Culturised: Purple Mai'a | The Technology of Culture
Donavan Kealoha and Olin Lagon join us for some talk story on how they started the Purple Mai’a Foundation, a 501(c)(3) education technology non-profit organization, whose mission is to educate and empower the next generation of culturally grounded, community serving tech makers and problem solvers.
MAKANI: Hey, Whatʻs Up? Howzit, Aloha. Thank you very much for joining us.
Welcome to Culturised. This is where we get to find out how we incorporate culture into our daily lives. Whether itʻs a native culture, an ethnic culture, social culture…..whatever it is, as long as you got culture and you are making it rise, thatʻs what itʻs all about.
Today, Iʻm so excited to have invited these two guys on the show. I read their bios, it's going to take about 30 minutes probably to read each of their bios. But before we do that because this is a culture show and we like to welcome our guests first, before they even know who they are with lei. So first of all, and I know you guys are looking, going “He's just going to hand it to him?”
I just gotta follow some CDC guidelines. Thatʻs just how it goes, so, for you brudda. For you brudda.
So let me let me just tell you who they are real quick.
And, I'm so excited because the one sitting next to me, we grew up together on this really tiny Island. Let me just read what heʻs all about. General partner with Startup Capital Ventures. Also serves on the Board of Directors for the SCV portfolio company, Hobnob. Board Observer with the Brainify. He’s the co-founder and executive director of Purple Maiʻa Foundation, a 501 (c)3 educational technology nonprofit organization. Is on the board of directors of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association. Teaches a course on venture-capital at the William S Richardson School of Law. He’s committed, this is what I like about him, he’s a committed Community organizer. He is a proud product of a Hawaii public school. I'm going to find out what school that is because we're going to go through all the local culture usuals with him.
With him, sitting across the table from me, now we're going to find out how many high schools he went to in a few seconds but he is a serial social entrepreneur, innovator and community organizer. He invented and launched the first commercial crowdfunding service which scaled a hundred million dollars. He holds multiple patents for designs across five different industries. A keynote speaker Microsoft annual developers conference. Community service includes the US Navy and The Peace Corp. He’s a past Petra Fellow which is the Center for Community Change. An East-West Center Fellow. His general studies focused on software engineering and Asian industrialization. Summa cum laude at UH Manoa and of course raised in public housing.
Let that sink in my friends….
How’s about a round of applause for Donovan Kealoha and Olin Lagon?
How you guys Bruddah?
OLIN: Not too bad. Mahalo.
MAKANI: How you guys been?
DONOVAN: Good. Thanks for having us.
MAKANI: After this, it’s like…. Do you even have any free time?
DONOVAN: We’re super productive, yeah.
MAKANI: So this is what I wanna do, I know you guys are always busy and going at a hundred miles an hour and this is a cultured show, so we need to just kind of ease up and ease into this thing right. You guys drink kava?
OLIN: Oh, of course.
MAKANI: Of course, right? So, would you guys like some?
DONOVAN: Ah, I take that one. That ones good.
MAKANI: So, we gotta thank our friends from Kapa Kava. If you guys have never tried this, this is infused Kava. We’ve all had regular kava. We’ve got pineapple/peach, I think thatʻs what it is. We’ve got poliahuʻs, and what have we got? I can’t see. It’s something good. Choose one or I’ll pour it out for you. Let’s try this one. You guys got your coffee, your Star-Advertiser coffee mugs? Usually we would be using an ʻapu, but weʻre modern day, so here we go. There you go, we won't put too much. We gotta relax you guys. so if you guys are wondering about kava, a lot of times this is what happens when you sit around with friends and family and just talk story. And that's what we're gonna do and kava will get us to that point of just hanging out. Okay
OLIN: It has a smell but not the color.
MAKANI: It has that smell? Let's see,
OLIN: Oh yeah.
MAKANI: Bula, Aloha. Right…
OLIN: Wow that's good, yeah.
MAKANI: Cool, now, I want to get right into this you guys I mean listen to your accolades listen to what you guys have been doing. I want to get right into let's go with the old first high school you went to? It's a local culture right when you meet somebody... what high school you went?
OLIN: Yeah what high school i never go?
