Hawaiʻi's Technology Community

The Great 2009-2010 Hawaii Brain Drain

brain drain

At recent developer events, including today's UX Design Meetup, the effect of the great 2009-2010 Hawaii brain drain was readily apparent. Seth Ladd, Anthony Eden, Sam Joseph, Truman Leung, Ken Mayer, David Neely, Sherwin Gao, Seri Lee, Gabe Morris, Alex Salkever, Laurence Lee, Ken Berkun...this is just a handful of quality people I know personally. The list of talented tech industry people who have left or will soon be leaving over this very short period of time is truly depressing. Hawaii has experienced a series of brain drains over the past two decades, the most recent being in 2003/2004, but this is the worst I've seen by a long shot.

As Hawaii tech companies (largely 221 funded) collapse, the engineers and designers who were working for them aren't looking locally for new jobs. They are leaving our state, and it won't be easy to get them back. If we can't retain talented developers and creative personalities in our state the innovation economy is in serious trouble (not that this is news to anyone in the industry.) Any tech business owner who has recruited from the mainland or internationally knows its hard to relocate people to Hawaii. Many people view Hawaii as a vacation spot, but not a serious place for technology innovation. Employers have a hard time with questions such as, "I have three children. How is the public school system?" or "Will I be able to afford a house?" For younger professionals from the Bay Area or East Coast who don't have connections to Hawaii it can be hard to settle socially. Many relocations, which can be very expensive, fail in the first year.

I'm an optimistic person by nature. I believe we can still build an innovation economy in Hawaii, but we need to learn from our mistakes, identify our strengths, apply a healthy dose of pragmatism and a whole lot of elbow grease. Aside from fixing our horribly broken public education system, there isn't a lot the government can do to solve this problem for us. Its up to entrepreneurs and tech business leaders to come up with a plan for sustainable growth of a uniquely Hawaiian innovation economy.

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Comment by Ken Berkun on September 15, 2010 at 6:54pm
UH has very strong earth sciences and astronomy programs - really anything having to do with remote sensing. Many entrepreneurial opportunities in these departments alone.
Comment by Brian on September 15, 2010 at 6:21pm
@Ken To your last point; perhaps this has much to do UH not really having a strong engineering/R&D type culture - it's more of a liberal arts place with some other fields dumped in. I think they do certain things quite well, but I seldom hear about it.

It'd be nice if there was more active outreach to the tech community for collaboration.. etc. I realize a lot of this personality-driven. When I was at UH (6+ years ago) it was like living in a glass box, you pretty much never saw tech companies there.. it was very walled off.
Comment by Mark Boon on September 15, 2010 at 6:03pm
Sorry for the late heads up, but just now bytemarks cafe had a broadcast very pertinent to this discussion. The podcast should be available on, or so they said on the program. (I don't see it there yet.) TechHui was also mentioned a couple of times.
Comment by Ken Berkun on September 15, 2010 at 5:38pm
I've been enjoying this conversation and respectfully request that the discussion of the lottery be moved to a topic all its own.
Comment by Bruce M. Bird on September 15, 2010 at 4:37pm
Hi, Brian.

It's true that many of the individuals who play the lottery are poor. It's also true that many of the individuals who play the lottery aren't poor.

Maybe a lottery that helps fund education in Hawaii would function as a "tax" that transfers money from individuals, many of whom are less educated, to individuals who have both the desire and ability to become more educated. Is that such a bad thing?

By the way, where do many of the individuals who live in Hawaii go on vacation? Vegas, Baby!
Comment by Ken Berkun on September 15, 2010 at 4:16pm
@Brian - poor infrastructure and regulations for supporting professors who want to create companies. I base this on discussions with profs at the UH. Other universities are better at this. Stanford, Harvard, MIT are most famous. U of Washington has gotten much better at it. UH, not so much.

Also, interaction with the business community so that we can learn what is going on at the U. There is some of this, but not to the degree needed.
Comment by Brian on September 15, 2010 at 9:08am
So, what is it about the University of Hawaii system that makes it so dissimilar from others in terms of capability to spur industry? Size? Politics? Funding? Priorities?
Comment by Johnson Choi on September 15, 2010 at 3:12am
In the world economy competing not only within country but worldwide, we cannot close our door and discuss issues among ourself leaving the whole world out there as if it does not exist.

We need to look at some of the best practices within country and worldwide why they are doing better than us, learn from them.

It is so typical in a family, their kids are the best. They are the best because they are their babies. But when you compared the kids with the family next door, or the family next block, or the kids from another states. There will be a differences, depending on what you are comparing. Based on pure love, my kids or your kids are the best in our mind and family. Beyond pure love and to compete, we are talking very different things.

Therefore whether it is Tech or business or our kids, when we say we are good, good in respect to "what"?

But if we are honestly comparing, if we are good why are we falling behind when others surpass us by miles!?

We had great discussion at our US Dept of Commerce meeting at noon yesterday about Tech and Business and about APEC 2011. But towards the end of the discussion, when we look at who control what, we knew we could be back to square one as the people in power with money have very different agenda including University of Hawaii. At the same table we have people who ran huge research and tech facilities with manufacturing employed 100s of people in defense in the 70s and 80s. When I discussed Hawaii's future in tech, I drew the same "courtesy smile" from them, same "courtesy smile" I got from Palo Alto, San Jose, Boston, Texas, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.

At first I did not understood why the "courtesy smile" from the tech and VCs from the above mentioned cities and countries including Hawaii. I was later informed by my good friends. They thought I must be related with the people from the Hawaii Government which I had helped took quite a few trade missions with them to Asia in the 90s and early 2000. The "courtesy smile" was not wanting to say anything to offend or insult me. But among friends, those that care to speak their mind said "What high tech in Hawaii"? Am I living in the past or still dreaming? This is how the world look at Hawaii and High Tech here. Therefore, unless we are only talking among ourself and no one else. If the above is not a wake up call, what else may I ask?

I would very much like to stay positive, but what the world look at us and what is out there is equally important for our survival and the future of our children.

As a good start for the good of all businesses including high tech, Hawaii must change its way to do business as some of my friends in business inside and outside of Hawaii describe the modern Hawaii as the "People Republic of Hawaii".
Comment by Brian on September 14, 2010 at 10:11pm
The problem is not a money shortfall, it's how it's being spent.

Aside, why is the common reaction to figure out a new way for the government to collect/spend more money? I mean the reaction to an incompetent government program is always "Well let's create a committee and fund some consultants to do a study and start a whole new program". It's seldom to cancel/trim the existing one and let the private sector take over. Only with government do you see this endorsement of incompetence by the 'customer'.

And people wonder why this is a hostile business environment...

P.S. I think a lottery is a terrible idea. It's simply a tax on the poor.
Comment by Bruce M. Bird on September 14, 2010 at 7:27pm

Just a thought... Some states have enacted lotteries to help fund education. For example, in some states, lotteries have enabled students with decent high school grade point averages (usually 3.0/4.0 or better) to attend colleges and universities within the state at a substantially reduced cost.

In states with lotteries, usually about 1/2 of the money that comes in actually funds education. Also, a lottery seems to work best when the money is added to the money that the state already allocates to education.

Maybe tech professionals in Hawaii --and other educated individuals-- who have kids would benefit from this. Also, if Hawaii's experience is similar to that of Florida's, a significant portion of the lottery tickets would be purchased by out-of-state tourists.

By the way, some homeowners in Hawaii pay $300 a year in property taxes on their "historic" homes (some of which are view-obstructed and at least one of which has a solar collector on its roof). Maybe that helps free up money for private school tuition...


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