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Nalani Kaauwai Brun of Kauai Office of Economic Development

Just the sound of her voice makes you believe anything she says is possible. I’d never met Nalani Brun in person but had heard so much about her and watched her input on webinars from recent COVID events that I knew she was a woman of influence. When we got on a call to walk through the questions I quickly saw why she garners loyalty from those that cross her path - she's a woman with deep conviction to do good and a heart for others to be involved in the work. Her passion in engaging everyone and their individual strengths in building the next thing is contagious. It gives life to opportunities and gathers momentum. I am thrilled that we are fortunate here in Kauai to have a woman at the helm of Kauai’s Office of Economic Development that has a clear vision and deep love for her community.

I am always interested in how people start their day - whats your typical morning routine?  Up at 4:15/coffee and journaling, in exercise clothes to get my head on straight, leave at 5:15am 5:45-645 walk at the Marriott Paths, 7:15 in the office and then the spaceship takes off. 

There's been a few chapters of life leading up to this point, can you break it down for us and share how each shaped you? Chapter 1:  Two amazing parents, not a lot of money, a huge Kaauwai ohana. I’m the 2nd of 5 kids with loads of cousins because both parents came from big families. We were a big farming family that had strong ties to the land.  I grew up learning about the importance of teamwork and creativity

Chapter 2:  Hula, Music, School Activities. I was always involved in leadership activities throughout highschool. I enjoyed school, loved my teachers and had a strong motivation to dedicate myself to doing well in school. Continuing in understanding the power of teamwork, leadership and creativity.

Chapter 3:  College and transitioning into Work. I started at the University of Hawaii, did a year at University of Oregon and then returned to U of H. I got a degree in Pre Law with a minor in music. Pre Law interest was inspired by my mother who was a paralegal and my father who was a police officer - I love law and find it fascinating. Once I graduated I realized law might be challenging on an island where I knew everyone! So I started out in Real Estate, managing contracts. It was my first experience working in an office, up to that point most of my experience was dancing hula and singing. 

Chapter 4:  Life at OED, 23 years of learning government systems, government thinking, where the government can flex and grow to become more business like all while trying to keep in mind...I am a public servant trying to do public good. After Iniki hit I got involved with tourism recovery, I did a lot of traveling trying to get accurate information out about Kauai. I stayed in the tourism sector for awhile and love it - building out great programs, engaging the community and shaping tourism on Kauai. After 11 years I hit a point of burnout and had to shift gears. I got a job working for Ho'ola Lahui Hawaii, Native Hawaiian Health Services, for 4 years which coincided with my certification to teach fitness classes. I built out their exercise program which was really fun. It was all about keeping them moving. Then Mayor Carvalho invited me back to join the Tourism Specialist Team and take a new approach of managing tourism rather than let it fly on its own. Through a series of movements I  became the Program Admin Officer, which allowed me to build the other sectors within the county. Just before the start of COVID I was invited to step into the OED Director Role.  This chapter has been about learning to be creative and foster community partnerships.  

Tell us about a  turning point or a breakthrough that led to a deeper understanding of what you wanted to do?  I don’t think there was ever that epiphany type moment.  I always tried to make it about where I was, about the community no matter where it was. I have been so lucky to have worked with people that trusted me to create the best job description and process to meet the mission I was given.  I was probably born with an “I love my community shirt”.  There was a point, when I was in an exchange program at the University of Oregon, that I realized, as much as I adored Oregon, Kauai called to me daily from across the sea. At that point I knew, my future efforts would be based on a little island in the middle of the sea.

Is there a mantra or theme that shapes your leadership style?  Oh yes.  It’s on my wall staring at me.  Attitude:  The pessimist complains about the wind.  The optimist expects the wind to change.  A leader adjusts the sails.  I find adjusting the sails the fun part.

What activities/hobbies/interests help keep you balanced? Exercise is a must.  I love kayaking, paddling canoe, hiking, walking, working out at the Kauai Athletic Club, attending Hoola Lahui and Bev Brody classes.  I like to settles my energy.  I love to spend time with my family and talk “the old days” with them and I love entertaining.  Singing and Dancing.  It keeps me connected to my soul. 

What filter or set of values guide your decisions? So many great values out there to have.  I think my favorites are combos:  Family Friendship & Community; kindness in leadership, wisdom in listening, balanced challenges but best of all lots of humor and fun.

What challenges do you face in being innovative in a structured system? The true challenges are, to know how government works - what it can and cannot do -  to be able to pivot on a dime as needed for the greater purpose and to be a constant advocate for change to make things significantly better for the masses.

What strength is key to your success? My team.  Everyone on the OED team has multiple skills and are willing to bleed as much as I am for this community.  We all come from the same mindset and work ethic.

I’ll outlast you…endurance is my super strength.

Where are you still growing and what are you still learning? I can tell you that my math teachers in high school must be getting a big kick out of seeing me in this position.  Those wonderful creatures..Mrs. Ushio and Mrs. Uyematsu killed themselves trying to keep me in “Phase IV” (yes there were phases back then) math.  I struggled with numbers.  Algebra taunted me and eluded me daily.  It  seemed so totally useless to me and because of  it, I was getting tutored by my teachers before and after school.  Now there isn’t a day that goes by without twenty excel spreadsheets with numbers and statistics crossing my path. That’s some irony right there.  When I got to college I tried to avoid math by taking logic.  Well, that wasn’t much easier but does prove to be useful in this any job!

What are you : Reading, Listening to, Watching? I’m reading Chasing Cupcakes by Elizabeth Benton.  I’m always trying to discover a healthier me and this has some great insights!  I belong to a group called No B.S. women.  It’s kind of a life coaching/weight losing group.  It’s all about thoughtwork and I cannot tell you how helpful it has been to me with this new position and COVID!  

What advice do you wish someone would have told you? “Prepare for the day they start calling you “Aunty” because it will be before you expect it”.  

What do you love most about your current position? The people I work with first, but a close second is the kind of work we get to do because it touches so many when we are successful.

What makes you feel most alive? The synchronicity of the office or any project (work or not work) I’m doing buzzing along…..getting things done, completing tasks.  

What do you love most about Kauai? She’s my touchstone.  Every day I wake up grateful to be here. Whenever I leave the island I feel the difference, I miss her energy. In that way she is what drives me, she is my source of energy and I know I was put here to serve this. When I struggle I know I can go out in a big field and lay down, feel her energy, hear her heartbeat and feel restored. 

What are you looking forward to?  The end of COVID.  

What advice would you give to our readers? Engage with groups to amplify your voice and be a problem solver. Partnerships are everything and the county is only as strong as the partnerships in the community it has. We are in a challenging time and we must hold hands to build the future we envision for Kaua'i.

Thank you so much Nalani for sharing your journey, your strategy and your hopes for the future of our island. To be a part of building a flourishing future for our island check out the latest launch of 

the Kaua'i Forward website and instagram feed. 

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