2016’s Women to Watch

Melialani James

Entrepreneurial Aloha

Locals call it the “brain drain”: Homegrown entrepreneurs from Hawaii follow the jet stream to the mainland for school and pretty much never return. Melialani James saw it happen for years. So she chose a different path.

Yes, the 37-year-old Honolulu native went east in her 20s, but in 2012, after starting two successful apps in Silicon Valley, she moved back home to mentor, coach and help fund startup companies — especially those helmed by other Hawaiian locals.

The move was purposeful. It was calculated. “For years Hawaii was seen as the place you leave to go start stuff elsewhere,” she says. “Then one day it hit me: Why can’t we make it so people actively come to start stuff here?”

Naturally, the easiest way to change the landscape has been from within. In her current role as head of new ventures at Sultan Ventures, a startup catalyst and boutique venture firm, James leads a team tasked with identifying and recruiting potential portfolio companies; provides mentoring and support to make portfolio companies investor-ready; and works with local companies to provide business-development and deal-structuring strategies.

She also runs XLR8UH, a state-university investment program that dabbles in tech transfer and focuses on proof-of-concept and commercialization.

Since 2014 James has served as president of the Hawaiian Venture Capital Association, a professional organization designed to bring together members from the local entrepreneurial, investor and business communities to interact through educational and networking events.

And as if these jobs weren’t enough, last year James was selected as entrepreneur in residence at Cornell University’s Pillsbury Institute. For this gig, she keeps remote office hours and makes twice-annual coaching/teaching trips to Cornell’s campus in Ithaca, N.Y.

Lest we forget, James’ first job upon returning home was as program manager for Blue Startups, a venture accelerator bankrolled by Henk Rogers, the man who developed the video game Tetris.

“All of the things I’ve done since coming home have revolved around helping to create an innovation sector,” James says. “That’s what drives me—the notion of enabling entrepreneurs to start companies and live the lives they want to live, and enabling them to realize they can do that all right here.”

Omar Sultan, founder of Sultan Ventures, says James possesses a “special ability” to connect with people on a basic level and “put them at ease” to discuss just about anything. He adds that this characteristic has come in handy for building an entrepreneurial community from the ground up—a community in which founders trust that James has their best interests in mind. “We have a small population; unlike places where it’s hard to go anywhere without bumping into another entrepreneur, here we don’t get that many opportunities for sharing best practices,” he says. “[James] understands that fundamentally and works to help facilitate some of those collisions.”

With this in mind, James says her next big goals are to make the funding situation more equitable for local women and to push local early-stage startups toward commercialization. Consider it the business version of the spirit of aloha.

See original article by Matt Villano at Entrepreneur.com here.