President and CEO, Pono Pacific, Kupu

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is recognized as one of the country’s best training grounds for business leaders. It seems an unlikely place for someone committed to the environment.

But it was there that John Leong melded his two, seemingly disparate passions – business and the environment. “Most of my classmates were recruited to San Francisco or New York to work in big finance and marketing firms,” says Leong. “I had to create my own degree. So I called it, ‘Environmental Policy & Management and Entrepreneurial Management.’ ”

“I had a professor who told us the biggest risk you can take is doing something you weren’t meant to do. If you take that path, the whole world will lose out,” he says. “On the other hand, if you have an idea to do something different and don’t do it, the world will also lose out.”

In 2000, armed with his degree, he returned home to take care of the community where he grew up and started Pono Pacific out of his parents’ garage with two staff members sharing a computer. The environmental conservation and management company has grown since, now with 80 employees on Oahu, Molokai and the Big Island offering ecosystem restoration services to federal, state and local government agencies, commercial businesses, nonprofits and private landowners.

Leong’s passion for the environment was cultivated as a teenager when he participated in the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Youth Conservation Corps summer program. Today, the corps runs out of his nonprofit Kupu, which sprouted from the for-profit Pono Pacific. Kupu has more than 400 youths in seven different programs and approximately 17,000 volunteers.

“He cares about how many people we can help, how many acres we can restore, how many lives we can improve, how many endangered species we can save,” says Luke Estes, Pono Pacific’s director of operations. “It’s rare to work for someone whose focus is to improve everything around him.”

“A leader should be a servant,” says Leong. “True leadership is about serving those around you and serving the community. It’s about building people up to something bigger than themselves.”


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