MAKANI: Is that right?
OLIN: You know I think, yeah I guess I grew up in KPT. So either real buff or you're skinny and you can run fast... so obviously, I'm buff.
OLIN: But yeah, I started at Farrington and I didn't do so well there. Then I went to Waipahu and didn't do so well there. I kind of joked that my alcohol blood content level was higher than my GPA. But yeah, and I'll get that…. so then I ended up at Campbell to get kind of my credits up. Then finally an alternative learning program at Pearl City high school.
OLIN: So auto mechanics in the morning. Auto body in the afternoon.
MAKANI: That's amazing. Right through all the high schools?
OLIN: Uh, two years of that.
MAKANI: Wow. So high school there and so it was A.L.C. right?
OLIN: I think so.
MAKANI: So that was the last one you went to?
OLIN: Yeah, Pearl City
MAKANI: Nice. Donovan, what high school you went to?
DONOVAN: High school… Lanai. Proud to be a Pinelad class on ninety something…
MAKANI: High school. So we got to talk about that. Because you and I, a lot of people always say oh you're from Lanai, where? Did you go from kindergarten all the way? Because Lanai high school is like, as we know, is just all one.
DONOVAN: Yeah, so I was raised on Lanai. My grandparents, Mabel and Charles Kealoha, raised me from preschool time. Baby kid time to like first and second grade. Then I left and went back to stay with my parents and then ultimately, high school made it back to the island and then graduated high school.
MAKANI: It's always, you ever meet people and if for both of you they're like, “Oh what high school you went?” And then you tell them and they're like…… shrugs…. because of what you guys are doing now? Do you guys get that?
DONOVAN: Yeah, we were talking on the break. i shared an experience uh you know. I am now fortunate to be in positions where you know i sit on pretty cool boards and talk about some interesting things and after a meeting i remember this board member. He was probably the board chair, asking me about high school I went to. Iolani, Punahou…. and I was like, “Brah, I went to Lanai. I one Pinelad” But, I don't know. I guess you know, as they say you know, if I can make it anybody can make it.
MAKANI: Did you get that olin? A lot of times.
OLIN: You know I’ve turned that into, like when I tell people I grew up in public housing they're like, “Holy Moly, for real?” And then I tell them that you know, that attitude is actually pretty hard on people because what, as someone from KPT to make it. And that's wrong because the kids there are just as talented as anywhere else. So I don't know if that's not the pono thing to say, but I try to be kind of cool when I say something like that.
MAKANI: I like that because I mean, that's that's what they're doing. They put this stigma on you like, “Oh, you're from Lanai?” And I get “You don't look like you're from Lanai”... what? And then they say “Where you from?” I was like “The left side.” So you guys have, growing up of course, like you said with grandparents and in the culture and that was part of your life. Did you ever think that the things you learned from growing up and the aspirations and the motivations you guys had would actually bring you to the point of creating this non-profit that you guys did?
DONOVAN: You know um, both of my grandparents were pure Hawaiians, but they never really emphasized overtly speaking Hawaiian. They always encouraged me to do well in school and so I did. You know, I studied hard. Did all those kinds of things. And so you know, when we talk about culture, I think it's the way they live their lives, the Hawaiian values that sort of was the basis for how they live and how they interact with the community and how they took care of all those grandkids. That's one culture but then the other culture that we grew up on Lanai was sort of a mix. There was Japanese cultures, Filipino cultures Hawaiian culture and it sort of blended into this plantation. To me it was you know, plantations have this sort of connotation of you know, depression to a certain extent. One company town. But to me, it was wonderful because it was a place where we could go anywhere. We could eat at anybody's house. We would get lickins too if you never listened. It was that culture, I think and the basis of it being Hawaiian culture that stuck with me as I went through academic life and then in career. I think what we do now with our professional and also our non-profit pursuits.
MAKANI: Growing up in housing, it's kind of like a modern day plantation. You had every culture in there. Did you pull from different cultures that like people, like your friends, Samoans, Micronesians, Hawaiians . Did you pull from each one? Or were you solid in your foundation of being kanaka?
