Immigrants Get The Job Done In Hawaii

Katarina Poljakova

Here’s who they are and what they contribute to the local economy.

Immigrants have an outsized place in Hawaii’s history. In the 19th and early 20th centuries they came from Japan, China, Puerto Rico and the Portuguese Azores and sustained the labor-intensive sugar and pineapple industries that dominated the state until a generation ago, creating a distinctive plantation culture with its own food and even its own dialect.

But they didn’t stop coming when the plantations shut down. More likely now to come from the Philippines, South Korea or Vietnam, immigrants still power our largest industries, filling 46 percent of jobs in “tourism accommodation, arrangements and reservation services,” and 37 percent of jobs involving crop production, according to New American Economy, a national coalition of business and political leaders dedicated to immigration reform.


Immigrants have significant roles in our burgeoning STEM sector and in our world-famous food scene, comprising 46 percent of cooks in Hawaii and 45 percent of bakers, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Immigrants teach our students, clean our facilities, and they employ many of us, too. In the United States as a whole, immigrants were more than twice as likely as the native-born to start new businesses in 2015, and have founded 51 percent of startups worth $1 billion or more, according to New American Economy.

Today, 1 in 5 of us living in Hawaii is a first-generation immigrant – and the rest are descended from people who came from somewhere else. Immigrants are everywhere, but most of the time, Hawaii’s immigrants fly under the radar. The ones who have “made it” are often those who have invested the most into the American dream and they can seem, in their outlook, more American than the native-born.

But lately, immigrants as a group have also been much in the news. With changing national policies and an increasingly heated debate around the benefits and costs of immigration, we thought it was time to look at the part immigrants play in Hawaii’s economy and community. Here’s a snapshot of Hawaii’s immigrants today, made up of numbers – and even more importantly, of people.

Dollars and Cents

First-generation immigrants earn slightly less on average than the average American worker and cost state and local governments more – between $450 and $3,000 more per year, according to a study conducted by the National Academies of Science (NAS) in 2017. However, NAS concluded that those increased costs are nearly all because immigrants have more children than native-born Americans – 0.52 dependent children per each immigrant adult on average vs. 0.36 per native-born adult. They simply use the public education system more than most other Americans. Another study by the Urban Institute finds similar results.


The Urban Institute also notes those immigrant children eventually generate benefits and tax revenues that are spread throughout society “to those with and without children.” The NAS study found the children 

of immigrants generate more tax revenue and show a stronger upward mobility trend than the children of native-born Americans. In other words: Immigrant families cost governments slightly more upfront in education, but their children earn higher wages and pay higher taxes after becoming adults.

What about the economic impact of immigrants in Hawaii? There is less state by state information than national information, but one study published by WalletHub, a financial services site, measured immigrant impact on each state using four factors. When all four factors are added up, Hawaii ranks 10th in the nation for overall economic benefit from immigrants.

Here is how Hawaii ranks using each of WalletHub’s four factors:

International students, No. 23: Lacking academic-superstar universities but blessed by warm weather and proximity to Asia, we’re middle-of-the-pack when it comes to attracting and educating international students, according to WalletHub’s analysis.

Brain gain/innovation, No. 38: We come out on the lower end in this category, with no Fortune 500 companies based in the state and many of our immigrants working in agriculture or tourism.

Immigrants in the workforce, No.11: This category took into consideration factors like share of foreign-born workforce, total work visas per capita and share of foreign-born business owners.

Immigrants’ socioeconomic contribution, No. 2: Hawaii stands out in the category that measures income generated by immigrant households, rates of homeownership and income from second-generation immigrant households. Hawaii’s recent immigrants and their children are integrated into the social and economic life of our islands in a way unmatched by any state except California.

The tech mentor with a killer backhand:

Katarina Poljakova, venture associate at Sultan Ventures

Katarina Poljakova (Polya-KO-va) was born and raised in Slovakia; in Hawaii she goes by Kate. Her silver MacBook laptop is covered in stickers, most of them work-related: Startup Paradise; XLR8UH, the university-linked accelerator where she serves as program manager; and a Superman-style S  for Sultan Ventures, where she serves as a venture associate. The last sticker says, in swooping letters: “Aloha is FREE” – a blend of steely and fun that fits her well.

