LeaderLuncheon profile: Helen Nakano

39th Annual LeaderLuncheon | Tuesday, June 14, 2016 | 12-1:30PM | Sheraton Waikiki

Helen Nakano is the co-founder of Mālama Mānoa and the founder of Hanafuda Hawaii. Mālama Mānoa is a grassroots community organization that began in 1992, which preserves, protects, and enhances the special qualities of Mānoa Valley. Through this nonprofit, she spearheaded the Kuleana Project, an educational outreach program designed to teach children and their parents about water conservation. The project won an award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004. Helen's personal business, Hanafuda Hawaii, was created from a desire to bridge generations through this traditional Japanese card game; to date she has sold more than 30,000 Hanafuda sets. 

Q & A with Helen Nakano

Q: What is your definition of a leader? 

A leader is a person who gets things done by getting other people to buy into her ideas. Others will help her because they believe that her ideas are worth spending their own time and effort. She thinks big and knows what she wants and has a plan of how to get what she wants. She does things which benefit others and makes her neighborhood, her community, and the world a better place for everyone. She is willing to work hard to achieve results.


I have so many heroes I can't just name one person.  Here are some people I consider everyday heroes:       

  • Diane Ragone - She is one of my heroes because of her drive and determination to collect all the varieties of breadfruit available in the Pacific region and all she has accomplished to eliminate hunger through distribution of free ulu plants to the world. What a huge mission!
  • Danny Tengan and Clem Jung - After retirement these two men go around the island training everyone in disaster preparation and response.  When disaster strikes the islands, their work now will save many hundreds of lives.
  • Gregory Pai - He teaches meditation to people in prison, in mental hospitals, and the general public to help them live better lives.  He is a layperson who just wants to help people who are suffering emotionally.

These are the things they have taught me:  1) You have to work hard. Nothing gets accomplished without effort;  2) You do what you think is right, regardless of what others think, be it stupid or silly;  3)  If the purpose is bigger than yourself, doors will open and help will arrive in mysterious ways.

Q: What was the greatest obstacle in your career and how did you overcome it?

I married a military man and we moved 10 times in 27 years. This did not allow me to pursue a career moving upward. What it did provide me was interesting and varied work in different fields (teaching, real estate, employee training, YWCA program development, running a chamber of commerce, visual merchandising, financial planning) so my career moves were lateral. I overcame it by going with the flow and enjoying the richness of each experience. This didn't happen until I was much older and appreciated everything I experienced. 

Q: What motivates you to be a leader in your community? 

It you want things to improve, you have to be willing to step up and volunteer.

Q: What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to become leaders?

Don't talk about what you can do. Just show up and work.