Hawaii has lost an inspirational storyteller, teacher, spiritualist and leader in economic development.
Pono Shim, longtime president and CEO of the Oahu Economic Development Board, died Friday after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer last year. He was 58.
Shim led the nonprofit organization, once also known as Enterprise Honolulu, for over a decade, largely leveraging his experience as a gifted speaker. He had no college degree but absorbed lessons from members of his well-known Native Hawaiian family and others.
Under Shim’s leadership, between 2012 and 2018, the organization obtained with American Savings Bank $135 million in federal New Market Tax Credits awards. The awards helped fund projects that included a new campus for the West Hawaii Community Health Center, clean energy projects in Waianae and Pearl City, Nanakuli Village Center, Nanakuli Health Care Clinic and renovation of the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.
Other work by the nonprofit includes workforce and economic development programs Aloha Connects Innovation and the Small Business Resource Network, and in 2014 Shim established the Higher Skills Academy that has taught traits of the aloha spirit, Aloha Response, to more than 1,500 participants.
The nonprofit said Shim defined servant leadership, elevated conversations and united people as an extraordinary community leader who was unconditionally committed to Hawaii and its people. Some considered him a healer.
“Pono would often speak of E Ohana Hou, which is the eternal unleashing of grace — of sharing our individual gifts with the world,” the organization’s board and staff said in a statement. “He said, ‘When I share E Ohana Hou, it is actually a declaration of our people. It is time to recover this riddle that is the foundation of who we are and the foundation of the prophecy that Aunty Pilahi Paki gave: In the 21st century, the world will search for peace and they’ll look to Hawaii because Hawaii has the key and that key is aloha.’ “
Shim considered himself a student of Paki, a grand aunt who has been described as “the keeper of the secrets of Hawaii” and “the Proponent of Aloha.”
Other people from whom Shim absorbed knowledge included his father, labor attorney and skilled mediator Alvin Shim; mother Marion Healani Heen Shim, whose career included leading the Laniakea YWCA and the Moanalua Gardens Foundation; former federal judge and uncle Walter Heen; and revered Hawaiian healer Hannah “Nana” Veary, among others.
Shim’s early career path after graduating from Kamehameha Schools spanned 19 years in the food and beverage industry, and included his stints as a waiter at Orson’s and A Pacific Cafe restaurants in Kakaako.
In 2001, Shim established a concierge service at the Ward Theatres 16-plex where he offered customers, for a fee, reserved seats, line-skipping, group bookings and other benefits. He also produced a discount card that he initially sold to hospitality industry workers.
Shim joined Enterprise Honolulu in 2009 as vice president and kahu, or guardian.
In a 2012 interview on the PBS Hawaii show “Long Story Short,” Shim explained that someone told him the leader of the organization in 2008, Mike Fitzgerald, was having a hard time, so Shim went to offer some guidance that included sharing five parables to do with fractures and healing.
“And at the end of the fifth story, he looked at me and he said, ‘Pono, I don’t think I’m supposed to be running this company, I think you are,’” Shim said in the interview, in which he also expressed disbelief: “Honestly, I have no economic development background. I’ve tampered in business. … Really, I was an outsider.”
Within five months of joining the nonprofit, Shim became its leader when Fitzgerald returned to the mainland.
Sarah Guay, vice president of human resources at local insurer HEMIC and a board director for Oahu Economic Development Board, described in an online post her first encounter with Shim during a group discussion that she said was transformational for her.
“I had heard of Pono Shim over the years as some kind of mystical ‘cultural storyteller,’” Guay wrote. “Pono speaks to the part of you that you didn’t know was there. He brings you home, reminding you of who you are when you’ve forgotten. He’s rooted in this place, yet he welcomes all. He sees what’s not said and feels what isn’t discussed. He senses (and feels) pain that’s not named in the room. He shows you a better version of yourself and shows other people that version.”
Miki Tomita, the founder and CEO of Education Incubator who participated in the Oahu Economic Development Board’s Higher Skills Academy, said in a Facebook post that Shim remains with those he touched as part of their practice of aloha.
“Thank you for seeing the most beautiful version of us all, and sharing with us your wisdom and guidance,” she wrote. “Love you now, love you forever, love you in the infinite universe of ALOHA.”
The organization’s staff and board said it is their kuleana, or responsibility, “to implement the ALOHA values that Shim lived, and to build a better, prosperous and more equitable future for Hawaii and our people.”
Shim is survived by his wife, Dawn; daughter, Chantele; and siblings Liko Martin, Neumann Shim, Dari Matsuura, Dana Shim-Palama and Sy Shim. He was predeceased by his parents and a brother, Sri.