Poljakova came to UH as a freshman after being recruited for its tennis team. She graduated in 2014 and went to work under her student visa’s OPT (Optional Practical Training) program, in which foreign students gain work experience related to their fields of study.

Poljakova took a job with Sultan Ventures. It worked out so well that the company applied for an H1-B visa for her, shouldering the onerous costs and commitment of application in exchange for a good employee with a strong incentive to stay with them (H1-B visas are employer- and location-specific). The H1-B visa is a lottery, so it wasn’t a guarantee, but Poljakova and Sultan Ventures got lucky.

She also made some smart choices. Poljakova seems completely at home in Hawaii and with the English language, but says assimilating into a new culture isn’t always easy; it takes conscious choices. She arrived in the United States having studied English in school, but full immersion was a different kettle of fish.

“When I first came (to UH), we had an introductory session where people were talking about GPA (and) credits. It was a three-hour session and I literally didn’t understand anything,” she laughs, and adds, “A lot of times with language, you have to be forced to use it.”

Now, she mentors startups for XLR8UH, whose mission is to incubate companies founded on research coming out of the university, and serves as a mentor for the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship. It’s a good way to combine her knowledge of business with her drive to win.

“When I came to UH, I thought (I would) finish college as soon as I can, and go back home,” says Poljakova. “I’ve been here for over eight years now.” And, now that her sister is studying here and she has a boyfriend, she hopes to be here for the foreseeable future. “It gets more tangled,” she says, which sounds like the process of putting down roots. Now, she says, when she visits Slovakia, her mom gets mad when she talks about going “home” to Hawaii at the end of her stay.

“The thing I like about being in this industry is that I learn something new every day,” says Poljakova. “There’s so much to learn – I feel like I would never get bored.”


Original article posted on Hawaii Business, March 1, 2018

The Man of Letters:

Roger Jellinek,
literary agent and executive director of the Hawaii Book and Music Festival

He speaks with a British accent, but in the eyes of the United States, Roger Jellinek is a Mexican immigrant. Born in Mexico to British parents, he was a citizen of both countries when he returned to the Americas to attend Yale University as a Clare-Mellon fellow after earning a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge and serving in the Royal Marines.

After Yale, it was time to change his U.S. status from foreign student to foreign worker, says Jellinek, and when he was offered a position at Random House as an associate editor, “the English (visa) quota was full. So I got a Mexican one.” The process in the early 1960s was very different from today, he says: “It was no trouble at all.”

The job at Random House was the start of a long career in service of the written word that includes stints as an editor at the New York Times Book Review, editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Co. and an editor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

In the early 1990s, he and his wife, Eden-Lee Murray, took their baby son and fled New York City for someplace with a lower crime rate and less gentrification. “Where we lived had been discovered by Hollywood, and it had lost its charm,” says Jellinek. “We pretty much stuck a pin in the map.”

After a stop in Washington, D.C., to write the memoirs of a KGB defector, he and his wife arrived in Honolulu without jobs and set to work becoming a backbone of Hawaii’s arts and literary community.

Among other projects, they founded the state’s most prominent literary agency, Jellinek and Murray, which is still in business. Jellinek also created the publishing program for the old Maui Writers’ Conference.

Then, in 2005, with the Maui conference on the wane, the Hawaii Book and Music Festival was born, with Jellinek in charge. “I did the first one pro bono,” says Jellinek, who was then hired as the festival’s executive director, a position he still holds today.

These days, the festival is a complicated undertaking, involving 10 venues, 150 events, about 700 participants, and 20,000-30,000 attendees. It includes a book fair showcasing Hawaii’s unique publishing scene, a festival-within-a-festival for children and a platform for celebrating Hawaii’s music.

Close to Jellinek’s heart is the festival’s Hawaiian culture programming, which showcases the vitality around Hawaiian culture publishing.

