I’m Home


Robert K. Lindsey, Jr., Trustee, Hawaiʻi

This article is penned by Cheryl Lupenui

My name is Cheryl Lehua Kaʻuhane Lupenui. I have one younger brother named Paul. My mom is from West Caldwell, New Jersey. My dad is from Kailua, Oʻahu. I was born in Washington, D.C. where Dad worked as a cartographer for National Geographic. Mom worked at the Pentagon back then. As an interracial family we faced racism, but my parents taught me to strive for excellence in spite of it.

Photo: Cheryl and Boots Lupenui
Cheryl and her husband Boots – Photo: Courtesy

Growing up on the East Coast, my sense of place came from the little rural town of Beaverdam, Virginia at a place called Woodson’s Mill. My cousins and I spent winters skating on ponds and sleighing down hills. Summers we played under the waterfall of an 1800s mill and caught fireflies late into the evening. During my early teens I struggled with feeling out of place, but over some summer breaks, my parents brought us to Hawaiʻi to spend time with Dad’s family, where I always felt at home. So I made the unpopular decision to attend the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and loved it. I spent three years at U.H. and one year in Montreal at McGill University. I later received my M.B.A from Tulane University in New Orleans.

My career has spanned for-profit, non-profit and social entrepreneurship. I worked for years in business development at Servco Pacific. I then opened Broke the Mouth on Bishop Street, serving healthy plate lunches made from locally grown produce. In fact, it was OHA’s Native Hawaiian Revolving Loan Fund that provided me the capital to start this business. From there I found my way to the YWCA where I served as President and CEO for ten years.

I learned a lot about women’s leadership while at the YWCA but I yearned to work in Hawaiian leadership. So I left and founded The Leader Project as an indigenous leadership practice. For over six years I practiced a leadership framework that draws from both Hawaiian and Western constructs. During this time I became a volunteer member of the Board of Education and learned to practice true shared leadership!

Now, as President and C.E.O. of The Kohala Center, I am passionate about the idea of growing our native forests and reefs, growing good food again for our families and growing excellent leaders of Hawaiʻi. Hawaiians can better our condition(s) by being in touch with our past, ancestors and ʻāina to ground us in the face of today’s challenges. The Kohala Center is a community of ʻāina stewards working to improve our relationships with food, water, people and place.

So my life’s practice has been, and still is, to fill the world with indigenous leadership, whether the world recognizes this need or not.

A few years ago, an anonymous donor gifted The Kohala Center with a special piece of land in the ʻili ʻāina of Keawewai. My husband, Boots, and I now live on and steward this land. Because of our ancestral ties to Kohala, we feel like we have returned home. Now we hope that others feel welcome at Keawewai as they knowingly or not seek renewal, wisdom, inspiration, healing and growth.

One of my favorite ʻōlelo noʻeau is hoʻokahi nō lā o ka malihini – a stranger for only a day. This reminds us of our kuleana as guests of this land to do the hard work that ensures this ʻāina can share its gifts to our Hawaiʻi community and beyond for generations.

When not working, Boots and I love traveling. But I’m happiest curled up on the couch with him and our English bulldog, Bubba, on our home in the middle of the ocean.