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Strengthening Hawai‘i’s Communities
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Bringing Women Leaders into the Circle

Wāhine Pō‘ai, a leadership program for female executive directors of Hawai‘i nonprofits, aims to empower through peer connection.

Bringing Women Leaders into the Circle

Like so many success stories over the years, the Wāhine Pō‘ai program started small—in a garage.

Kilikina Mahi, a Maui-based consultant who assists nonprofits and community networks, says that in 2018 and 2019 she found herself advising a whole series of new nonprofit executive directors.

“At a certain point, I realized that all of these new executive directors were women who were in this position for the first time,” Mahi says. “I was having very similar conversations with all of them, wrestling with management and leadership issues. And suddenly it just seemed like we could be so much more effective, and probably happier, if we had all those conversations together.”

Mahi invited a small group of women to her garage for lunch, and pitched the idea: a hui of female nonprofit executive directors joining together to create a leadership and peer support program grounded in Native Hawaiian cultural practice and place.

Kau‘i Kanaka‘ole, executive director of Ala Kukui, a community-based nonprofit retreat center in Hāna, Maui, remembers everyone looking at each other and saying, “Yes, yes, exactly. That’s what we need. When do we start?!”

Wāhine Pō‘ai’s first cohort of six launched in January 2020, kicking off a 9-month-long series of get-togethers, both virtual and at Ala Kukui. The program has incorporated some traditional skill-building instruction, including bringing in community leaders and subject-matter experts to speak and mentor. But the main focus has been on creating and strengthening the pō‘ai (a circle, circuit, hoop, girdle, or group, as of friends)—a connection that’s intended to endure past the 9-month program length.

“We can give you information all day long, but that is not really what Wāhine Pō‘ai is about,” Mahi says. “It’s about building those deep relationships and connections to help fuel the work that needs to be done.”

Wāhine Pō‘ai has now established its second cohort of leaders, and is looking into how to grow the program organically, in a way that preserves its original spirit.

The Hawai‘i Community Foundation (HCF) has supported the program as a way to help advance nonprofit excellence in Hawai‘i, and recently renewed its sponsorship for the program’s third year.

“The ability of a nonprofit organization to provide value to the community is rooted in the strength of its leadership,” says Chelsey Chow, a program officer at HCF. “As executive leadership training programs go, Wāhine Pō‘ai is unique in that it focuses on women, it has a lot of Neighbor Island representation, it’s very adaptive to the needs of the cohort. It’s about, come as you are, as you’re able, and [the program] providing support.”

Kanaka‘ole says that something one of the program’s cohort members said recently has stuck with her: “She said [Wāhine Pō‘ai] allowed her to just be herself. Which sounds like a simple thing, but executive directors don’t get many chances to let their guard down. That ED hat is always on; you’re representing your organization, and your community. And she was able to let that down during this cohort, and connect and share in a safe circle.”

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