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20 for the Next 20: People to Watch 2014

(page 6 of 8)

Nicole Velasco

Photo: Odeelo Dayondon

Executive Secretary of the Neighborhood Commission,
City & County of Honolulu

Age: 27

Nicole Velasco is a Kalihi girl with a Punahou education, an Ivy League degree and, though not yet 30, a Cabinet position with the Kirk Caldwell administration.

Velasco has had her share of good luck and bruising disappointments. Each time things go badly, she adjusts course and moves on.

Consider the drama of Election Night 2012. In a talk last August at TEDx Honolulu, she teased and enticed the audience with her recollections of the first, second and third ballots. By 2:30 a.m. on her Big Night, the close contest was over. She had lost the race for state House District 30 (Kalihi) by a mere 120 votes. Supporters were devastated, Velasco merely numb.

That’s a short version of why Velasco was available when asked to lead the city’s Neighborhood Commission, with a staff of 16.

Neal Okabayashi, a senior VP at First Hawaiian Bank, met Velasco when she was a Punahou Carnival student co-chair. A check list for the job includes: smart, organized, able to mesh the talents and viewpoints of parents, alumni, students and volunteers. A carnival chair “cannot get the job done unless you can get this diverse set of people to be on the same page, and that’s what she (and her co-chair) did,” recalls Okabayashi.

“You learn a lot about a person during his or her first political campaign, especially against a formidable opponent,” Okabayashi says. “And one thing I learned is that she exemplified Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage as ‘grace under pressure.’ ”

 After a summer job at Google and post-college work in New York City, she learned from a friend’s email about Furlough Fridays and realized she had to get home to Hawaii. “Why would a school system already struggling to solve budgetary problems solve them by cutting school days?” she wondered.

To get her sea legs in Hawaii politics and do some good, she first worked as an analyst for both the state Office of the Auditor and the Finance Committee of the state House. Now, she leads the commission that provides administrative and technical support to the city’s 33 neighborhood boards.

“It’s no simple task, but it is very rewarding,” Velasco says, adding, “You never know the contribution you were meant to make – you’ll never know if you don’t try.”


Paul Mcelroy

Photo: Courtesy of Paul McElroy

VP of Development,
Trinity Investments
Age: 36

Paul Mcelroy would never be in Hawaii managing multimillion-dollar hotel renovations if he hadn’t been looking for adventure back in 2000 when he was about to graduate as a civil engineer and quantity surveyor from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland.

He applied for a job in San Francisco with Rider Levett Bucknall, a construction consulting firm he discovered on the Internet. Then, he almost deleted an email when a job offer came from RLB’s Hawaii office.

“The sender was Maelyn Uyehara and I thought it was some bogus company,” he says with a laugh. Before calling her, he had to look up where Hawaii was.
“I honestly didn’t know,” he admits.

After 10 years managing construction projects for RLB, including renovations at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, restoration of its lagoon and oversight of the new Grand Waikikian timeshare, then renovations at the Royal Hawaiian and Sheraton Waikiki, he joined the Kyo-ya management team.

Former Kyo-ya COO Ernest Nishizaki saw exceptional leadership qualities in McElroy even before the company hired him. “He led the team of architects, engineers, interior designers and contractors through this multiphase, complex project with a level of dedication and professionalism second to none,” Nishizaki says.

In February, McElroy left Kyo-ya to become VP of development at Trinity Investments, which owns the Kahala Hotel and Resort and the Makena Beach and Golf Resort on Maui.

When McElroy first arrived, RLB asked what else it could do to help keep its young recruit in Hawaii. He replied: “If you find a soccer team, I’ll be fine!”

Today, he is the manager, the captain and a player for Kapaolono Dawgs, an amateur men’s team. “We went from being this really bad team – I think we were the ‘under-dawgs’ – to being one of the top two or three teams in Hawaii,” he says with pride.

In fact, his business leadership philosophy stems in part from his years playing and coaching soccer, both in Ireland and Hawaii, where he also coaches soccer at Mid-Pacific Institute.

“In team sports you realize even if you’re the best player, you’re nothing without your teammates. It’s the same at work,” he says.

“I’m all about building teams and relationships and it’s so important to empower the teams I build. … I steer people in the right direction, but I don’t micro-manage. I believe if you’re micro-managing everything that’s going on, you lose the ability to see the big picture.”

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