Star Bulletin July 24, 2006
By Katherine Nichols
Community service was an important part of Evan Leong’s life as a youngster. “It was called detention,” he laughed.
But Leong, 33, has come a long way.
Now he and his wife, Kari, 32, are nearly one year into their multifaceted media venture, gaining attention worldwide as Greater Good Radio. They interview Hawaii’s top business people in an effort to “develop tomorrow’s leaders.” Leong hopes that candid discussions with Hawaii’s most successful entrepreneurs “who have successfully incorporated a social mission into their business model” will inspire the next generation to give back to the community within the framework of their professional endeavors.
Airing on KKEA, 1420 AM, twice a week, Greater Good Radio shows are also available on the Internet, through audio streaming or podcasts. A book series, satellite radio, compilations and television shows of radio interview highlights are on the horizon.
“I think the program is very impactful because they make it easy to access,” said Clint Arnoldus, chief executive officer of Central Pacific Bank and a former guest on the show who now downloads podcasts for his airplane travel. “It’s really a study on leadership.”
Arnoldus said he listened to the interview with real estate developer Duncan MacNaughton and found himself riveted by MacNaughton’s stories about how he built his business, delved into community service and eventually brought Costco, Jamba Juice and Starbucks to the islands.
With their engaging style, the Leongs explore what motivates each executive.
“You always know that it’s more than just bottom line, and the purpose of Greater Good Radio is to bring that out,” Arnoldus said.
Darren Kimura, founder and chief executive officer of Energy Industries, said a friend in Oregon had downloaded Leong’s radio show off the Internet and contacted Kimura about getting involved. As a subsequent guest on the show, he talked about the company he started in Hawaii and expanded to 12 locations around the country. But that was only the beginning.
With Leong’s help, Kimura, 31, began his own podcast on energy-related issues. Along with Greater Good Radio, it continually ranks in Yahoo’s Top 10 podcasts among an estimated 6,000. “And I owe it all to Evan,” Kimura said.
Greater Good Radio has created a “barometer” for public service, according to Kimura. As a result, his own company has increased community service events from one per year to one every quarter. “It tells people like me that we have to strive for more to become the next generation of leaders.”
And they need to start earlier.
When Mike May, president and chief executive officer of Hawaiian Electric Co., was asked when an aspiring executive should start getting involved in the community, May said, “In college.”
Judging from their extensive involvement in a variety of nonprofit organizations, the Leongs might have understood this instinctively. They seem to know a thing or two about business, as well. The couple, married for eight years, started a business importing Taiwanese bubble tea in 2001. By 2003 the enterprise was booming, and Kari had given birth to the first of two sons.
“They’re very modest but they’re very accomplished,” Arnoldus said. “They did so well (with their tea business) that they’re actually retired. They’re doing (the radio show) as a labor of love.”
Indeed, Greater Good Radio began with what is generally considered volunteer work, when Leong was coaching girls’ pole-vaulting at his alma mater, Punahou School.
The daughter of Hawaii businessman Duane Kurisu was one of Leong’s athletes. A relatively easy introduction to an extremely busy person followed. And with it, a conversation that altered Leong’s view of the relationship between business and community service.
Having always viewed his professional and community efforts as separate entities, Leong sought business advice from Kurisu, who explained that the two were inextricably linked. He taught Leong the importance of learning to “leverage your business to make a difference in other people’s lives,” recalled Kurisu. He also said that community service would be the one enduring — and meaningful — component in a person’s industry that carried him through the rough times.
Evan and Kari’s breezy yet thoughtful interview style encourages people such as master navigator Nainoa Thompson to talk about what really happened aboard the Hokule’a in 1978 when Eddie Aikau disappeared. Or David Carey, president and chief executive officer of Outrigger Enterprises, to explain why the death of his grandfather at a crucial time in his development helped dictate important life choices. Or U.S. Rep. Ed Case to share his personal experiences with “kill haole day.” Or Joe Rice, president and chief executive officer of Mid-Pacific Institute, to talk about his horrific childhood as the oldest of 12 children, living in a car and in foster care, working on farms, and one day stabbing his stepfather to protect his family from further abuse before running away.
“Evan and Kari have an ability to disarm and reach into the guests’ psyche (in search of) core values,” said May, who also downloads Greater Good Radio podcasts. “Normally, you don’t share these inner feelings, and I think they’ve made it comfortable to put it out there.”
Arnoldus agreed. “Evan has an interesting style of interviewing people because it’s very relaxed. They get you so comfortable that you’re willing to talk about just about anything. They’re earnest and sincere, and they build a trust factor very quickly.”
Kimura added, “It definitely isn’t your traditional interview; it gives you an opportunity to get off the beaten path.”
Even after earning his executive MBA from the University of Hawaii and achieving success with Bubble Tea Supply and an e-commerce company, Leong struggled to recruit high-profile guests in the show’s early days.
“He’d call and e-mail constantly to get on the radar,” Kimura said. “He’s tenacious enough to know the people around the people. He always figures it out.” This was how he managed to land an interview with famed musician Mike Post, which tipped the scales.
Ten months later the 114-strong guest list reads like a who’s who in Honolulu, including Walter Dods, Jeff Watanabe, U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, Wally Amos, David Heenan, Dick Gushman, John Dean, Adm. Thomas Fargo, Kelvin Taketa, Barry Weinman, Connie Lau and David McClain, to name just a few.
But then again, tenacity runs in the family. U.S. Sen. Hiram Fong was Leong’s uncle, and Leong deeply regrets the wisdom lost when he died. This encouraged him to document business history for future generations, “kind of like an archive.”
Leong says his skills revolve around brainstorming and carrying out the “first 40 percent of a project.” Kari, he said, “finishes the last 60 percent.”
Currently, the initial 24 minutes of each interview are available on the Internet free. Those who want to access the last half of the show — what Leong calls the more interesting, because it’s when guests finally start to open up — must pay $5.95. But he’s still experimenting with format, he said, and that might change.
It’s difficult to predict where the multimedia enterprise will go, but continued evolution is likely. The Leongs already receive feedback from listeners in many states, and people from 83 countries have visited their Web site.
“This guy is an amazing thinker,” Kimura said. “Stay tuned, because I don’t think this is the last you’re going to see from them.”
On the air
Listen to Greater Good Radio on KKEA, 1420 AM, at 8 a.m. Saturdays and 8 p.m. Wednesdays.