Kamaʻāina have left Hawaiʻi for a multitude of reasons; for Lisa Lynn Kahululani Kleissner (maiden name Porter), a 1972 graduate of Kamehameha Schools, it was love.
Flashback: December 1974. Karl “Charly” Kleissner was an exchange student from Innsbruck, Austria, attending Seabury Hall on Maui and living with close friends of Kleissner’s dad. Charly’s visit with her family in Kailua, Oʻahu, over Christmas that year proved to be life-changing. It didn’t take long for the two young people to know they were meant to be together.
Eight years later, Kleissner left her position as co-principal of a small architectural firm in Honolulu to exchange vows with Charly in Austria. Thus began a life that has been marked by adventure, hard work, and philanthropy in over 25 countries on four continents.
After four years in Vienna, where they welcomed a son and a daughter, the Kleissners returned to the U.S., winding up in Silicon Valley. Kleissner worked in corporate architecture as a consultant for fledgling high-tech and biotech firms and traded some of her services for stock. Meanwhile, Charly had earned a doctorate in computer science and accepted an executive position with a high-tech company.
In 1999, when his company and several of the startups Kleissner invested in went public, they found themselves financially able to focus on “impact investing” – supporting companies and organizations that are dedicated to making a positive contribution to people and the planet.
The following year, they started their family foundation, the KL Felicitas Foundation (K for Kleissner, L for Legacy and felicitas meaning “happiness” in Latin) to empower like-minded entrepreneurs and innovators.
“For the last 23 years, Charly and I have been actively experimenting with the connection of purpose and capital,” Kleissner said. “When the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors published Solutions for Impact Investors, a resource we co-wrote in 2009 for foundations looking to mission-align their endowments, we received a lot of invitations to speak at conferences around the world.
“That led to a chance meeting in Alaska with Brant Chillingworth, senior program officer for the Honolulu-based Hauʻoli Mau Loa Foundation. He invited us to connect with other Hawaiʻi foundations and trusts, which brought us to Neil Hannahs.”
For 15 years, Hannahs was the director of Kamehameha Schools’ Land Assets Division, managing a portfolio of 358,000 acres of agriculture and conservation lands in Hawaiʻi. After he left that post, he started Hoʻokele Strategies in January 2016 to provide strategic analysis, leadership counsel, values mentoring and organizational support to businesses.
When Kleissner and Hannahs met, he talked about what he saw as an emergence of a cultural social enterprise movement in Hawaiʻi.
“Based on the success of what the KL Felicitas Foundation was doing in India and central Eastern Europe, I was curious if our experiences could be helpful,” Kleissner said. “Most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to come home and do something potentially meaningful for the Hawaiian community.
“I saw, in the local enterprises that Neil introduced to me, a beautiful integration of cultural values and innovation, something we were not seeing anywhere else. Ironically, these entrepreneurs did not understand how unique their businesses were. They just saw themselves as doing good work for the lāhui.”
Together with Hannahs and Pia Chock, who manages Kamehameha Schools’ $10 million food systems investment fund, Kleissner co-founded the nonprofit Hawaiʻi Investment Ready (HIR; hiready.net) in 2013. Kamehameha Schools and the KL Felicitas Foundation provided seed capital to kick-start HIR’s Business Accelerator Program, which guides local social enterprises as they analyze and refine their business and financial models and nurture the right relationships to achieve their next level of impact.
“When I started working with HIR, I realized how culturally disconnected I had become from Hawaiʻi and my ʻohana,” Kleissner said. “HIR affords me the opportunity to reconnect while giving back.
“Our business accelerator cohorts have averaged 70% Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs; all participating businesses must have a clearly defined cultural impact and/or serve kamaʻāina and Kānaka Maoli. The Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs I have been honored to work with helped me ‘hear’ my Hawaiian grandmother’s voice again.”
Through this work, Kleissner also learned that strengthening Hawaiʻi’s innovative island enterprises was not enough. Many of them were struggling to raise capital, and traditional grants and financing options were not always adequate or aligned with their needs. HIR’s business accelerator program provided an opportunity to connect Kleissner’s global community of impact-investing peers with a community of local grantors, traditional investors and impact investors who were willing to explore alternative strategies to support positive change.
To date, more than 70 organizations and companies have benefited from the program, and HIR has evolved to become a leader in regenerative economic development. In February 2022, it launched the Hawaiʻi Food Systems Accelerator for local enterprises and for partners from the private sector, government agencies and philanthropic organizations who share the goal of developing a resilient food system in the Islands.
Native Hawaiians, Kleissner believes, are particularly attuned to the emerging concept of “system investing,” which considers the big picture not just individual enterprises.
“You can’t sail from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi by the stars unless you are aware of the entire environment, or system, in which you are operating,” she said. “That includes other factors such as the wind, ocean currents, weather patterns and migratory paths of fish and birds. This is the wisdom we can tap into as we look to address food security, affordable housing and other issues.”
Kleissner and Charly are hands-on with the programs and projects their foundation supports, and they spend about nine months on the road every year. Their primary residence is in Big Sur, Calif., but HIR has provided a way for them to integrate their ties to Hawaiʻi with their global work in the impact markets.
“While I have brought knowledge, networks and resources to Hawaiʻi to support Kānaka Māoli and kama- ʻāina social enterprises, the people I have been privileged to work with have gifted me with so much more,” Kleissner said.
“I may have left Hawaiʻi, but I never gave up my kuleana for Hawaiʻi. HIR allows me to be a global impact investor and a Native Hawaiian with kuleana to Hawaiʻi.”