Punahou - Class of 1997
President: Hawaii Venture Capital Association Head of New Ventures: Sultan Ventures Program Director: XLR8UH Founding Member: Startup Paradise
At a young age, Meli James recognized the value of having multiple perspectives. First, through the solid group of diverse friends her parents formed when she was in grade school. And second, at an all-girls Jewish summer camp in Maine.
Meli is not of Jewish faith, but her parents would fly her off (along with a handful of other girls from Hawaii) to the month-long camp known for its strong tennis program. There in Maine’s great outdoors among mostly east coasters, Meli would play tennis, but even more, she would gain the knowledge that there’s more than one point of view in the world.
Thus, she is a strong believer in acquiring as much experience as one can in order to make informed, strategic decisions in business. She emphasizes the importance of multi-tasking, especially in the beginning by working and testing out your entrepreneurial ideas while maintaining your day job. She distinguishes between being an entrepreneur, an intrapreneur, and being open to the entire spectrum of involvement in business startups.
There’s no tried and true recipe to entrepreneurial success, Meli says, but passion, hustle, and execution should definitely be included. The remainder of the ingredients vary depending on the entrepreneur. However, she attributes much of her startup success to her corporate sales and marketing background, because as she states, “As a founder, you’re always selling.”
A graduate of Punahou and Cornell University, the biggest risk Meli took was deciding to leave the learned, comfortable path of traditional job success in order to find her passion in the world of entrepreneurship. Her leap would prove to pay off. Over the last fifteen years, she has earned her way to being one of the most sought-after minds in business innovation.
Prior to returning to Honolulu in 2012, Meli lived in Silicon Valley for over 10 years, where she co-founded and contributed to numerous start-ups in the Bay Area and Honolulu. She found a hit with the creation of Nirvino, which at one point was the #1 ranked wine app, an Apple Platform Top 100 App, and a Top Ten Lifestyles App.
Today, she is the Head of New Ventures at Sultan Ventures, a boutique venture firm focused on early-stage startups and investments, Program Director at the award winning XLR8UH, a venture accelerator formed in partnership with the University of Hawaii, and President of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association. She is a founding member of the Startup Paradise initiative helping to build a thriving startup community that nurtures collaboration and innovation in Hawaii.
In 2016, Meli was featured in Entrepreneur Magazine as one of five “Women to Watch.” She has also been recognized locally in Hawaii Business Magazine’s “20 to Watch for the Next 20” and Pacific Business News’ “40 Under 40.”
See what Meli has to say below about what startup business ideas excite her, which one could be considered “overkill,” and how you can discover more about your own entrepreneur spirit.
Looking back, how would you describe yourself as a teenager?
I did pretty well in school at Punahou. I was a tennis player on the varsity team and I paddled in the summer. I was well-rounded in that I was very interested in being outdoors and I understood my schooling was important. I wasn’t at the top of my grade or anything like that, but I understood the importance in being multidimensional.
Were you a rule follower?
I was smart enough to never get caught! Smart enough to know what the limits were. I understood the boundaries of how to bend the rules.
Who did you look up to back then?
My family has a close-knit friend network of people in Hawaii who were all from totally different places. They all became my hānai parents and contributed to me being able to understand different perspectives and backgrounds. Even at an early age, I was able to understand that there isn’t only one way of thinking or one way to approach a challenge.
I was also fortunate growing up in that these friends all sent their daughters to a summer camp in Maine. It was an all-girls Jewish camp, and I’m not Jewish. They would send me to this camp for a month, basically by myself with a handful of Hawaii girls who were Jewish, and mostly girls from the east coast. It was a college experience at the age of eleven, because I got thrown into this east coast mentality. I created this personality and way of viewing the world from multiple perspectives that has really helped me throughout my childhood and career.
What sacrifices have you had to make in order to become a successful entrepreneur?
