20 for the Next 20: AJ Halagao, Hawaiian Electric Industries & HEI Charitable Foundation
The VP of corporate and community advancement and president of HEI’s charitable arm awards millions of dollars to nonprofits each year.
VP of Corporate and Community Advancement, Hawaiian Electric Industries
President, HEI Charitable Foundation
“Wherever AJ goes, he makes it better. He really commits,” says Liann Ebesugawa, who first met AJ Halagao when she was a UH law student and attended his legal workshops.
She now works with him at HEI, where she is assistant general counsel and assistant corporate secretary, while Halagao has assumed a wide-ranging role there that blends his legal, business, communications and creative skills.
As leader of both the Corporate and Community Advancement office and HEI’s charitable arm, Halagao is responsible for external relations as well as awarding millions of dollars in grants.
But his impact extends beyond his corporate role. Halagao chairs the Honolulu City and County Grants in Aid Advisory Commission, which steered nearly $9 million to dozens of nonprofits last year. He serves on numerous boards – preferring ones “where I can roll up my sleeves and be helpful” – including After-School All-Stars, HawaiiKidsCAN and the UH Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship.
He wrote and produced a documentary on energy and climate called “Illumination Hawaii” and three musicals staged at the Hawai‘i Theatre.
Halagao says his secret to getting so much done is simple: “I do think I need less sleep than most.” But his work ethic also springs from his early life.
As a child, his family moved from the Philippines to the Washington, D.C., area, where both parents rebuilt their lives. His attorney father returned to law school for an American degree and his pharmacist mother worked in a department store before finding a job as a medical coder.
Halagao started first grade as the smallest and youngest, not speaking English, and one of the only Asian students. “I had to overcome a lot when I was a kid. It definitely made me stronger,” he says.
His buoyant spirit guided him through adulthood: a commerce degree from the University of Virginia, a management consulting job in New York, a law degree from UCLA, a prosecutor job in San Diego, a research role at Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw division, and a move in 2000 to open the firm’s Honolulu office.
In Hawai‘i, Halagao continued seeking challenges. He earned an MBA from UH’s Shidler College of Business and volunteered for political campaigns, landing the lead communications position for now-U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz’s lieutenant governor’s office in 2011. In 2012, he was hired by HEI.
“He’s a modern Renaissance man,” says Ebesugawa, though Halagao demurs: “I’m more a jack of all trades and master of none.”