Malia KA'AIHUE

Kamehameha Schools - Class of 1997

Partner & President of Strategy: DTL Hawaii Director of Community Planning: WCIT Architecture Board of Directors: Nā Kama Kai

The daughter of an educator and a Hawaiian fisherman, Malia Ka'aihue believes that once you understand your foundation, and you know who you are, then you can achieve anything. In fact, she says, her foundation has been her most important asset in life. The knowledge of her family history, coupled with the belief that one continues to carry on the story of their ancestors, has given her a strong sense of identity that propels Malia to explore new ventures and recreate herself along the way.

Since graduating from Kamehameha Schools in 1997, Malia's talents have touched and nurtured Hawaii's native culture and people through the many positions of impact she has held professionally and within the nonprofit community. Currently, as a partner at DTL (meaning "detail"), a Hawaiian Strategy Studio, which she founded in 2013, Malia works with organizations and businesses to recognize their assets and goals while keeping Hawaiian sensibilities and sensitivities at the forefront.

How does Malia practically help her clients develop their business goals? The same way she emphasizes that you, individually, can achieve great things - by recognizing their foundation, then guiding them from those roots. She begins by asserting that all people, places, and industry have a genealogy. Thus, she created a four part "Mo'o Methodology" based on the Hawaiian notion of mo'o - that everything is connected, that nothing is created or destroyed, and that energy, if recognized, can be taken and reorganized. Through this method of awareness, Malia's clients come to understand who they are and where they want to go. 

DTL's success is reflected in its work on several major projects, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Kaka'ako Makai conceptual master plan, the redevelopment of the International Marketplace Waikiki, and Kewalo Harbor master plan to name a few. Malia's extensive professional background includes positions as Chief Knowledge Officer at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Editor at MANA: A Journal of Hawai'i, Lecturer at the University of Hawaii - West Oahu, Director of Native Hawaiian Technical Education at Leeward Community College, and Editor at PacificBasin Communications.

In 2016, Malia was named among Pacific Business News' Forty Under 40. She received her BA in Hawaiian Studies & Language from the University of Hawaii and went on to earn an MA in Political Science and PhD in Political Science & Indigenous Politics (both from UH). Last but not least, she holds community positions on the boards of Nā Kama Kai, Native Hawaiian Legal Corp., and Na Leo Kako'o.

Take a look below at our Q&A with Malia Ka'aihue:

What did you dream of being when you were a kid?

I’ve always had an affinity for culture and knowledge. I wanted to go away for college. I dreamed about traveling the world.

What were you like as a teenager in and out of school?

In high school, I was a C student and coasted through school. I liked to play contact sports like basketball and water polo. My best friend Mary and I joined Hui Lama (environmental club). I had 11 best friends in high school and we're still as close as we were then. My high school job was folding t-shirts at Banana Republic in Ala Moana.

You said that education weighs on your heart. What steps need to be taken to change and/or improve the education of Hawaii's youth?

I was born into a family of educators, so education is always top of mind. What weighs on my heart is equity and access to educational opportunities. I’m hyper-aware of inherent systemic biases prevalent in Hawai’i’s education systems as well as the complexity of the issues. However, education is a frame of mind. One doesn't need to attend a private school to have access to knowledge. How do we as a community insist that all of Hawaii’s keiki has access to knowledge?

What should a student who is looking to work in a career such as yours at DTL - in positions of community involvement, cultural preservation, etc. - know about what it takes to be successful?

Students looking to work at DTL would need to be critical thinkers and problems solvers. Foremost, they must have a strong cultural identity and be community-minded. We are multidisciplinary by design, so we have academics, planners, lawyers, designers, public relations specialists. I’m less concerned about hiring a type, but more concerned of working with the right people for the right reasons. And, they must be badass in what ever it is they do. DTL’s team is lean and mean, in a good way of course.

Best business advice?

Never take the first offer. It will shift the way you have conversations. Be forward-thinking in all business decisions.

What do you look for in a client?

DTL is a Hawaiian Strategy Studio. That means our approach and solutions come from a Hawaiian lens, a Hawai’i lens. We are not for everyone. You must have a serious commitment to community and culture. They have to want to create relationships with communities for the next several generations, and Native Hawaiians must be a part of all decisions happening here in Hawaii. These are our core principals.

What projects are you most proud of?

The International Market Place – to have Queen Emma back in Kaluaokau for more generations to come, that makes me proud. Any project that we get the privilege of partnering with community and our clients to come up with solutions that are radical, that raise the bar in terms of cultural rigor. That’s the work DTL thrives on.

What drives your work ethic?

My family, community and ku’u one hanau (my birth sands, Hawai’i.) And, the desire to design my own life in everything I do.

Please share a piece of advice or wisdom that influences you daily.

My family focuses on the notion work hard and playing harder! All the time in everything that we do.

On Hawaii and future generations...

There are assets and there is value in Hawai'i beyond the beauty. Hawai'i is a beef stew model: the broth is there, but everyone brought something to make the pot great. Be you, and do you well. Don't feel insecure. The common denominator is Hawaii. Be part of the solution. All the answers are here. Come home no matter what you do. This is where it has to happen. We are a global culture and always traveling, but if you care, come home.

How do you like to spend a relaxing day off?

Days off are spent at the ocean with the hubby and keiki. I prefer to read on the beach, swim or video my keiki while we surf. And, of course take amazing vacations to awesome surf spots. My family just spent time in Tahiti this June. We’ve also taken our keiki to surf Morocco, France, Spain, Costa Rica, Australia.