“The action in Hawaiian culture right now is in books,” says Jellinek, with excitement. “With the (language) immersion programs right now, you have a steady stream of people majoring in Hawaiian studies” who then go on to study and write about Hawaiian culture. “We are helping develop a core of intellectuals, a cadre of people who are also good at explaining it to the public.”

And the future? Jellinek envisions expanding the festival to include a year-round program of literary events that includes public lectures.

The coffee maven:

Lorie Obra,
co-founder, Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee

When we think about artisanal coffee, many of us think of bearded hipsters with piercings and sleeve tattoos. But one of the state’s most prominent coffee voices belongs to Lorie Obra, a former medical technologist from the Philippines by way of New Jersey, who runs a 6-acre farm in Pahala that has garnered national and international plaudits.

It wasn’t Obra’s idea to immigrate to the United States from the Philippines, where she was born and raised. And she certainly didn’t mean to become a farmer. But the rural life – even thousands of miles from your homeland – sometimes calls you back.

Obra was born to parents who farmed rice on Mindanao and was told by her father early on: “You are not going to do farming. We are going to send you to school, because agriculture is a hard life.”

She went from Mindanao to Manila for university, where she met her future husband, Restituto. “Rusty,” a chemist, had applied for an American green card under the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the immigrant quotas based on nation of origin that had existed since 1921. When Rusty got the OK, he urged Lorie to marry him so they could go together. It was 1972, the year Marcos declared martial law that would last for nearly a decade – and by then Rusty and Lorie had gotten used to the tear gas and Molotov cocktails used regularly near the university. “It was so chaotic,” says Obra. “I said, ‘Do you have to go?’ (Rusty) said, it’s a greener pasture in America.”

They moved to New Jersey and remained for 28 years. Lorie became a medical technologist at a biomedical facility. Then, in the early 1990s, after both of their children had gone to college, Rusty took early retirement and headed to Hawaii to be closer to his father, who worked for C. Brewer, one of Hawaii’s Big Five agricultural corporations.

Although there were no jobs for a chemist in Hawaii, they visited a childhood friend who was farming coffee on land freed up by the closure of Big Sugar on Oahu. “It was beautiful,” says Obra. “We saw his trees, full of red, ripe cherries. Without even talking, our eyes connected and we knew right then that was what we were going to do: grow coffee.” They started a farm in Kau, a little-known agricultural district down the road from famous Kona.

After Rusty passed away before his time, Lorie threw herself into the farm, approaching coffee growing and roasting with the same scientific mindset she had brought to her earlier career. “I was in the medical field, so you cannot do shortcuts,” she says, “And that’s what I did in coffee. People asked me, ‘How come you are doing all these experiments? You go to sleep late, you wake up early.’ ” They also asked, if she was pouring all that love into the coffee, how come she wasn’t winning awards?

“I told them, I’m going to do what I’m doing, and my time will come,” says Obra. It did. Today, Rusty’s Hawaiian Coffee is available across the state, from the Parker Ranch Store on Hawaii Island to Alan Wong’s restaurants in Honolulu. It has won awards for coffee production, roasting and brewing that place it among the best in the world. The Obras were instrumental in developing Kau from just another agricultural area wondering what’s next after sugar, to one of the nation’s foremost coffee-growing regions.

The only one who might not approve? Her dad. She laughs when she says he told her: “I sent you to college so you wouldn’t be a farmer! What are you doing now?”


The Emperor of Plate Lunch:

Eddie Flores Jr., owner, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue

Everybody knows the up-from-nothing story of Eddie Flores Jr., who built L&L Hawaiian Barbecue from a single location into a Hawaii-based international food empire. Flores, who is Chinese and Filipino, arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong at age 16. His first job was in San Francisco, selling magazines door to door.

“They taught us to pitch: ‘Can I see the lady of the house?’ I (didn’t) even know what that means,” he says.

Flores put himself through UH with scholarships and hard work – “my tuition was $125 a semester back in 1966” – and says his immigrant status “made me a little tougher. I had to scratch for it. There was nothing easy.”

His parents couldn’t smooth his way, he says: “They had a less than sixth-grade education, so they don’t even know how to tell us what to do” to succeed in college and beyond. “I had no idea about CliffsNotes.”