OLIN: Yeah there weren't a lot of kanaka at KPT. So, I wished I was samoan because they were the big ones. But you know I did spend a lot of time living with my tutu, my grandma, like Donovan. So Makue Kamakau, and like Donovan, she wasn't sharing the Hawaiian culture with me. So we had to sort of, kind of, figure this out on our own. Which is pretty amazing. 10 years ago he and I made our first papa kuʻiʻai, like by hand it took us a while. You know I cheated a little bit here and there. But uh anyway... so we get that done and it made me think like my mom did this and her parents and her parents and we have like what 800 years of unbroken history that i almost broke. And so I did it. And now my boys do it too. So you know, I think part of this journey is, what we all have to figure out is sometimes you got to go out and just open your eyes and look.
MAKANI: And I think that's the thing with kanaka, our kilo skills. Sometimes we forget right? We forget to observe. Like you said, our grandparents didn't blatantly be like you have to olelo Hawaii, you have do this. They led by example.With that said, How did Purple Maiʻa come about? Is that, I mean, was that part of it?
OLIN: Some of this I think (pointing to kava)
MAKANI: Is that what it was? Exactly, you sit around and you have a couple of cups of ava. But um, I want to talk about that. Purple Maiʻa, amazing foundation with culture technology and everything you guys are doing what led you guys to create Purple Maiʻa? First of all, I love the name. That name is an amazing name, but tell us what led you guys to create that?
DONOVAN: It got to start on Lanai. That's where I actually met Olin. He had at the time, you know with a Hawaiian language degree, I was teaching back at home only and I was going through this leadership development program and the folks that organized it brought Olin over and he was telling me, or telling our class about the experiences. And I was like, “Brah, this kanaka is pretty cool. Thatʻs one smart buggah.” So I started talking to him and built a relationship. And then when I moved back to go to law school, um we stayed in touch you know. We sort of shared the same circles and in doing that then we started thinking, well, how can we work together and do some projects? So we did some cool projects. Real, we think pretty interesting, pretty cool, a lot of impact. And that's right around the time when we said well I started my career as a venture capitalist he was starting yet another company. Recognized that there were not a lot of people that looked like us in our businesses and wanted to kind of change that. Create a pathway for more folks not just Hawaiians, but people of these islands to be in these kinds of spaces. And so we said, “Let's go. Let's go. Let's go do a non-profit.” And so we started telling everybody, “Brah, we're going do this non-profit. It's going be awesome. Going to teach kids how to code.” And then you start telling everybody and they started telling everybody and then finally somebody asked you, “Well have you started?” Then you gotta go right? Stop calling yourself now you gotta go, right? So we started this at a school in Palolo where Olin lived for a time.
MAKANI: What's the mission of Purple Maiʻa?
OLIN: It's actually changing because initially it was educational. You know, when we started this there were three high schools in the entire state that offered second year computer science. Only three.
OLIN: And so all these communities had keiki without that opportunity so that's one of the reasons why we started. You know, Donovan is really deep. He's a deep thinker and so he came up with the initial name. It was like this beautiful, really long olelo Hawaii.. I told him, “Brah, that's just too long.”
MAKANI: We cannot put a sticker on the back of a truck like that.
OLIN: Yeah. So we started coming up with funny names and then but when you think about the kauna of Purple Maiʻa….like purple was the rarest color on earth. And so you never see it unless you look for it. So when you work with keiki, it's your kuleana to see that purple in them. So there's a lot of, you know, maiʻa is also you know, olelo. So when you listen, the leaves you are listening into the earth real deeply right. So we were kind of lucky in some respects.
DONOVAN: Yeah, it's a definite conversation starter. Especially with the kupuna because those who can olelo Hawaii, they look at us kinda of funny because maiʻa has these connotations of kolohe-ness often the sexual kind….. but um you know it also means a whole bunch of different things. And so we we found this Olelo No'eau after coming up with the name and it goes:
“He maiʻa a ka lā e hua ai.” To that effect...but it describes a person that you malama them when they're at a young age and they grow up to be a productive person in society. And so that was kind of you know, how things came together in a way.
MAKANI: The depth of that is... that's just true kanaka. That's exactly that. So you guys started with teaching kids basically coding or was it just computer skills?
