It’s hard to believe that someone with as much political prowess and business savvy as Mark Perriello found his way to Kauai, but that’s exactly what he did in 2015 after accepting the position of president and CEO of Kauai Chamber of Commerce. The Garden Isle is a far cry from the bureaucratic hub of Washington, D.C., where he held many exalted positions, including White House liaison at the U.S. Department of the Interior, as well as White House priority placement director during the Obama Administration, where he helped create one of the most diverse administrations in U.S. history.
Before that, Perriello worked with the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy program. And following his stint in the White House, he was appointed president and CEO of American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD).
Quite the impressive resume. So, why Kauai?
Because, he says, 15 years working in D.C. takes a toll on one’s stress levels. While there’s never a dull moment, there’s also never a moment of free time.
“D.C. is a great way to make a difference, and I feel like I made some really significant contributions, which I’m proud of,” he says. “But I knew I wanted something different, as well, and I knew that the lifestyle that people are afforded on Kauai and in Hawaii was what I was looking for.”
And thus far, it’s been everything he hoped for.
“It was a very welcome change,” he says.
While the Massachusetts native has found solace on Kauai, he’s also busy making his mark at the local COC. With the help of his small team and board members, he’s managed to revitalize the organization, which supports local businesses primarily through networking and advocacy. Plenty of new members have joined in the past two years, and many “old friends” have returned. The reasons are copious, including Perriello’s ability to value people from all walks of life — as also evidenced in his leadership roles in D.C., “and acknowledging that they’re making a contribution, whether through their businesses or as individuals to the island and the community; and taking the time to listen,” he says.
By listening to local businesses such as Kauai Kookie, where COC representative Ann Hashisaka is actively involved with the nonprofit as small-business chairwoman, he’s been able to shine the spotlight on Kauai.
His connections on Capitol Hill also don’t hurt. He’s been instrumental in helping local enterprises find their voice with policymakers — by assisting U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono with Hawaii on the Hill, for example, a two-day event in D.C. that culminates with “Taste of Hawaii,” where businesses including Kauai Kookie show off their products. By handing them out to U.S. senators and thousands of staffers and others in the administration, they provide the entire federal delegation with a better understanding of what the island has to offer.
“It puts Kauai at the forefront of their minds,” he says.
Wade Lord of Kukui Grove Center, who serves on the Kauai COC board of directors, is thrilled to have Perriello on the team, especially because of his dedication to projects like this.
“Mark has been a great addition to our community and to the chamber,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have Mark, and I look for big things from him during his tenure.”
Kauai COC has approximately 450 members, who run the gamut in terms of representing industries from tourism to manufacturing. But Perriello hopes to grow that number even more, since about 1,600 businesses exist on the island, according to the state Department of Labor.
“We have a few more to reach out to and get engaged with the work we’re doing,” says Perriello, who graduated from Rhodes College with a degree in religious studies, and got his start in the political world in 2000 working for Al Gore during his campaign for president.
Perriello also plans to provide more networking opportunities, as well as workshops where businesses can foster new skills.
“The chamber has a lot to offer the businesses on the island, but I think a lot of folks don’t even know we exist,” he says.
The monthly social gatherings alone do wonders for local companies.
“It’s amazing the things that result from that,” he says.
What also is amazing is just how much Perriello has accepted the community, and how well the community has accepted him. Naysayers on the Mainland warned him that his move would be “tough,” but it ended up being quite the opposite.
“People have been so embracing, so supportive,” he says.
And that’s just what he was looking for when he left the East Coast.
“Here, I feel people take the time to get to know each other in a real intimate way, and I really love that,” says Perriello, who lives in Omao.
The aloha spirit is what drives him to be the No. 1 advocate for kama‘aina businesspeople, and providing them with the same kind of success and opportunities as everyone else.
“And I really feel like we do help a lot of people and their businesses,” he says. “And in a place like Kauai, where business isn’t always the easiest thing, I think that role is really important, perhaps even more important than chambers on the Mainland.”
Visit kauaichamber.org for more information.