The power of mana

Meli James and Mana Up are growing the entrepreneurial landscape in Hawai’i – and having fun doing it. PHOTO ANTHONY CONSILLIO

There is a price (literally) to living in paradise. But according to Mana Up co-founder Meli James, it doesn’t have to be.

“We can create this place where ideas can materialize in an innovative ecosystem,” she says. “Any idea you have, you can build here in Hawai’i – how amazing would that be? Now that I’ve been an entrepreneur and found success with my businesses, (I wanted to) bring what I ‘ve learned in Hawai’i so more people can go home or stay home.

James’ introduction to entrepreneurship was launched after a quarter-life crisis saw her transition from the hospitality industry to starting her own business – a wine app called Nirvino – to the age of 27. Nirvino started in 2007 as a mobile website that helped people find great wines at the grocery store or restaurant, then capitalized on the launch of Apple’s App Store a year later by converting into a mobile phone application that enabled online shopping.

The participants of the Mana Up cohort are able to collaborate, learn from each other and help each other. PHOTO COURTESY OF MANA UP

“Back then, we had bulky smartphones that were expensive, and that was a game changer,” recalls James, who at the time lived in tech-heavy Silicon Valley. “It was the first time in our life that we had the web at our fingertips.”

Through this experience, she fell in love with entrepreneurship and startups, and went on to launch other successful businesses. This formula of having an idea and turning it into a business spoke to James, who wishes there were opportunities to learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship when she was in high school in the 90s. .

“It wasn’t even a word people could spell yet,” she adds with a laugh.

Mana Up co-founders Meli James (left) and Brittany Heyd. PHOTO COURTESY OF MANA UP

Born and raised in O’ahu, James went to college on the mainland and, after graduating, faced the same doubts on her home island that many others have experienced.

“It was kind of this unspoken that if you really wanted to do something different, Hawai’i wasn’t the place for that,” she says. “I felt like Hawai’i wasn’t an option for me, and I felt like I had to stay on the mainland, so I did.”

But now James has the ability to share that knowledge with forward-thinking islanders through Mana Up, giving them the opportunity and help she never had as a young adult.

Mana Up Accelerator workshops take place in individual and group sessions. PHOTO COURTESY OF MANA UP

Since James and company co-founder Brittany Heyd launched the small business accelerator in 2017, 63 companies have gone through the Mana Up accelerator program and grown their businesses by leaps and bounds. And, on Nov. 3, 11 more will join the ranks at a virtual graduation showcase.

“Over 150,000 people watched our show last year,” says James. “His shark tank meets Oprah meets american idol.”

It will be a time to celebrate a job well done and a chance to look back on six months of hard work which included intensive workshops on digital marketing, e-commerce, packaging, creating a story and building leadership, as well as one-on-one weekly sessions individually tailored to the specific company.

“We teach them the skills and how to look at the world like their customers,” says Heyd, a California native who met and married a boy from Maui and moved to the islands in 2016. “Instead of taking them three years to learn something , how can we make it take six months We audit resources and consultants to shorten the learning cycle, reduce mistakes and allow them to grow faster.

“We are pouring oil on the fire.” And even after the program, Mana Up is here to help. In addition to the large network of graduates, successful companies across a cohort can participate in Mana Up’s new Wayfinder series that helps them grow after reaching $1 million in annual revenue.

“When you’re an early founder, you have your challenges. You wear five different hats, using your family and friends to help you. But now that you’re bigger, the structure of the business is changing, and so are you, and your challenges are totally different than when you started,” says James. “We consider it our privilege to further assist these companies in overcoming these subsequent challenges. They’re still here in Hawai’i and still growing – isn’t that amazing? – and how can we help them reach 10 or 20 million dollars? »

To qualify for a cohort, the company must be headquartered in the islands, have annual sales of more than $100,000, and raise the 50th state mark.

“The Hawai’i brand is globally recognized,” notes James. “He is loved all over the world. We see tons of products and businesses on the mainland using the Hawai’i brand that aren’t even here, so we know it’s significant.

Products made in Hawai’i aren’t just for the farmers’ market circuit or local pop-up events, though many are debuting in places like this. James, Heyd and the rest of Mana Up believe local businesses have the ability to integrate with internationally recognized brands in stores around the world. And it starts with a change of mentality.

“You belong to Bloomingdale’s or DFS, alongside Tiffany & Co., Hermès and Saint Laurent; you fit in perfectly at Neiman Marcus,” says James.

House of Mana Up (, the retail arm of the organization that carries products from its cohorts, is proof that what it says is true.

“It was a kind of thesis,” she adds. “Can a store like this thrive on Kalākaua Avenue where the big boys are?”

The retail space on the ground floor of the Royal Hawaiian Center is a hub for the best local products, and also serves as a learning platform for entrepreneurs to obtain customer feedback by testing different messages , products, packaging and more.

Every step of the way, Mana Up is about accelerated growth to help entrepreneurs reach their full potential, and this also extends to its Hawai’i Rising and Power Up Your Business programs for Indigenous and female business owners, respectively.

“Think of any founder,” James begins. “They’re building a company and they’ve got a great product, but now as CEO you’re supposed to have all those skills. We help them build confidence and build their skills so they can walk into any meeting and know what they’re doing.

She mentions former small companies that have since expanded their overseas markets with great success – Hawaiian Host, Honolulu Cookie Co., Kona Brewing Co., to name a few – and asks the question: “How can we create more businesses like the ones that are here in Hawai’i and stay in Hawai’i?”

“We want to change their mindset, think bigger and go further, and also look at what these companies can do for Hawai’i,” says James, who is also president of the Hawai’i Venture Capital Association.

She gives a poignant example: for an operations manager wanting to try something new, few opportunities present themselves in Hawai’i that would earn them a competitive salary – hence the move to the mainland or overseas to pursue that dream. But Mana Up hopes to turn the tide. Initially, its co-founders plan to create 100 product-based businesses in Hawai’i that each generate $10 million in annual revenue, because at this level businesses are able to create more rewarding decisions in management level. – do jobs that are so sought after.

“It raises the tide for everyone from a talent/ability perspective and people can go home,” adds James.

This mindset is also a testament to the abundance mindset that Mana Up instills in the companies it works with. In addition to learning from seasoned business leaders, entrepreneurs can learn from each other in the process. If a business is facing supply chain issues, it’s common to call another similar business in the Mana Up ‘ohana for ideas on how to handle the situation. The goal is to grow the Hawai’i brand together, which means each person’s success helps the other be more successful as well.

“The more successful we are as Hawai’i, the more we go to those places that are nationally recognized,” Heyd notes. “We are creating a brand for Hawai’i that is globally recognized, and we are building a reputation for high quality products from Hawai’i.”

For more information, visit

Comments are closed.