Native Hawaiian Businesses

Finding a way to preserve culture

Native Hawaiian Businesses

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Hui Ku Maoli Ola partners
Matt Schirman and Rick Barboza
Photo: David Croxford

Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native plant nursery nestled deep in Haiku Valley on Windward Oahu, is a kind of island unto itself. Except for the steepest, most inaccessible parts of the Koolau Mountains, which tower over the nursery, the surrounding landscape is awash with plants from other parts of the world. Exotic trees from Asia; shrubs and vines from South America; and a flood of invasive grasses from Africa and Europe.

Although many of these plants are beautiful, collectively they have inundated most of the native flora of Hawaii. Even formerly common plants, like the hibiscus maohauhele, the official state flower, are now rare and endangered in the wild. But the nursery, its tidy greenhouses and gardens brimming with native plants, is an ambitious attempt to stem the tide of extinction. It’s also a fascinating model for integrating Native Hawaiian values and Western business practices.

There have, of course, always been successful Native Hawaiian business owners. But their success rarely had anything to do with their culture. In fact, many of the basic assumptions of business success — profit, development, growth — were disparaged by many in the Native Hawaiian community. It seemed there were Native Hawaiian business owners, but few Native Hawaiian businesses.

But that’s all changed. Now, with the growing relevance of Native Hawaiian issues — in politics, education, the arts and the environment — Hawaiian culture itself has become a medium of success. And that has created a new kind of business model. For many emerging companies like Hui Ku Maoli Ola, the whole reason for existence is to preserve, promote and explain Hawaiian culture. Profit has become a means — a way to finance their greater missions — rather than an end.

The business side of Hui Ku Maoli Ola’s equation is simple enough. Partners Rick Barboza and Matt Schirman founded Hui Ku Maoli Ola nearly 10 years ago in the backyard of a Waimanalo home. In 2005, emboldened by surprising early success, they moved to their current location in Kaneohe. As a sign of their ambition, Barboza and Schirman chose to carve their nursery from an overgrown, 63-acre parcel that includes lands leased from Kamehameha Schools, old kuleana lands and land purchased from the Hawaiian Electric Co. “We’re probably about six acres of that now,” Schirman says. “In nursery terms, that’s on the smaller size. But what’s really interesting about those six acres is that they’re strictly native. We’re definitely the largest producer of natives in the state.”

Hui Ku Maoli Ola is best known as the supplier for the popular native plant section at Home Depot garden centers. For the past several years, this has been consumers’ only reliable source for a variety of hard-to-find (and even rare and endangered) Hawaiian plants. The big-box outlet was also a critical step in the company’s growth, providing the volume that allowed the founders to expand from backyard hobbyists into a commercial nursery. “Probably, if you took it collectively, we do $150,000 a year through Home Depot,” Schirman says.

 

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