How Mālia Kaʻaihue and Pua DeSoto DESIGN their best lives.
Photo courtesy of Hawaii Business Magazine
There is a rare presence and grace Mālia Kaʻaihue has that you don’t see often in life.
To meet her fourteen-year-old daughter Pua DeSoto, a championship winning surfer, founder of a t-shirt brand, photographer and poet is to watch Mālia’s wisdom, drive and heart bloom in her next generation.
The cover of last March’s Hawaii Business Magazine featured Mālia with the headline 20 for the Next 20: Hawaii’s People to Watch for 2019. An academic with a degree in Hawaiian Studies and a PHd in Political Science Mālia founded and edited Mana Magazine, founded DTL a native Hawaiian consulting, planning and branding firm that has customers like Howard Hughes and Maui Brewing Company, founded Aloha Modern a luxury beach lifestyle company that uses native Hawaiian storytelling in their designs, founded ʻĀina Archaeology an archaeology business and recently had her eighth child. Are you inspired yet?
I had the honor to sit down with Pua and Mālia and ask them how they did it all. You will be impressed with Pua’s maturity and confidence at such a tender age and Mālia’s creative wisdom to design her own life to keep family first while still supporting incredible career success.
I had to remind myself to close my jaw on several occasions.
An interview that opened my mind and inspired me to see what is possible through a mother’s love paired with female intelligence and incredible drive.
Ashley: (Pua) At 14, you are already a championship winning surfer. You have a product line. You are interested in poetry and photography, and you still have so much of life ahead of you. What are your career goals and what do you want to accomplish in 2019?
Pua: For surfing, I want to be an Olympic gold medalist like Duke Kahanamoku. To be there, I have to be the best woman in the world, and before that, the best woman in the USA. In next year’s Olympics, they will only take two women and two men from the US, so the competition is really tough. Also, I would love to win a couple of world championships. My 2019 goal for surfing is to win a Junior Pro event and bring home more national titles than last year.
For my product line, it started out as a way to fundraise for Tahiti for the Junior Pros surfing competition. My mom and I came up with selling shirts to make money because it’s an expensive trip. We printed the shirts and launched them. Overnight, we sold out in ten hours. When I woke up in the morning, there weren’t any shirts left and people were still ordering. We got such a great response so I partnered with my sister Anu (pictured below), a designer, and we are continuing to build the brand Puating Tees @puatingtees.
In poetry, I’m trying to release my book as soon as possible. I’ve been writing poems and responding to my great grandmother’s poems in her unpublished collection, A Lei of Thoughts. She wrote one about Mauna Kea, and I have translated it in Hawaiian. Now I’m working on my response to her poem after being up on the mauna (mountain) as a kiaʻi or protector. Itʻs my experience four generations later. Her poem is so powerful I hope Iʻm able to build upon it through my experience fighting to protect Mauna Kea.
Ashley: (Pua) You have a ton of confidence in yourself to set those really big goals and to put yourself out there in all those different ways. How did you develop that confidence in just 14 years, and how have others helped you develop that confidence?
Pua: I developed my confidence through my family. Watching my dad compete as a surfer inspired me to compete as a pro surfer, not just as a fun thing. My Grandma Frenchy helped inspire me through Native Hawaiian advocacy and her work to restore Hawaiian language and equality in our community. My grandpa, Papa Hawaiian, was a fisherman and was really connected with the ocean, so he inspired my love for the ocean. And my mom gave me a lot of confidence through her work and businesses, and her love and support.
Ashley: (Pua) What does a day in your life look like?
Pua: A day in my life is hectic. I wake up at 4:30am and help get my brothers and sisters ready, then leave the house (in Mākaha) around 5am. I get into town around 6am, surf or workout at the gym near my mom’s office, then make it to school by 7:30am. After school, at about 4pm, I normally have training with my (surf) coach. Then I drive home after practice, get home around 6 or 7pm, eat dinner, do chores and homework, and spend time with my family.
Ashley: (Mālia) Tell me about what it has been like to raise Pua? What are you most proud of about her?
Mālia: Pua’s full name, Puamakamaekūikahanohaweo means the precious descendent that stands enlightened. She is a brilliant light thatʻs the best way I can describe her. She was born in this white light and there was a lot of energy around her birth. Pua has a light about her a presence. She has a natural ability to attract things and people to her. She’s so independent and brilliant, and she’s not cliquey - that is an awesome gift to have. Helping her understand this superpower is the work of the next four years.
Ashley: (Mālia) If you could give your 14-year-old-self advice, what would you tell her?
Mālia: It’s tough to answer, because I wouldn’t change anything about my life. All the trials and tribulations are what shaped me. But I guess I would look to what my natural talents were when I was young. You have no idea. Go get it. You’re going to do so much. Find your focus and figure out what it is. You don’t have to wait to be an adult. Kids are born with natural gifts, so figure out what those are and empower them.
Ashley: (Mālia) Tell me about your career journey. Today, you have four businesses, you’ve been on the cover of Hawai‘i Business Magazine, you are the founder of DTL and Aloha Modern, you’re on the board for Nā Kama Kai, and so much more. What are your goals for these organizations and businesses?
