To cope with her mother’s disappearance when she was 11, Lauren Hana Chai started painting. She created dramatic portraits of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and South Korea – the locations where private investigators and others determined her mother was last seen. The images, which began as dark and ominous, slowly became brighter and more vivid as they were completed one by one.
“I was dealing with it through art because it was the only way I knew how to,” Chai says. “I do want to search for her and I would like to find her but as I found out more and more about what might have happened to her through a bunch of different sources it kind of changed to be like: ‘Well, I don’t know what happened. It might be a really complicated situation so whatever it is, I’d rather just know she’s OK.’ ”
Chai exhibited her paintings at Impact Hub Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest coworking space, to spread the word about her mother’s disappearance at the first of six planned showings around the globe. The main roles of coworking spaces are to provide workspace for independent workers and small businesses, and to build professional relationships. But Chai’s story shows the unexpected ways that coworking spaces nurture communities.
Impact Hub Honolulu is run by George Yarbrough, Nam Vu and Anne Weber, and is associated with over 100 Impact Hubs globally. Every hub focuses on an issue and works to find solutions. Honolulu’s branch targets education and sustainability through regularly scheduled events; it recently hosted a town hall session with Gov. David Ige.
“I grew up internationally,” Yarbrough says. “I was born in Panama, went to California, Thailand, Indonesia, Vancouver, Virginia, Rome, Morocco and then here. Moving around so often created a loose global community. I felt very driven to build community.”
Coworking began in Berlin in 1995 as “hackerspaces” – places for those interested in computers to gather and collaborate. Slowly, coworking spaces evolved to become associated with digital nomads or freelancers who do not need to operate from a traditional office. Today, they are defined as physical places where workers – both employed and self-employed – can share space, ideas and knowledge. Just about all coworking spaces aim to provide a couple of basics: a solid Wi-Fi connection and an atmosphere of motivation, the latter being something your local Starbucks may lack.
“The main purpose: to come here and do what you need to do, your work,” says Julius Geis of SpacesMaui, a coworking space in Makawao. “What happens over time is relationship building.”
Today there are at least 22 coworking spaces spread across Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai. Our list includes makerspaces as well; They are like coworking spaces but are far better suited for making things than housing your start up. The cost to rent ranges from $10 a day for a desk to over $1,000 a month for a private office. Due to the ever-rising cost of real estate, the Islands may be the perfect place for these trendy offices and their clients. For some people, coworking spaces reduce commute times, a huge plus in a state currently ranked 50th, according to a driving study by WalletHub.
Dawn Hunt and Keno Knieriem grew tired of their daily drive from Kailua to their offices downtown. After being unable to find a comfortable property with modest rent, he and his fiancée created an office space in Kailua. Now Treehouse Coworking offers office space to others and hosts a night market, film screenings and other events to bring the community together in ways that were previously unavailable.
“We want to become an asset to small business on the Windward side. I think that’s what we should be doing,” Knieriem says. “So, our events are put on to encourage small businesses that come and learn more about branding or (how) the Trump tax changes might impact their business or how to incorporate sustainability into their business. Getting the subject matter experts to come and share that knowledge with them to put that content out – that’s one way we see the community evolving.”
While mostly used by freelancers and small businesses, coworking spaces are also used by larger corporations – Japanese retail giant Uniqlo has just launched its first Hawaii pop-up at Ala Moana Center and also rents office space in BoxJelly, Hawaii’s first coworking space.
“Everyone can work everywhere, and everyone can work with their laptops,” says Rechung Fujihira, part owner of BoxJelly. “Things are changing quickly, and business needs to be made flexible. Business managers and owners are seeing that locking into some kind of long-term lease can be problematic as things fluctuate and it is not their core competency.”
BoxJelly opened in 2011 and three years later Fujihira was named one of Hawaii Business’ 20 for the Next 20. “We couldn’t get a place because we were young, and no one would lease to us,” remembers Fujihira. “We didn’t know what we were doing or how long we wanted it, so we did it as a pop-up space in the back of Fishcake.”
His mother, Maura Fujihira, the owner of Fishcake – a furniture store in Kakaako – let them start there, with the two businesses separated by sheets hanging from the ceiling. Later, at her urging, BoxJelly moved next door and gradually grew into a much bigger space that now includes Fishcake and Morning Glass Coffee.
BoxJelly continues to do “dope” stuff, Rechung Fujihira says, like how it helped Nina Blanco start her own school. First, Blanco quit her job as a flight attendant, then she partnered with Agile Learning Centers, a K-12 independent school for self-directed learners. Then, after transforming one of BoxJelly’s offices into a classroom, she began to teach four or five elementary-aged students.
Fujihira remembers his back-and-forths with one student about the 14-year-old’s dream to start a restaurant as a personal and class project. The boy approached him to serve food at BoxJelly, but Fujihira replied, “I don’t know man, do you have a pitch or something – I just can’t say yes or no.” The young man eventually came back with a plan and food he made through a deal with The Cut in Kakaako. Fujihira, a finance major from Chaminade University, recalls his composed response of, “Oh that’s cool, but where are your numbers bro?”
After a few more lessons in school and determined not to back down, it was soon agreed the child would serve his creations with local ingredients at BoxJelly once a week on “Fresh Taste Tuesdays.”
“He would be a part of the community,” Fujihira says. “On Fresh Taste Tuesdays we’d all get together, maybe like 10 of us, and eat this food that this kid made. Not only did he learn how to cook but he learned about business, finance, how to source organic food and learned all these things from his project.”
Honua Studios in Kailua-Kona has a coworking space aimed at nurturing Hawaii Island’s burgeoning film industry. It is also Hawaii’s largest independent film studio thanks to a public/private partnership between county, state and private investors.
