Brain drain. She doesn’t actually say the words, but that’s what Jeanne Unemori Skog is talking about. Skog is the president and CEO of the Maui Economic Development Board, which formed in 1982 to grow a technology sector that would help create a diversified economy for Maui County. MEDB has since expanded its programs and services to forge a foundation of education, jobs and opportunity in numerous areas including space, energy, education and community.
MEDB provides conference support services to outside entities as well as hosting the annual AMOS conference, which is considered the premier tech gathering related to space situation awareness in the world. MEDB’s Education to Workforce services include Robotics Hawaii, Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, the Kamaaina Come Home program, AgTech Education, STEM Internships, Mentornet, the Ke Alahele Education Fund and the Women in Technology program, which is said to be a national model for enabling women and underrepresented minorities to realize their potential in STEM careers. The organization’s Focus Maui Nui and Youth Alliance projects provide key strategies to help define a vision for the county’s future.
If you read through the Maui Island Plan and get to the chapter titled “Economic Development,” you’ll find that Maui still, to this day, “is the most reliant” of Hawaii’s four counties on tourism. “Of Maui County’s Gross County Product, 39 percent is attributed to tourism, versus a range of 19 to 29 percent for the other counties,” states the report, which seeks to map out the development of Maui through 2030. “A large proportion of jobs in Maui County are low wage jobs, many of them tourism-related. Most households are supported by individuals with two or more jobs.”
Wanting to learn about the ongoing effort to change those numbers, to balance Maui County’s job base and economy, is what brought me to MEDB’s headquarters. It’s housed in a modern building within Kihei’s Maui Research and Technology Park. Smoothly paved roads lead to large glassy, contemporary structures. There are no sugar cane fields, plantation-era buildings, tourists or resorts here.
Seated in Skog’s office, I’m amazed at the wall-to-wall stacks of binders, reports and files covering the table behind her desk.
“In 1981, Maui’s economy was dominated by tourism and agriculture,” Skog says. “We embrace both, but it’s not a future for everyone.” Skog says there was a lot of concern in the community about losing some of its youth to either Oahu or the Mainland because of the lack of opportunities outside of Maui’s dominate industries. “With them, goes the legacy of Maui,” she says.
According to MEDB Program Director Sandy Ryan, it was important to develop a high-tech industry to protect the island. Ryan and Skog used the United Airlines strike in the mid 1980s as an example. “As much as we embraced tourism, the concern about being vulnerable to forces out of our control weighed heavily on the leadership here,” Skog says.
Terryl Vencl, MEDB board member and the Maui Visitors Bureau’s executive director, agrees. “I think the work of MEDB offers our young people choices,” Vencl says. “It prepares them in the field of technology with hands on training, education, and challenges.” Vencl says young people preparing to work in tourism and agriculture should also understand some tech knowledge so the three industries compliment each other. Offering choices to residents and students helps keep our young people home or brings them back after higher education, Vencl says.
“We have been so fortunate to have the leadership, expertise and support of our board of directors from day one,” Skog tells me. “In spite of the demands they face in their careers, they come so invested in the work they do on our committees. Just as importantly, they’ve endorsed our numerous innovation efforts. They are a ‘giving’ board.”
Young people leaving Maui to find more career options resonates personally with Skog, who was born and raised here. Growing up, she lived on a pineapple farm in Haiku. Skog has old photos of herself in the fields, her hands shoved in oversized gloves while she picks pineapples. It’s hard to juxtapose that image with the profession woman in a red sweater and skirt across from me.
After graduating from St. Anthony’s Girls High School, Skog moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to study Education and English Literature at St. Catherine University. Skog says she decided to go away to college because she wanted to explore opportunities different from those offered at home.
“Maui was, from a teenager’s eyes at that time, really dead,” she says. “Paia was nothing like it is today. It was still a plantation town at that point. In fact, when my husband first visited, there was only one traffic light in Maui.”
Skog aspired to teach English Literature at the high school level but when she graduated from college in 1972, teaching jobs were scarce. While her husband, whom she married in 1972, was completing his education at University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, Skog went to work for the Minnesota State Senate. Later she did a stint in Governor Wendell “Wendy” Anderson’s office. “That was really interesting,” Skog says. “But it was an unspoken understanding that we were going to move back to Maui.” So after her husband graduated, they returned to the island.
But they weren’t here long. Four years later, Skog and her family moved to Hong Kong, where her husband’s architecture firm was opening an office. While back on Maui, Skog had worked in home furnishings doing interior decorating. When her family moved to Hong Kong for a planned three-year stay, she continued on that career path.
It’s always surprising when you hear a top-level executive say her career began by answering a want-ad. But it happens more often than you’d expect—and it happened to Skog. After returning to Maui from Hong Kong, Skog saw a newspaper ad posted by the newly formed MEDB; the organization’s president was looking for an executive assistant.
Skog was not looking for an administrative assistant job, but she was intrigued by the fact that the post preferred applicants with a college degree. “That was kind of unusual at the time for an executive assistant to the president,” Skog says. “The whole concept of the organization was interesting. So I applied and interviewed and I got the job.”