DONOVAN: So it was just teaching kids how to code and you know getting them interested. Because that's that's that's the first thing right you got to get them interested. You got to get them stoked about it. But we recognized that there was a bigger responsibility, a bigger kuleana right? Because what are we teaching them for? Teach these skills and send them away? That's when we brought on our third co-founder who’s not here, Kelsey Amos. And that's when we started really thinking about how do we bridge ʻike kupuna and modern kind of, uh modern kind of stuff.
MAKANI: Right, transferring that knowledge to modern day. How how was it as soon as you started reaching out to communities? Was it like man, these kids want to learn? Or was there some sort of, you had to kind of market them and pull them in somehow?
OLIN: You know he's an educator. I'm not. So we're kind of making this up right. So we feel like the community has had our back to be flexible. Like for example, we wanted half the class to be wahine. You know, to try to force that sometimes may not be natural. Like technology, all the boys apply. But you know, that's not just for boys. So we've added some things to it that have made it more interesting. I think the impact has been pretty universal. We're now statewide. We haven't had any problems getting into communities.
DONOVAN: Yeah, it's been organic in a sense. We're in the tech industry and thereʻs this term about hacking things right. And so, instead of going through the front door, you go to the side door anyway to try to go as fast as possible to make things happen. That one school the first year became three schools, became 12 schools and a whole bunch of schools now.
MAKANI: Do you find people have a hard time wrapping their head around it? Oh, culture and technology. Which is kind of ʻike kupuna, but looking forward ka wa ma mua, ka wa ma hope.
Like how does that happen? In technology you guys find that difficult?
MAKANI: So we talked earlier about how we grew up right. Our grandparents and parents weren't blatantly about this is how you got to live culture. This is culture right. Today and in your guys manaʻo, and your guys ʻike and your thought, how do you think culture is being lived in practice today? I mean is it too blatant? Is it enough? Is it not enough? What do you guys think?
OLIN: Yeah, I guess I can speak just for myself and my family because I'm late to the game. I'm learning myself. So I'm taking Hawaiian language classes online. He and I have a ohana loʻi so we take our kids there and we get into mud. You know it started off as just completely overgrown and now weʻve got rows of kalo. You know, just chicken skin kind of thing. So I think for me, it's the experiential thing. I will have an answer soon, but I need to sort of practice first before I go out and say anything. So, I'm still learning.
MAKANI: I Love the fact that now you're involving the ohana and like you said earlier you don't want to be the one to break that lineage. You guys have an ohana loʻi. So you guys it's like just hang out on the weekends bring the keiki.
DONOVAN: We get there early. We do protocol. We kilo right. We check out what needs to be done. We get in and we do work. You know it's a little bit easier now because we're able to clear it and plant now. I bring my daughter. You know she is not the biggest fan of doing those kinds of things, but i told her she's gonna appreciate it later.
MAKANI: I was just gonna ask, “As parents as fathers, do you feel there's this responsibility, yes you guys are doing culture and technology, but now with this making sure we get back into the loʻi. We get back into the aina. Is there added pressure as a kanaka father to make sure this happens?
DONOVAN: Definitely. I think that the quest to be authentic and not just speak about it because we read about it, and this is the way we're going to do it right. These values are lived right. They are passed down to us. And so it's imperative, I think, that we learn as much as we can. We do as much as we can and we have that sort of permeate through what we do in our jobs and our work.
MAKANI: I love the fact that these guys are in tech. These guys are doing everything contemporary and modern, but it's all culturally based on how we grew up. The things that you observed from your grandparents, how much of that, when you're doing something today, go “That's what they told me or that's what they showed me.” How much of that in today with what you guys are doing with Purple Maiʻa and technology and all that, where you have those moments where you're standing there going, “That's what tutu meant.”
DONOVAN: You know one of our values at Purple Maiʻa, so as the org, I got to think about these things right? We have, our staff has grown from two people to now over two dozen, I think. Both part-time and full-time, but you gotta think about these kinds of things. And so, one of our values, I call it baby luau. And everybody's like, “Oh what is that?” And like you know all this growing up on lanai right, it's everybody shows up everybody chop-chop, clean up everybody gotta go harvest, put the stuff together. But that was awesome, because it was like berlina and it was like this huge caring for each other, taking care of what you got to do. And so those are the kinds of values and things that we try to bring into the organizations and so like, you come to our events. You hosted our event and it feels like a big baby luau.