Managing Director Derek Hall calls it the “Swiss army knife of production in Hawaii.” Hawaii Island is a great location for filmmakers because it contains eight of the world’s 13 sub climate zones, according to the Köppen Climate Classification System. That means filmmakers can make Hawaii Island look like so many other parts of the world, while filming everything on one island.
Plus Hawaii Island is not Oahu, Hall says, a location that has already appeared in dozens of major movies in recent years. For example, the Koolau Mountains and Heeia Kea Pier are easily recognizable in “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and filmmakers want a fresh look.
“Oahu, as amazing as it is, it’s dense and deeply populated,” Hall says. “I was talking to the producer of ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ and he’s struggling to find new venues. We have all the makings to become a world class facility.” But then he explains why Honua Studios welcomes everyone, not just filmmakers: “Film isn’t here all the time so it’s nice to fill the space with coworking. It’s a real wonderful network.”
Honua Studios’ biggest clients include Disney, Netflix and Universal Pictures. Hall says 70 percent of the crews that work on big film productions are local people, and many of them need the workspace that Honua provides.
Touted as a “one-stop shop for services” by Hall, the coworking space houses everything a creative would need to succeed, including the GVS Accelerator. The GVS, or Global Virtual Studio, program invests $50,000 into each team of its cohort and provides the necessary guidance to turn ideas into professional pitches for investment. “Running for Grace,” which was released as a major motion picture in July, is a graduate of the accelerator and testament to its success.
A few people using Honua Studios have discovered opportunities they could not have imagined, all because they were working next to big budget productions. Plus, 70 percent of a production’s crew is local, which means work for all kinds of people both inside and outside Honua.
“We had a freelancer working out of the coworking space, an editor and artist. When we were doing ‘Running for Grace,’ he jumped into our art department, developed our sets and pieced things together. He was so inspired he jumped into production in L.A., just completed his first project as set designer and art director on a film. His career is taking off by taking an opportunity here in the coworking space; now he’s making a name for himself in Hollywood.”
Like many trends, Hawaii was slow to accept coworking but the communities it is creating are here to stay. SpacesMaui founder Gies says coworking spaces are finding innovative ways to help the communities they serve. “I had the opportunity to see Robert Kiyosaki,” Gies says, referring to the Hilo-born businessman, investor and author. “The message was interesting, ‘If you want to be successful, you have to put yourself in a successful setting.’ ” That’s the ultimate goal of coworking spaces.
Jessica Kim and Tiffany Chang started The Canvas, a coworking space for students by students, during their junior year of high school in 2013. The duo took it upon themselves – operating under the nonprofit Center for Tomorrow’s Leaders – to secure grants, a location in Kalihi and the responsibility of remodeling without contracting any outside help.
The Canvas and its adult volunteers helped 15-20 students a day through workshops ranging from slam poetry and college preparedness to language and tutoring. They also produced “Flare,” an outdoor concert at Kewalo Basin Net Shed featuring local artists and food trucks, with all proceeds going to the student organization.
“What if we brought it all to one place,” says Kim, who had met students at Farrington High School who were passionate about dance but didn’t have a place to train. “They would practice outside in the parking lot because the doors to classrooms closed at 3 p.m. after school. These students struggled to find a place so why don’t we find a coworking environment for them to collaborate.”
The after-school coworking program lasted for two years until Kim and Chang moved to the Mainland for college and managing remotely became too difficult. “It was about starting the dialogue,” Kim says. She plans to graduate from Notre Dame next year, return to Hawaii and merge education with her studies in design – continuing to push the boundaries of what Hawaii’s youth can and will accomplish.
Keoni Lee used to describe himself as a hardcore capitalist. It was reconnecting with his culture, he says, that allowed him to see a new reality. Now, the coworking space he helped conceive – Waiwai Collective – looks to re-create the self-sustaining abundance ancient Hawaiians once shared and seeks help from the community.
“You come, you experience our physical metaphor of the future, because that’s what it is. It has all the things incorporated into it that we wish we had on the normal,” Lee says. “This is a place where we put the relationship above the transaction, which is the opposite of the capitalist system, which is transaction driven.”
Waiwai Collective is a three-year “experiment” in partnership with Kamehameha Schools located in the old Varsity Building on University Avenue. The school’s Strategy and Innovations division is using the space as a prototype in line with their goal of creating by 2040 a thriving lāhui, or Hawaiian nation. Birthed in the wake of the 2016 election, Waiwai Collective was not originally intended for coworking but was instead seen as a hub or “beacon of light” around the idea of collective values and shared responsibilities.
“This is not a prototypical coworking space because our intent is not to just create a space for people to work and collaborate,” Lee says, “but really to build community, first and foremost.”
Lee had the privilege of traveling on and documenting Hokulea’s worldwide voyage with Oiwi TV, his Hawaiian language cultural video production company and TV station. The experience allowed him to engage with different indigenous communities and to see that those who were thriving spent a lot of physical time together.
“For example, in Aotearoa, every iwi – or tribe – has a marae. It’s a land base that is held by the tribe and usually they have a community kitchen, banquet hall, a ceremonial house. This is where they do tribe business, where they do birthdays, funerals and just a place for the community to do their thing. They spend a lot of time together on that. I felt like that was something missing in Hawaii.”
Waiwai Collective has a local backyard vibe. Removing your shoes is the first thing one must do before stepping foot into the 5,000 square-foot-space with a circular turf grass floor at the center. Events are held weekly in addition to “Awa and Ai Nights” on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as pau hana after coworking.