When she took the job in 1984, the nonprofit had a staff of two–Skog and MEDB president Don Malcolm. As the organization grew, Malcolm began delegating more responsibility to his assistant. “I feel very fortunate that he trusted me with some of those responsibilities even though they didn’t match up with what I had on paper,” Skog says. “He was a tremendous mentor–and a great person. I still remember with some awe when we had his retirement party–he said that one of the best decisions he had made was hiring me. I was totally floored and humbled. It was such an incredibly generous compliment.”
Skog worked her way from administrative assistant to vice president. In 1999, she was elected MEDB president and CEO by its board of directors. Today, it’s Skog’s co-workers lauding her leadership.
“She has been a great mentor,” says Ryan. “As a mentor and a boss, Jeanne has exacted very high standards, not only for our staff, but for herself. This has translated into one of MEDB’s hallmarks–we strive for excellence in everything we do, no matter how small or monumental the task or project…. Setting these high standards has pushed our team to not only meet the expectations, but exceed them. On many occasions over the years, when speaking about personal and professional development, I have heard Jeanne say, ‘The only way you grow is when you stretch.’”
Vencl, who knew Skog when she worked for Malcolm, agrees. “I believe she has carried forth the vision first set out by Don,” she says. “He would be very proud of her accomplishments and what she has done as a leader in our community.”
Ryan says that Skog’s work has brought a lot of accolades to the organization. Skog was named one of the “Next 20 People to Watch” by Hawaii Business magazine. She also won the SBA Women in Business Advocate of the Year Award, the International Economic Development Council Performance Award and the Ho‘okele Award, among many others. In 2011, her influence reached a national level when President Barack Obama announced her appointment to the Commission on Presidential Scholars.
As part of that commission, Skog reviews hundreds of applications to select up to 141 high school seniors who will receive the presidential honor. Those who receive the recognition meet with the commission during a trip to Washington DC. “It’s really quite an experience to meet them in person,” Skog says about the nation’s top students. “It’s a very inspiring and uplifting experience.”
This year, the DC trip featured an added bonus–the commission and scholars met with First Lady Michelle Obama. “She has such a persona and such a presence,” Skog says about Michelle Obama. “She is very charismatic, very friendly and very warm.”
I ask Skog about her memorable achievements. There were a lot of them, Skog says, reaching for a 400-page document titled Focus Maui Nui: Our Islands, Our Future.
In 2002, 20 years after its inception, MEDB hosted a conference to look at where the organization was headed. “The overarching recommendations were something that we did not expect, which is that everyone needs to get on the same page–going after a shared vision,” Skog says.
At the time, the County of Maui was preparing to do an update on the general plan headed toward 2030. They invested with MEDB–along with several foundations–to fund the visioning process, known as Focus Maui Nui. The project was designed to bring individuals, organizations and communities together to identify and prioritize shared values and to send clear messages to local leaders about what was wanted for the islands, its communities and their futures.
MEDB helped design a process for reaching nearly 2,000 community members who don’t normally participate in those kinds of dialogues–people who have to work every day and can’t go to a conference. “We wanted their voices to be heard,” Skog says.
“MEDB educates, reaches out into new frontiers such as energy, space, technology and ensures the voice of our residents remain top of mind with initiatives such as Focus Maui Nui,” Vencl says.
The process, meetings and outcome of the Focus Maui Nui project led to the creation of a concrete vision statement–the 400-page document sitting on Skog’s desk. Simply put, the vision for Maui Nui is to be an innovative model of sustainable island living and a place where every child can grow to reach his or her potential. Skog says the needs of each individual, Maui’s natural and cultural assets, the whole community and the economy as a whole must be brought into balance to achieve that vision.
“The strategies, succinctly put, are education, environment, infrastructure, economic development, culture and human needs,” Skog says. “These are all important strategies; you don’t sacrifice one over the other. It is not easy, but you have to recognize and respect that all these needs exist. When you go down the path of only recognizing and shooting for one need, that’s when we run into a huge challenge.
Ryan says the MEDB is always striving to help insure that residents are armed with enough balanced information so they can make informed decisions about the future of the county. “There are trade-offs,” Ryan says. “Sometimes economic and environmental concerns might compete for one another. But in order to make an informed decision, everybody has to be at the table.”
Ultimately, it’s about improving Maui’s quality of life.
“Maui remains a place for families of all kinds–a place where a family can thrive,” Skog says. “If you’re looking at creating a place for our residents and their families, you’ve got to look at jobs. If you’re looking at jobs, you’ve got to look at the kind of businesses you’re able to attract or grow. It comes back to quality of life and doing what we can to contribute to it, whether it’s through me personally or through the organization. Everything else emanates from there.
“Our deep appreciation must go to our community who have been so responsive to our new initiatives,” Skog adds. “Whether we need mentors from business, a partner for Ag education, or donors for our annual Ke Alahele request to support STEM education, they’ve risen to the occasion and helped us reach or exceed goals. As the saying goes, it takes a village.”
Cover photo: Sean M. Hower
Cover design: Darris Hurst