Pacific Heights native Meli James considers herself a “serial entrepreneur.” Most people know her as the co-founder of Mana Up, an incubator for small businesses looking to take their company to the next level. She’s also the President of the Hawai‘i Venture Capital Association, and an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at her alma mater, Cornell University.
This isn’t what the Punahou alumna thought her career would be. James thought she would be a corporate executive or hotelier, given her bachelor’s degree in business with a focus on hospitality. She also thought she would be living on the mainland, because, she explains, the mentality inculcated in her generation was “if you wanted to do something different, Hawai‘i is not the place for that.”
James was immersed in the dynamism of California’s Silicon Valley after graduating from university in 2000 and securing a corporate job – then she had a quarter-life crisis at the age of 27. “I got a life coach, quit my job, lived off savings, and really thought about what I wanted to do with my life – not just select from options presented to me,” she reveals.
She realized she wanted to innovate. James cofounded Nirvino in 2007, which became the top rated wine app from 2008-2012. After five years, she decided to come home. “I had this amazing experience of starting a company and it becoming successful. I thought, why couldn’t we do that here in Hawai‘i? What would it take for us to grow resources, access to capital, and mentorship here? If we did, would that solve the perception that Hawai‘i is not a place for opportunity? Maybe I could be part of something here that could help address that,” she mused.
Back in the Islands, she was involved with a few companies before launching Mana Up in 2017. The focus of all her work here has been to grow other businesses. This is where her interests align with Holomua; both want to make this state an easier place to live in. “I’m a huge believer in, How do we create the next ten companies creating $10 million or more in annual revenue, that can contribute director-level jobs, because these companies are headquartered here?” she wonders.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” goes the aphorism; get ready for the sea-change James hopes to help spark.
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