MAKANI: I think that's the great thing about what you guys are doing. You guys are both community-minded. Again we got to thank these two brilliant kanaka from Purple Maiʻa for hanging out with us. We got to thank Star-Advertiser for giving us a space to hang out.
And of course Jam's World for making my body look better than it should.
MAKANI: Hey, so welcome back to Culturised.
You're in for a treat this is an extended version for the web. So it's gonna get a little bit crazier.
Sitting with our good friends from Purple Maiʻa, Donovan and Olin. If you joined us earlier, we're talking about what Purple Maiʻa has been doing. Culture, technology you're a non-profit. You're enticing and teaching kids... and adults, right? And you guys have grown. From the beginning, how many kids or how many people did you have when you first started Purple Maiʻa? Teaching wise.
DONOVAN: I think it was just one teacher. Literally one teacher that became two teachers and now we're up to, close to two dozen I think.
MAKANI: And then student wise?
DONOVAN: Uh, single class in Palolo Valley with about 12 kids to now, I think cumulatively over a thousand kids. I think presently we have about, maybe 200 kids across the state.
MAKANI: So this is the question you guys probably always get and I’m thinking about it right now. So once these kids go through these programs and they learn all this tech and learn how to code and learn how to do all these things, what's it like job market wise? I mean is there a chance? Is it, I mean,
Is it a future for them? Or are they just going to kind of feel good about oh yeah, I learned this stuff and culture.
DONOVAN: Yeah well, I’ll let Olin talk about because I mean, when we started talking about this, I was inspired by his sort of view of you know tech, for the most part being a meritocracy, do you want to share that?
OLIN: Yeah you know if you're in math class, and a teacher says here's a problem and everybody raises their hand and they all get them wrong and nobody’s shame, like that would mean be amazing right? Everybody would learn. But nobody would do that, but that's tech. Like in software engineering for example, you're teaching me that oh, I got a mistake. Oh, that's a bug, you know. So it's gotten to the point where I think tech is a really good way to teach anyone how to make mistakes and fall gracefully.
It's beautiful from that perspective so those skills translate to anything. The kids that we teach, the adults that we teach will get these tangible skills that can immediately translate into something that's specific to that technology, but also whatever else they want to do. Because the more times you fail quickly, the quicker you can do anything you want in the world right. So that's what I want my kids to learn. It's like fall on your face it's funny yeah, get up and go again.
MAKANI: And that's a hard thing because we two things I always think that we don't like to be embarrassed and we don't like to fail.
DONOVAN: Make shame Yeah.
OLIN: Yeah, that’s a big thing.
DONOVAN: Coming back to Olin’s story. I remember him telling me when I was visiting with him prior to us getting together and starting Purple Mai’a, he was doing a company that had raised some venture capital. And I think the New York Times was interviewing him and they were asking him like, where did your CTO go to school? And he was like, “I don't know where he went to school.” And so that's sort of the idea of a meritocracy right. If you can get the skills, you can get the jobs anywhere.
OLIN: He was by the way, a high school dropout, and I didn't remember that. The braddah never went go to college, but he's brilliant. Yeah, absolutely brilliant.
DONOVAN: That's where some kids like. So that's like at a high philosophically. That's the cool thing about tech. Now we understand that not everybody's like that right. And so you've got to build pathways and you've got to create a structure for many of our other kids to be able to move into the tech space. So, we have developed the newest program. It's called the Hiapo Program. Sort of a pili to the Kaikaina Program. With that program, it's looking to rapidly upskill and credentialize and train young adults and career changers for careers in tech. So we work with folks that are interested in learning Salesforce, the world's largest CRM tool. We train them. They get their certs and then they move into the jobs. We help them find jobs. And then another program that we also house, that you helped out with is the Purple Prize.
MAKANI: That was amazing.
DONOVAN: Yeah, so that one is more oriented toward those that want to move into like startups and they want to build a company or work on a project or do those kinds of things too. And so, um yeah, we've been doing that for the last four years. We've worked with 50 teams, 50 projects.