“When you talk about immigrants,” says Flores, “we work much harder than a lot of people. No one mentors us to tell us what to do. We don’t have financial support, we don’t have connections. We have to work harder; we just don’t have the advantage.” Flores has taken his firsthand knowledge of the immigrant experience and built it into the foundation of a franchise with almost 200 locations nationwide and in Japan.

“Our business model has been, ‘If we use immigrants, the chance of success is much higher, almost 100 percent improved,’ ” says Flores, estimating that 80-90 percent of Hawaii locations are run by immigrant families.

“The husband is working, the wife is working. When they’re busy, the parents fill in. Very few (immigrant-run locations) fail. They’re all successful. They can’t speak English, but their kids go to private school.”

And he gives back. Over the years, L&L has supported many nonprofits and organizations, including Goodwill, the Hawaii Foodbank, Chaminade University, the Filipino Chamber of Commerce and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He was also a member of the Honolulu Police Commission in October when it selected Susan Ballard as HPD’s new chief.

He’s taught classes on business management at UH and manages to give nearly a speech a week to groups that ask. “Even if a high school calls me, yeah, I’ll come down and talk to your students,” he says. Over the years, Flores and his wife, Elaine, have donated $2 million to UH.

Although L&L has spread far and wide, Flores says he’s concentrating his philanthropy in his adopted home state: “Hawaii is where I made my money, and Hawaii is where I’m going to give back.”

The Social Problem Solver:

Izumi Kinney, founder, Proficio Hawaii

It’s been 20 years since Izumi Kinney, who describes herself as a “tomboy” who didn’t fit in with the culture of her Japanese girls school, traveled to California to attend community college. To learn English faster, she says, “I chose a university that didn’t have (many) international students,” says Kinney. She found the math easy but the required computer skills bewildering (“keyboarding and typing” were the extent of what was taught at school), and set to work catching up.

After graduating from Cal State San Marcos in San Diego, she moved to Orange County and took a job with an insurance company, taking advantage of the one-year OPT program. She parlayed that into an H1-B visa, then moved to Honolulu.

“In California, the commute takes so much time,” says Kinney. “It was work, work, work – that’s it. Not much balance.” With some of the time she freed up, she joined at the urging of another friend (“I almost gave up on marriage”); by the time her one-month trial subscription was up, she had met her current husband, a lawyer and insurance broker who loved surfing as much as she did.

Today she serves as an insurance broker and consultant for Japanese small businesses that want to set up shop in Hawaii. But that’s not all she does. Three years ago, while sending her son to a day camp at the Children’s Discovery Center in Kakaako, she became troubled upon seeing children in the homeless encampments there.

“All day long at the waterfront park, I was watching kids, 4, 5, 6 years old. They should go to school. They deserve a better life,” says Kinney. She also noted that homelessness was a growing problem statewide, and wondered about solutions.

Traditional methods of construction are costly, but Kinney knew that a type of prefabricated housing used successfully in Japan could work here, too. When she approached Japanese manufacturers, though, she was often quickly rebuffed because she was young and a woman. “They didn’t take me seriously,” she says.

Then she contacted the manufacturer of the prefabricated housing that had sheltered Fukushima’s tsunami evacuees, Japanese multinational Komatsu. When that company expressed interest in helping, Kinney connected them with Duane Kurisu, who had announced the Kahauiki Village project, an experimental community that provides homeless families with houses, jobs, laundry and day care, all within walking distance. It was a perfect fit.

Kinney founded Proficio Hawaii LLC to coordinate with Komatsu and Kahauiki Village, and has been working with them ever since. Everything she has done for Kahauiki is pro bono. As Kahauiki’s opening approached, she was at the site two or three times a week. In January, the first families moved in.

Whenever she visits Japan, Kinney says, “I feel like I like living in the United States. I feel like women are more independent in the U.S., and can express more.” And she loves life in Hawaii. “The air is clean, the water is clean. We have to take care of those things. And there are so many cultures: Filipino, Japanese, Hawaiian – everything is accepted.”