Here’s a new perspective on how to plug Hawaii’s “brain drain”: create a brain gain by attracting, cultivating, and raising up young citizen leaders in Hawai’i.

The Problem

If you’re not familiar with our State’s “brain drain,” here is how some have described it: the constant challenge encountered in both the private and public sector of retaining Hawai’i’s best and brightest or bringing back those that went away for school or work.  This drain of the State’s exceptional talent is attributed to Hawai’i’s limited supply of high value jobs, lower compensation, and our high cost of living.

All these systemic problems are viewed by Hawai’i’s young people as major hurdles to achieving a robust career as a young professional in the Islands. Solving these issues will take years, but, in the meantime, Hawai’i can keep and attract up and coming talent by promoting and distinguishing itself as a place where young professionals have the opportunity to become thriving citizen leaders.

A Local Girl’s Journey: There & Back Again

You see, ever since I first thought about college, my parents advised, “Go away to the best college you can, and you’ll eventually find a way to come back home.” That was a lot easier said than done!

But like a good local hapa girl trained by a Tiger Mom, I followed my parents’ advice and studied diligently so I could attend a good Mainland college. After four tedious years studying Chinese characters as part of earning my degree in East Asian Studies on the East Coast, I looked for a job in “the real world.” Of course, secretly, my top job search criteria was getting somewhere warmer! 

Mainland college graduates worked for the financial moguls powering Wall Street and the innovators populating Silicon Valley. And Hawai’i just didn’t have the same job opportunities for new college graduates as the Mainland did. Eventually, I landed a business consulting job in the LA office of a large Fortune 500 company, expecting to be on the Mainland another six to eight years before I could even attempt to return to my beloved Hawai’i home. Miraculously, after just two years, ‘ike, a Hawai’i-based company, was looking to hire young home-grown personnel with some business consulting experience, and I was able to return back to the Islands a lot earlier than expected!

This was my opportunity to become a part of the solution.

A New Breed of Leadership in the Islands


Aisha with fellow future leaders in the Hawai’i Asia-Pacific Affairs Leadership Program (managed by the Pacific Forum CSIS), which is raising up a new generation of business, government, and community leaders in the Islands.

“Citizen Leaders” are highly educated and skilled entrepreneurs, but their personal motivation is not narrowly tied to ambitiously advancing their professional career in a specific workplace or industry. Rather, they prefer a job that welcomes and integrates their desire to have a positive impact on the community, or gives them the time and flexibility to do so outside of the workplace. In other words, citizen leaders define success much differently than the majority of their counterparts in corporate America.

Now, we all know that compared to big cities on the Mainland, Hawai’i has difficulty providing similar financial, networking, and competitive opportunities. However, many high-paying Mainland employers also monopolize their employees’ time.  Fortunately, young citizen leaders can grow faster, excel with more impact, and rise to the top sooner in Hawai’i’s smaller pond.

Young people in larger cities face more barriers to having a community impact—it’s a bigger pond with bigger fish. But my peers and I in Hawai’i have been able to dive deep in to volunteering, learning, and coaching opportunities outside of our workplaces. These experiences teach us the value of giving back as well as reinforcing the importance of maintaining a macro view of Hawai’i’s needs and our part in delivering solutions. Additionally, these community activities help energize the passion I have for my job. You see, citizen leaders garner significant “job satisfaction” from the degree of impact they are making in the community, both through their jobs and outside activities.

Hawai’i’s Time To Lead


“It is a dream come true to be back home,” Aisha says, “surrounded by amazing opportunities and the beauty of the islands.”

Fortunately, Hawai’i is in a prime position to retain and attract citizen leaders who want a satisfying work-life integration. It already has a unique and solid foundation—picturesque scenery and beaches, beautiful weather, an active outdoor lifestyle, ethnic diversity, profound Hawai’ian history, and the unmatchable Aloha Spirit. Hawai’i is also ingrained with many of the cultural elements that are core to developing those with a sense of purpose tied to community.

Although Hawai’i is a small state with limited resources, a younger generation (including both the best and brightest and active citizen leaders) can help break down our systemic challenges, encourage collaboration, and empower Hawai’i with increased agility to take action towards improvement.

By creating and cultivating young citizen leaders, we will eventually see the profound impact they can make in Hawai’i. This fresh new culture will also act as the glue that keeps them here or the rubber band that brings them back from afar. Hawai’i’s future is dependent on many citizen-minded leaders who will seek to improve their island home and its impact on the world beyond its 6,000 m2 footprint in the Pacific Ocean.

If Hawai’i can differentiate itself to potential young citizen leaders, young citizen leaders will differentiate Hawai’i.