Cultivating The Best, Brightest

Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

The hallmark of the Pacific Century Fellows program is the remarkable leaders it produces. This year, past fellows John Leong, Dr. Elizabeth Char, Glenn Sexton and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (pictured below) will be honored for their ongoing leadership efforts in Hawai‘i at the initial Ho‘opasifika Gala.

For more than 25 years, the Pacific Century Fellows program has united the state’s most promising professionals from various walks of life.

Founded in the ’90s by former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the program has provided individuals with the opportunity to create lasting relationships, encourage creative thinking and offer guidance to others in the islands. It was formed to emulate Hannemann’s experience as a White House fellow in Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to do it with a strong orientation toward the Pacific and have a leadership development program that would bring together our best and brightest young leaders and have them bond together as a class to focus on the challenges that face Hawai‘i,” Hannemann says.

Since its inception, nearly 20 cohorts have come through the program. Hannemann’s hope is that participants take what they learn and make a difference in Hawai‘i. Four past fellows — John Leong, Glenn Sexton, Dr. Elizabeth Char and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz — have done just that and will be honored for their leadership in the community at the inaugural Ho‘opasifika Gala on Feb. 22 at ‘Alohilani Resort Waikīkī Beach. The event not only serves as an awards ceremony but also a fundraising opportunity to support the program.

Leong stands out in the nonprofit arena as the CEO and founder of Kupu.

“Kupu is all about empowering youth, creating a better future for them by tying in values of the Hawaiian culture: conservation and sustainability,” says Hannemann. “Kupu has become a household word in Hawai‘i for a nonprofit.”

Leong took part in the Pacific Century Fellows program in 2007 and founded the organization that same year. “Kupu was something my team and I had thought about for a few years and Pacific Century Fellows helped me to solidify the necessity of building it out,” he says. “Kupu has trained close to 6,000 youth and adults in conservation, sustainability and environmental education.”

Whether it’s planting more than 1.5 million native plants or removing thousands of acres worth of invasive species, Kupu’s environmental efforts speak volumes. According to Leong, the organization has generated close to $200 million in economic benefits to the state.

“I was part of a really special class,” he explains. “I am blessed to call each of them my friend. I have learned so much from each of them and grateful that as we go forth to try to make Hawai‘i more resilient and successful, we know we aren’t alone.”

Representing the private business sector is Sexton, president of Xerox Hawai‘i.

“Glenn has been a leader of a wonderful company here in Hawai‘i for decades and he was one of our earliest fellows,” says Hannemann of the 1998 Pacific Century Fellows alum. “Consider that was well over 20 years ago and he continues to make his mark. He’s affiliated with a company that has national origins in Xerox, and (it) continues to be a very prominent place in Hawai‘i employing local people and creating a lot of opportunities for his company here.”

Sexton notes his favorite part of the program was learning things outside his wheelhouse.

“PCF helped me better understand the richness of our local community and its many facets — government, nonprofit and business,” Sexton says. “In large part, my career has been about integrating the local with the national/global. That synergy has been a major part of Xerox’s success in Hawai‘i over a long period of time.”

He admits to being excited about the upcoming awards gala and feels “privileged and fortunate to be included in the company of my fellow honorees.”

Char comes from the health care industry and serves as an emergency physician and EMS medical director. She was part of the Pacific Century Fellows’ third graduating class in 1999.

“I had the good fortune of having Libby Char in my cabinet when I was mayor,” Hannemann says. “She helped aid my cabinet achieve an 80% approval rating.

“I think it’s safe to say her leadership, along with Gov. Ige and Lt. Gov. Green, they played a major part in steering this state through a very difficult period,” he adds when asked about Char’s supportive efforts during the pandemic.

Char says she’s “deeply honored” about the upcoming recognition.

“There are so many creative, accomplished, talented people in PCF that have done so much to make Hawai‘i — and beyond — a better place,” she continues. “I’m also glad the PCF Ho‘opasifika will provide an opportunity for all of us to recognize Mufi Hannemann, who had the foresight, dedication and energy to create this program in Hawai‘i, and provide an opportunity for young leaders to become more educated, engaged and connected with each other.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Schatz has made a name for himself as a politician.

“He follows in a long line of successful senators that we’ve had and made a mark in D.C.,” says Hannemann. “At a very tender young age, he’s the dean of our congressional delegation. So it just shows that people can make a contribution very early on in their career.”

Looking back on his time in the Pacific Century Fellows Program in 2007, Schatz says, “The best thing about the program is the people.

“Since the fellowship, I’ve been fortunate to take on roles where I can make a real difference for our state and our country, including as CEO of Helping Hands Hawai‘i, lieutenant governor and currently, as a United States senator,” he continues. “I’m grateful to PCF for the honor and for growing this fellowship, giving more young leaders a chance to learn and serve our state and beyond.”

When it comes to giving back to the community, Schatz believes everyone can do their part.

“There is nothing more rewarding than serving your community and your neighbors, and so I would encourage everyone to always try and do a bit more to lend a hand and help wherever you can,” he adds.

According to Hannemann, the Pacific Century Fellows program has had hundreds of participants.

“I’m so very, very proud of all of these folks. I’m humbled and just so pleased with how this program has turned out,” he says. “Through the years have emerged a governor, a U.S. senator, a mayor, leading CEOs, leading executives in nonprofit roles, health care — there’s not a single aspect of Hawai‘i fabric that a fellow has not emerged from.

“I’m very humbled a lot of people helped us along the way to get where we are and I think the proof in the poi is the folks that come out of this program are doing great things in the community and that’s my great sense of satisfaction.”

For more information, visit pacificcenturyfellows.com.