When you get a job out of college, you’re at a certain salary, and people have ideas of what the fast track is - and a lot of opportunities really are the luck of the draw - I was on that path in a similar way. I really wasn’t happy. One of the hardest things for me was giving up that traditional track of having a set, consistent income. Hindsight is always 20/20, but that was really challenging for me, giving up that safety and having that high risk of not knowing where that was going to lead and how I was going to make money doing it.
Is there a pattern or formula for becoming a successful entrepreneur?
There’s no real recipe for success of an entrepreneur. Most of it has to do with passion, hustle, and execution. You have to come at it with that kind of gusto. That being said, there are things you can do that are helpful. I did have a background in corporate sales and marketing, so a lot of the ways I tackle problems may be different from an entrepreneur who doesn’t have a college degree. That may work for their particular startup, but as a founder, you’re always selling. Every really successful CEO, traditionally has had some type of sales background. You’re always selling yourself. You’re selling your idea. You’re selling the concept to your co-founders. You’re selling your idea to employees that they should forego a certain amount of salary in lieu of equity, which means that they have to believe that some day this is going to mean something.
How have you seen Hawaii’s innovation sector change or develop over the last five years?
When I was in San Francisco working on my own startups, I was able to come back quite a bit for an extended amount of time, because I could work remotely. I started to see things changing in Hawaii slowly. I wanted to be a part of it and help it grow. I’ve been incredibly impressed with how much things have picked up, really since the Startup Paradise initiative was launched in 2013. The sheer fact that there are so many events happening - sometimes there are three in one night, all startup focused. I love when there has been an amazing event, and I heard nothing about it. It lets me know that it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than all of us.
Is there any overkill when it comes to startup ideas?
I like seeing entrepreneurs trying to solve a problem in their own backyard that they have personally felt a pain point about or can relate to. That was my first startup: I had a problem where I would walk into a restaurant or grocery store and I wanted to find the best wine I could, but I didn’t have the ability to, so that was my pain point.
I do see a lot of entrepreneurs come in and they’re trying to solve a problem in the hospitality world around booking activities. It’s difficult to get those out there to every tourist walking off the plane. That’s probably the most popular idea. The second most popular is an online calendar for cool things going on around you. I still think there’s a need for it, but people fail to recognize why something hasn’t been able to happen yet, and what it would really take for it to be successful.
What ideas are you excited about?
I’m really excited about companies that are creating a positive impact on the world. A lot of the startups we work with are a reflection of our regional strength here in Hawaii. Whether that’s astronomy, marine sciences, or clean energy. Those are all things we have a competitive edge on in Hawaii.
What is unique about Hawaii’s own entrepreneurs?
For local, born and raised entrepreneurs here in Hawaii, they have a really clear connection to their community and making Hawaii better. They’re starting businesses with a local focus, but there’s global ambition. It’s the perfect recipe, especially if we’re trying to invest in them. Then there are entrepreneurs who are focused on local, which is totally cool as well. There’s also great mentality in Hawaii of work hard, play hard.
What’s your advice for young people who are interested in the idea of starting their own business instead of working for someone else?
Don’t quit your day job. If you have an idea, test it out. Do as much as you can while you have your job to really make sure that what you’re going to be working on has legs and is sustainable. There are so many resources that can help you do that before you quit your job and you go jump head first into the deep end. You don’t make good business decisions when you’re desperate, and when you run out of money, you get desperate instead of strategic.
If you do have the entrepreneurial spirit and you don’t want to work for somebody else, it’s not just about two opposite ends of the spectrum. You can do something in the middle. An intrapreneur is someone who can be an entrepreneur and problem solver within their own company. People who are less risk tolerant can have that and be really satisfied.
Is there any other advice you'd like to give students today?
It’s so popular right now to be an entrepreneur, and that’s a good thing, but if you’re in high school and you’re thinking about being an entrepreneur, try it out to see if it’s really for you. Get an internship at a local startup in the summer, do a startup weekend, or even go through the process of starting a little small business on the side with some friends. Any kind of small experience in startup-land or entrepreneurship will help you make better decisions later.