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Fellows Spotlight
From Fellow to President: Meet Hawai‘i Leadership Forum’s New President AJ Halagao
December 20, 2023
Photo of AJ Halagao

By the time AJ Halagao was 14, he had already racked up a few entries on his resume.

“My first job was as a paper boy outside Washington D.C.,” he recalls. “I made about $30.00 a month delivering papers for The Washington Star, then later The Washington Post. I had to work very early, every morning, so it came out to about a dollar a day.”

When he found out he could make more money—$2.50 an hour to be exact—working at a restaurant named Charlie’s, he traded in papers for plates.

“I bussed tables, washed dishes, prepped food, even cleaned the bathrooms,” he laughs. “I remember mopping the floors on my first night of work and thinking, ‘gosh, I have the best job in the world!’”

While he’s not a busboy anymore, AJ has spent much of his career demonstrating servant leadership, especially in roles at Hawaiian Electric and HEI where he most recently served as HEI’s Vice President of Corporate & Community Advancement and President of the HEI Charitable Foundation.

In July 2023, Hawai‘i Leadership Forum announced AJ would become its next president. He officially joined the staff team this October, succeeding previous HLF President Mike Mohr.

When he first learned about the opportunity to lead HLF and the Omidyar Fellows program, AJ admits he thought “this was a very important position and a wonderful opportunity for someone, and that someone should be an Omidyar Fellow. But I didn’t necessarily think it would be me.”

“More than anything, [the Omidyar Fellows program] gave me the confidence that I belong, that in my way, I, too, am a leader... I think that's a lesson we can all learn—to have more confidence in ourselves.”

When approached by the search committee, rather than applying for the job, AJ pledged to help them find qualified candidates. That is, until he received some words of wisdom from his youngest child, 16-year-old Jordan.

“He said, ‘Dad, why don’t you put your name in the hat? What do you have to lose?’,” AJ says. “He was right. So I eventually decided to apply for the same reason I had applied to be an Omidyar Fellow in the first place: I thought it was an opportunity for me to help make Hawai‘i even better.”

“It Gave Me the Courage and Confidence”

In 2013, AJ was selected to be part of the second Cohort of Omidyar Fellows. But before that, he wasn’t so sure he would make it into the program.

“I think many of us go through an imposter mentality—like I’m not sure if I belong,” he says, laughing that at first, he “saw the caliber of the Fellows from Cohort I and thought, ‘I don’t know if I have the same kind of experience as them.’”

“I remember being in that first session with Cohort II [after being accepted], and I still wasn’t sure if I belonged.”

From going through the program curriculum, and with the support of his executive coach, AJ was able to shift his perspective.

“My coach predicted that I would one day be president of an organization, and I thought that was such a wild idea,” he says. “But she ended up being right. Five years later, I led a charitable foundation, and now 10 years later, I’m president of HLF.”

“More than anything, [the Omidyar Fellows program] gave me the confidence that I belong, that in my way, I, too, am a leader. And I have something to contribute,” he says. “I think that’s a lesson we can all learn—to have more confidence in ourselves. Of course, I learned a lot about being a better manager, a better director, a better person. But I think it’s more about the mentality and how we view ourselves personally. I think a lot of Fellows feel the same way.”

Photo of Cohort II at their Commencement Celebration

Omidyar Fellows Cohort II at their Commencement Celebration in 2014

Although there were only two Cohorts when AJ became a Fellow, today, there are eight cohorts comprising the Forum of Fellows. According to AJ, it’s this Network that sets this program apart.

 “We have 115 Fellows who are committed to making Hawai‘i better,” he says, admitting that “as each Cohort was being introduced through the years, it seemed like the caliber of applicants was getting more impressive; I was so glad I had applied years ago.”

 AJ adds that the relationships between the Fellows are also key, noting that even before becoming president, he already knew many Fellows through collaborations in his other roles, connecting with their organizations, and meeting them at Forum of Fellows events.

 “There’s a lot of intention [by HLF], a lot of energy in bringing the Fellows together to create a network of leaders that bond and trust one another,” he says. “We support and inspire each other to drive impact and catalyze positive change.”

Being Vulnerable and Making a Difference

While it’s been 10 years since the cohort AJ completed the Omidyar Fellows curriculum, two experiences that happened back then continue to stay with him.

“There was one session focused on Hawai‘i where we had to bring water from our home,” he retells. “I happen to live right next to Mānoa Stream. So I brought water from there and [during the session] we went around and talked about where we got the water. But it was more about talking about our homes and our families. I don’t think there was a dry eye by the end. It just made us think about what was most important to us.”

