President and CEO, Kakaʻako Kasuals
Selected to be part of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center’s Business Certification Training Cohort 2 and Small Business Marketing Bootcamp
Kiani Wong never intended to go into business. In fact, her dream was to become a clinical psychologist and she completed her undergraduate studies in psychology. But inspiration from her mother and grandfather, both of whom were business owners, led her to that same spirit of entrepreneurship and she returned to school to earn an MBA. She then worked in retail merchandising and buying on the mainland before moving back to Hawaii.
In 2018, her family was approached by the owners of reef shoe supplier Kam Kasuals about buying the business as the owners were looking to retire. On May 1, 2019, the purchase was made official and Kiani, along with her mother, wife, and sister-in-law, took over the leadership and operations, and renamed the company Kakaʻako Kasuals.
Today, the Hawaiian-owned and woman-run footwear business boasts 14 employees and their products can be found at the company’s headquarters in Kakaʻako as well as at a new kiosk at Ala Moana Center and numerous retailers throughout Hawaii. Kiani describes the workplace as one that is fair and balanced where she’s never experienced any issues because of her gender.
“We try to reflect the community that we’re a part of. We work with local artists who’ve done work in Kakaʻako to give our slippers a reflection of our location,” Kiani explained, noting that with their unique designs featuring the work by local muralists it’s as if the “walls are walking around with you.”
The COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for Kiani and her team. This was compounded by other issues they’d been facing within the company’s first six to eight months of operation that stemmed from China-America trade wars and import tariffs. Additionally, they were coping with the unexpected passing of one of their employees. Despite these hurdles, the company has remained steadfast in its commitment to putting people first.
“We want to keep them safe and healthy, respect boundaries, and pay wages, even when we weren’t making money,” Kiani said. “During the first six months of COVID, small retailers were closed. We had to lead with empathy, knowing our employees have families. At the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, we kept everyone on payroll so they could support their families. We took a pay and revenue hit but tried to remain supportive.”
After overcoming so much with just under three years in business, Kiani is excited and positive about the future. The company now has a greater focus on the local market and continues to receive an outpouring of support from other local businesses and consumers. She also witnessed firsthand how her family came together throughout those challenging moments and emerged as an even stronger unit.
Kiani and her company are very familiar with YWCA Oʻahu, having supported the organization through fundraising and donating their products to help women in the Dress for Success program and at the Fernhurst furlough and transitional housing facility. She later learned about the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center through an email and took part in its Business Certification Training Cohort 2.
“I got to meet so many other entrepreneurs who were doing something similar,” she recalled. “It was great to be acquainted with others in the community, especially during the pandemic when everything was so disjointed, this was very strengthening.”
At present, Kiani is taking part in the inaugural cohort of the Center’s Small Business Marketing Bootcamp where she’s working on developing plans for an offshoot of the current business, focusing on targeting and messaging.
The Kakaʻako Kasuals team have big plans in store as they look ahead to a bright future. In addition to strengthening their B2B efforts, they’ll be launching a more recognizable consumer brand with their upcoming limu (algae) line. These new products will feature a sole partially made from algae that acts as a petroleum replacement to bond the slipper together. The company will also be releasing a custom slipper printing service. Moreover, sustainability is at the forefront with plans to include an additive in their slippers that will enhance the biodegradation process and allow the product to break down as well as replace their plastic hangers and mailers with more eco-friendly alternatives.
Kiani offers the following advice to current and aspiring entrepreneurs: “I think that keeping an open mind and being adaptable is the best piece of advice that I can give. In business, there are so many unknowns and potential issues that can arise. You often must deal with problems without having a roadmap, so keeping an open mind to fully understand the issue is so important; then, adapting yourself or your business will help you stay relevant.”