Talk Story: Micah Kane, CEO, Hawaii Community Foundation

The luckiest man in Hawaii? Despite the natural ups and downs in life, Micah Kane says he reminds himself every day of how fortunate he is. Kane took over this year from Kelvin Taketa as CEO of Hawaii Community Foundation. In this interview, he shares insights about leadership, failure and his vision for the foundation. 

Q: What is your kuleana?

Kane: To try to elevate those lives who are less fortunate. I try to mirror what has been done for me. I’ve had many mentors; it seems like I’ve been handed off from one person to the next throughout my life. I’ve had no shortage of love.

Q: Name a mentor who touched your life and why?

Kane: So many, but I think my father was my first. He was a heavy-handed man, but also very compassionate and empathetic. He carried himself with a lot of physical stature. A big Hawaiian man. At the same time, there wasn’t a day that he didn’t tell us he loved us.

Q: So balancing strength and love is important in leadership?

Kane: Yes. You can do both. I think society, whether it’s through media or through Hollywood, often doesn’t bring those two together. You’re either one or the other. And if you show compassion you’re seen as weak.

Q: In 2015, you left your spot as COO at Pacific Links to join Hawaii Community Foundation. Why the change?

Kane: Everything that drove me at Pacific Links was about giving back to the community. Setting up the foundation, driving resources, etc. Kelvin was a big part of guiding me in that process because I was already on the board here and so I think he saw my genuine desire to do this type of philanthropic work.

Pacific Links opened my eyes to the role Hawaii can play in the world. As an example, we’d be on a weekly conference call with our offices on the Mainland, Canada, China and Hawaii. I found myself being the translator many times, because we get it here. We are raised being exposed to every culture and the little nuances in hearing somebody say something. 

Q: What changes can we expect with you at the helm of HCF?

Kane: I don’t think you’re going to see a revolution, but rather a continued evolution. We definitely would like to see HCF continue to play a growing role in helping Hawaii tackle some of its more difficult challenges. 

Q: What is your most ambitious goal over the next three years?

Kane: One of the biggest challenges facing society today is people’s lack of trust in the direction we are going. There is a lack of civic engagement. We are spending a lot of time thinking about it, studying it and trying to understand what are some triggers and points of entry we might be able to play to start rebuilding confidence in community.

Q: What’s that going to look like? More people voting?

Kane: No, those are symptoms. I think equity across communities is a big issue, whether it’s issues around housing or education. We are talking about it internally for now.

Q: What are your key strengths as a leader?

Kane: I enjoy the challenges of building teams and convincing people that opposing views are good as long as they’re constructive, and that if we are all built the same and think the same, you just need one of us.

Q: Sounds like you read “Team of Rivals.”

Kane: That’s one of the books that had the biggest influences on me. In fact, I’ve gone back to it multiple times.

Q: Think of a time when you failed. What was your takeaway?

Kane: I would have to say the 1998 election. (Kane was executive director of the Hawaii Republican Party when Republican candidate Linda Lingle challenged Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano.) I put everything I had into this campaign, but we lost by 5,000 votes. I remember sitting on the stage like at 2 in the morning. Linda asked, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “I’ve got to go find a job.” I had just gotten married, we’d had our first child, we’d bought a house and my wife was just getting her career started. We didn’t have money, zero savings. And it’s like, oh my God, how am I going to make it now? Somehow, you pick yourself up and you just work hard. I look back at that and I go: If I made it through that, I have more tools in my tool chest today. 

Q: Under your predecessor, Kelvin Taketa, the organization’s assets went from $265 million to over $600 million. Is that pace going to continue?

Kane: Yes, he more than doubled the foundation’s assets. And the dynamics have changed. But bigger doesn’t always mean better. We’re at a place now where we can be a little bit more agnostic about how we utilize our resources because we are financially secure, so impact can be our primary focus. It’s a different mindset. 

HCF has over 800 funds. Many are from wealthy donors, but some are from regular folks, such as seamstress Ellen Hamada. How are you going to keep that momentum going?

There is a perception that philanthropy is tied to high-net worth and it’s not. Some of our most impactful donors are everyday folks. Hawaii has some of the highest numbers nationally in terms of giving and we want to get the word out. 

You wear several other important hats, such as chairman of the trustees at Kamehameha Schools and board member at Hawaiian Electric Co. How do you juggle it all?

I think boards that I sit on get more attention because of their prominence in the community. I think it adds to my understanding of the community, so I think it just builds a bigger and broader perspective.

What leadership advice do you give your three teenage daughters?

It’s no different than what I preach to myself. You’ve got to work hard.  You have to have ethics, that’s critical. I also think there needs to be a spiritual part in your life, whether it’s meditation or religion. There needs to be a recognition there’s a higher power and to be grateful for what you’ve got. I try to take time out of every morning to remind myself about how fortunate I am.

Categories: Leadership, Talk Story