“I was one of the people in the Cohort that was a crier; I cry a lot,” he reveals, “but in this one, it seemed like almost all of us were emotional and tearful. That was one of the sessions that always stuck out to me.”

“I want to create a better future for Hawai‘i because my children are going to be a part of this special place. I want them to experience the same Hawai‘i I experienced for the last 23 years.”

The second experience is something that many Fellows say has been life-changing: the Individual Learning Excursion, or ILE. AJ’s ILE took him across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines where he was born.

“About one month after my Omidyar Fellows curriculum began,” he says, “the biggest storm that had ever made landfall struck the Philippines—Typhoon Haiyan. There’s a strong history and connection between Hawai‘i and the Philippines.”

One morning shortly after the storm, AJ recalls he was up at 4:30 a.m. “watching Anderson Cooper on CNN showing all this footage of what was happening in the Philippines. I thought maybe I should do something about this. I should help.”

A few hours later, he had contacted each of the major Hawai‘i banks with an idea to help those affected by the storm.

“We had [previously] worked together on Aloha for Japan (a relief effort following the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami), and so I said to them ‘hey, let’s get the band back together.’” Within a few days, “Aloha for Philippines” was born, with every branch of every Hawai‘i bank accepting donations for disaster victims, eventually raising $3 million.

That money was given to the Hawai‘i-based nonprofit Consuelo Foundation and was used to rebuild schools, daycare centers, and help reinvigorate the economy. Through his ILE, AJ also got the chance to reconnect with his roots.

“It was really all about seeing the work that the Consuelo Foundation did using the monies we had raised here in Hawai‘i,” he says. “And I was also glad to visit members of my family, my birthplace, my first home.”

He recalls one particularly meaningful moment during his ILE that brought him to a remote fishing community devastated by the storm. Every fishing boat on that island had been destroyed.

“The Consuelo Foundation had boats rebuilt for each of the fishermen,” he shares, “and one of the things I got to do was give the paddles to the fishermen for their new boats. That was pretty emotional because it was more than a boat. It’s how they nurtured themselves, how they got their food, and how they made money. It was their livelihood. To many families, the boat was everything.”

Photo of AJ handing a paddle to a fisherman

Photo courtesy AJ Halagao

These unique experiences have had a big impact on how AJ approaches his leadership roles, especially when it comes to providing funding for community initiatives.

“A lot of the times, I’d be reading applications and reviewing outcome reports,” he says, acknowledging that it can be easy to “forget what it’s like to be out there and visit with the people that are being helped by these funds.”

“It taught me to say to myself, ‘get out from behind your desk and go out in the community if you want to know about how the monies are being used or before you make a decision.’ Nothing replaces being with people and getting to know what they do.”

A Vision for His Family and all of Hawai‘i

AJ with his family at the beach

Photo courtesy AJ Halagao

Although AJ confesses to doing a lot of work outside of the office, when he isn’t working he says he loves spending time with his family: his wife Patricia, daughter Marissa, son Jordan, and their dog, Kona.

“I’ve actually lived in Hawai‘i longer than any other area,” he says, “I’ve now been here more than 20 years, got married, raised two amazing kids. And I’m almost an empty nester.”

His family, especially his children, are a strong source of inspiration for much of what he does.

“I want to create a better future for Hawai‘i because my children are going to be a part of this special place,” he says. “I want them to experience the same Hawai‘i I experienced for the last 23 years.”

“I’ve always been thankful for being embraced here in Hawai‘i. I came in 2000 not knowing a soul,” he says. “But I just felt that there was this connection, with the culture, the food, the weather, the waters, the people. I felt welcomed. And I always wanted to give back and make Hawai‘i even better.”

Speaking again about his kids, AJ says he’d like them to go to college to experience other places and cultures.

“But I want them to come back, and I want them to live here, raise families here,” he says. “So I want Hawai‘i to be even better for them and their peers and their generation.”

To AJ, the future he envisions is clear.

“It’s a Hawai‘i where all of us thrive,” he explains, “where there’s an abundance of opportunities and resources and mutual care, respect, and love for one another. It’s a Hawai‘i and a home we can all be proud of.”

“All of us, not just me as president or our [HLF] staff team here, but also the Fellows—we have an opportunity to utilize our friendships, our relationships, our network, our resources to do some special things. We can’t lose sight of that. And we should be thankful and find ways to put all the resources that we have to good use to make life in Hawai‘i even better.”

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