Mālia: I say I’m an accidental entrepreneur. I started as an academic and got my PHd in political science. I thought I was going to change the world through teaching. But I didn’t feel fulfilled - I realized I was mostly teaching people that were going to leave Hawai‘i after graduation. They weren’t going to stay here and apply what they learned to positively impact Hawai‘i’s future. So I went to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and helped them start their research division, and soon after got an offer in the private sector from a very successful Native Hawaiian businessman in the architecture business. He had spent his early career outside Hawai‘i designing some of the most prominent resorts in Southeast Asia, and he got to the point in his career where he wanted to do things to contribute to our home in Hawai‘i. He wanted to be involved in shaping Hawaiʻi. That made so much sense to me.
I ended up doing cultural and community development for him on projects like Turtle Bay - a big project that was highly controversial. We realized there was a business model around advising clients around cultural sensitivities in an area to both accomplish their goals and respect the genealogy of a space. So we launched DTL around that business model, and continue to carry out that work today. I was blessed to have a great business mentor.
Ashley: What is your advice for other Hawai‘i businesses on balancing successful, profitable business while also staying authentic and respectful of Hawai‘i’s history and culture?
Mālia: Hawai‘i is our competitive advantage. The more we as a people connect that to our land, connect to Hawai‘i, and invest in Hawai‘i, the more opportunity we have to create a mutually beneficial relationship that feeds each other.
For me, the most important thing about business is being community minded. That's my personal mission. It doesn’t matter if its the nonprofit or for profit world. It’s my goal to bring Native Hawaiian knowledge into mainstream spaces. When I was in the academic world, I could say or research whatever I wanted, but academia in Hawaiʻi is marginalized. I want to sit down with the people determining Hawai‘i’s future to design the planning and the programming needs to reflect the genealogy of each place. The places in the world that are thriving are the places that invest and celebrate their culture.
Ashley: (Mālia) What is your routine to manage stress and provide yourself with self-care?
Mālia: I really take pride in designing my life. I create the rules, and that has allowed me to create the life that I want. Before starting my business, I was always upfront with my supervisors that my family comes first. I’m unapologetic and not going to feel guilty about it. But I always ensured them that I would work really hard and accomplish every goal put in front of me.
Setting my own rules and boundaries allows me to live a life by my design. After we moved to Mākaha to raise our children where my husband grew up, I mastered by schedule where I only have to drive to town for work once a week.
Designing my own life has also allowed me to build in the kind of rest that I need. Where some people are looking for balancing everything on their plate, I’ve designed the plate, rather than trying to organize what’s in it.
My family does a lot of bleisure travel - business and leisure travel. We’ll take a work trip and build in something for everybody.
I do a lot of spa days, whenever I can and I want to. It’s part of my lifestyle now, not just something that’s a treat every once in a while. Iʻve splurged on the best healthcare plan so my family can get massages once or twice a month.
My husband and I also do a lot of date nights. Even when we don’t have the time, we figure out how to make the time, even if it’s just for a few hours. He's my first priority, and I'm his first priority.
Ashley: (Mālia) What specific practice do you do to stay focused on your goals, and to help your team to stay focused on your goals and move forward each day towards achieving them?
Mālia: I do tons of reflection. Every night, our family has dinner together and we do our highs and lows with every family member about what happened in the day. In my business, its similar. We do a lot of reflecting, refining, and retooling. I like to make lists and I always have two lists - a list of the mediocre things and a list of the three things that will make the day successful. Every year we do annual planning meetings around our goals, with my business, and with my family. Most importantly we always try and have fun!
Ashley: (Mālia) Tell me about a time in your business/career where you failed and how did you move forward from the situation?
Mālia: I struggle with this question because I fail all the time. But every failure has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. When I was at OHA, I was up for the CEO position, and I didn’t get it. At the time, that felt like a huge failure in my life moving up the ladder, but it was the best thing that happened to me because it opened all these other doors and it was a job that wouldn’t have fit in with my life. I’ve had businesses fail too, but the people I met in those failures became critical people in my life in other ways.
I got pregnant in high school, and many people looked at me like I was such a failure. But it was actually the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me. I never questioned it once. So in that sense, failure is a state of being for change. It is beautiful, like a butterfly coming from a caterpillar.
Seeing beauty in everything is a huge opportunity with failure. I try to pass that on to my keiki. For Pua, her whole career with surfing is about wins and losses. But if you can look as the losses as, “What did I learn from this loss? What changed for me environmentally, physically, and emotionally that led to that outcome?” That’s the refining that champions are made of.
Ashley: (Pua and Mālia) What are your favorite pair of Mohala shades and how would you style them?
Mālia: I like the Keana in Lychee Soda because they’re super fun, and fun is something I always need more of. I have a lot of basics in my wardrobe, so the sunglasses add fun to dress up any basics.
Pua: The same ones, because they’re beachy and fun. We laughed that we picked the same ones because we have a different sense of style. Shop the Keana now!