Continuing a Tradition of Indigenous Innovation

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A pair of OHA grants are helping Purple Maiʻa inspire and educate the next generation of culturally grounded, community-serving technology makers

He maiʻa ke kanaka a ka lā e hua ai.
A person is like a banana tree on the day it bears fruit.
One can tell what kind of a person they are by their deeds.
They honor the past by looking to the future.

Their goal is to build an innovation and technology ecosystem in Hawaiʻi that’s locally grown and based in Hawaiian culture. Their hope is to stand as a world class Hawaiian institution that sets the standard for excellence in education, innovation, and entrepreneurship in service of land and people.

Purple Maiʻa Foundation is a technology education nonprofit that was founded in 2013. Its programs started with a single afterschool technology class at Jarrett Middle School that taught Native Hawaiian and local kids to code. Since then, the organization has grown to work with hundreds of learners annually in three distinct programs: Youth Education (Kaikaina), Entrepreneurship (Mālama Design Studios), and Workforce Development and Training (Hiapo).

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) recently awarded a pair of community grants to Purple Maiʻa, joining a host of major funders that support their work including Kamehameha Schools, the U.S. Department of Education’s Native Hawaiian Education Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Castle Foundation, Kosasa Foundation, Stupski Foundation, Nakapuna Foundation, and many others.

“Hawaiians have always been innovators. From navigating our oceans to creating a thriving culture in one of the most isolated places in the world, Hawaiians have always been technology forward,” said Co-CEO Kelsey Amos, who co-founded the nonprofit along with Co-CEO Donavan Kealoha and Advisor Olin Lagon. “Through our grants from OHA, Purple Maiʻa has been enabled to continue this tradition of Indigenous innovation by pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a modern-day Hawaiian.”

A $498,660 OHA economic grant has been awarded for the company’s Mālama Design Studio initiative, an incubator program that supports Native Hawaiian businesses. The grant project entails educating 20 Native Hawaiian business owners through a collaborative design research process that results in the implementation of a technology solution that can improve their business, and ultimately cultivate economic development in and for Hawaiian communities.

A first cohort for the grant has already been selected.

“We received 85 applications from Native Hawaiian businesses across Hawaiʻi and selected 10 exceptional partner businesses, representing each island, with owners of Hawaiian ancestry,” Amos said. “With this selection, plus ongoing relationships with businesses we’ve formerly worked with, we’ve established a wide-ranging coalition of Native Hawaiian businesses from a diverse set of industries committed to attaining economic self-sufficiency.”

“We’ve established a wide network of skilled Native Hawaiian web, digital marketing and graphic design contractors to assist our project team in serving partner businesses,” said Keoni Defranco, managing director of the Mālama Design Studio. “We’ve begun to assist these companies with technological implementations, and provided resources for their business operations, and seen both revenue and social media marketing footprints dramatically increase.

“We chose companies that believe in the importance of a regenerative, circular Hawaiʻi economy that prioritizes environmental sustainability and social justice and it’s really been paying off. To us, this is the definition of waiwai – community abundance and wealth.”

Defranco said Purple Maiʻa is dedicated to supporting the development of a self-sufficient economy for Hawaiʻi.

“As an entrepreneur with 10 years of experience running a venture-funded technology company in the Healthcare IT space, I personally understand that early stage companies need more than advice, they need a community supporting them, directly adding value to their roadmap and working alongside them,” he said.

“We view the Mālama Design Studio as an opportunity to add firepower into a company for the duration of the program and beyond. Working across our pae ʻāina allows us to have a better vantage point into the needs of the community, and we have identified where commercial kitchens, value add centers, distribution hubs, manufacturing facilities and other aspects of the supply chain are needed to truly scale our local economy. We understand this requires Kānaka ownership of ʻāina and infrastructure.

“Our goal is to develop a coalition of Native Hawaiian social entrepreneurs focused on aloha ʻāina, sustainability and regenerative business models to cultivate waiwai and uplift our lāhui,” Defranco added. “We’ve taken a systemic approach assisting social enterprises and industry leaders in target areas that include food security, land stewardship, health and wellness, renewable energy, housing solutions, and biocultural restoration, all accelerated by innovative technologies.”

A $200,000 OHA education grant will go toward the “Waiw.AI: Building a Flourishing Future for Kanaka with AI” project that will equip Native Hawaiian students and kumu with AI (artificial intelligence) knowledge and skills.

Waiw.AI Studios will focus on introducing students and teachers in Hawaiʻi to AI through a variety of activities, such as workshops, training sessions and mentorship programs.

“By equipping Native Hawaiian students with AI knowledge and skills, we aim to increase their college, career, and community readiness, and ensure they are prepared to participate in the rapidly evolving field of AI,” Amos said.

“Moreover, by increasing the number of Native Hawaiian professionals in AI-related fields, we hope to contribute to the development and innovation of AI in Hawaiʻi and ensure that Hawaiian perspectives and values are integrated into the field. Waiw.AI encourages a multigenerational perspective that engages students in the problems of the present with an eye towards a flourishing future.”

Vice President of Educational Design Mike Sarmiento said Purple Maiʻa is thankful for OHA’s belief in their skillset.

“For Waiw.AI studios, we have appreciated OHA’s commitment to taking a chance on our ability to amplify our cultural values and ʻike using an emerging technology. The flexibility to work with both haumāna and kumu will enable this studio to have the most impact and to grow our communities’ understanding and capacity to utilize these new tools for the betterment of our lāhui,” he said.

Sarmiento said that innovative Native Hawaiian organizations like Purple Maiʻa need the support of innovative funders like OHA.

“Sometimes when you are pushing the edge of what it means to be a Hawaiian today it can feel risky and controversial for funders. We believe that although it can be scary, there is waiwai to be found at the outer edges where the known meets the unknown,” he said.

“Organizations and funders must find courage. The same courage that it took for our ancestors to venture out on their waʻa to discover Hawaiʻi, is the same courage we need today as modern Hawaiians to rediscover Hawaiʻi. This can only be done together.”