Some of which have become social enterprises. Some of which have become for-profit companies. We've given away over $200 000 or awarded over 20 000 in prizes. Some of them actually have the chance I think, knock on wood, to become pretty significant companies. So that's you know, when we were brainstorming about this, we think that this is an opportunity to uh, you know, kakoʻo in our respects. You know the stuff that we do in tech and innovation, entrepreneurship, that kind of stuff.
MAKANI: I was going to say, I mean just looking at both of you two and the students that come in. I mean it's almost like they have no excuse like, they look at your backgrounds and be like, “Well, I gotta right? I gotta.” The reason why I like what you guys are doing is because this is all university level, all these things you can get. But you're doing it the way we used to, from a cultural standpoint. Right we're taking what our grandparents and parents, but we're being a little bit more blatant about it and teaching them rather than saying no you're just going to watch me for about 15 years right but now you guys are doing it. What is it like when somebody finishes the program like you were talking about earlier? Somebody will ask, “Oh, so what are your accolades? What kind of paper do you have? What kind of universities?” And you're like, “Oh, I went through Purple Maiʻa.” I mean do you get people that kind of crinkle their brow and go... “Wait, you what?”
DONOVAN: Well, that's something that we're developing. I mean this thing is organic and we're kind of finding our way there. I want to say we have at least a handful of students that have been working with us for the last three and four maybe three years now. And so they're doing like internship kinds of level things with us. They've developed a pretty impressive portfolio. So instead of grades right and this is true of the stuff that we do. We don't necessarily ask for resumes. We're like show us what you've done. Talk through it and that's the kind of body of work that I think our students are building up in addition to the skills. So they can like, well I built this game and this is why it does this and like talk through this function and what this function does.
MAKANI: Is there anybody that stands out in your mind Olin that has been with you guys student wise, programmers? Even from purple prize? Whatever programs you guys have, anybody stands out?
OLIN: One eighth grader on Maui. I went to our Maui class and she was the person I was going to mentor. So I sat in front of her and I asked her, “ Eh, you got one computer at home?” and she said, “Uncle, I live on a beach. I no more even electricity.” Like, bad uncle. That's a bad question to ask.
But then that girl taught me a lot. Like for example, when we looked at her progress that semester like she would go up and then crash then go up and crash. So traditionally you would say, “Oh what's going on?” But you know what she was doing when she was crashing? She was helping the other kids. So pausing her work. So I got chicken skin thinking about what lessons I learned from her and how do we mentor that? And what does that mean for us? And so I think that reflective back and forth is we're getting all the time so that's one story I have.
MAKANI: I love that. I love the fact that what you guys are doing. So again, Purple Maiʻa, If they want to get involved, you guys have a website? Where can we find you? Where can somebody, that even an adult that wants to get in tech?
OLIN: If I may...do not google purple maia, because it's a purple thing for a wahine. But it's purplem-a-i-a.o-r-g. Yeah we're almost beating that other company by the way.
MAKANI: Yeah, you guys gonna talk to somebody at google. So Andrea's probably gonna go google it right now. Don't be surprised with what you find. So you guys are Purple Maiʻa and all the programs are in there.
DONOVAN: Yep. purplemaia.org. Join our newsletter purplemaial.org forward slash news If you are inclined to help support some of our keiki, you can donate at the same site.
MAKANI: And so from keiki all the way to adults.
DONOVAN: Keiki, all the way to adults, yeah middle school all the way to adults. I think our oldest haumana is probably middle-aged right now she's in that that workforce training program that we have right now.
MAKANI: Again mahalo, mahalo, mahalo, you guys for being here.
You guys want some more before you go?
OLIN: Of course.
MAKANI: Is the mouth numb already?
So we gotta again thank Star-Advertiser of course for giving us a space to perpetuate, preserve and practice our culture and talk about it.
We've got to thank Kapa Kava for providing the social lubricant.
We've got to thank Jam's World of course, for making me look good on my kino.
And Culturised - that's what it's all about. So whatever you do in your life make sure you do something
to raise your culture and stay risen.