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Owner & Principal Engineer, Kokoro Engineering LLC


Business and financial counseling client; YWahine In Business Financial Accelerator participant

Kokoro means “heart” in Japanese, and that’s at the center of what Staci Taniguchi believes and practices as the owner and principal engineer of Kokoro Engineering LLC. “I work on projects that are in alignment with what I want to work on. Everything I take on is something I want to do,” she explained. “There’s so much work out there and so many engineering firms, I’d rather focus on what’s of interest to me, and where I feel like I can make a contribution to the community.”

“I always wanted to have my own firm,” Staci recalled, noting that she established Kokoro Engineering in January 2022. “I could see that it was very challenging. I worked in a large corporate company. I didn’t think it was something I could do after seeing the corporate structure, so I let it go for a while. Then due to circumstances that came up at my old company, I decided to become an independent consultant, and I ended up being a principal of my own firm. I got what I wanted to do.”

Staci is no stranger to entrepreneurship, having grown up in Kona on Hawaii Island where her family owns a coffee farm and later established a small coffee shop. She’s quick to credit her parents for their encouragement, guidance, and insights on being a small business owner. “My parents always told me, ‘You can work for someone else, but you’ll be happiest working for yourself,’” she said. “I could see that even though they work seven days a week—and my brothers and I did too—I could see they were happy. They had more control over their schedules and were more fulfilled, and they could see the results of what they put in. It’s hard work but very rewarding.”

As she developed a passion for math and science, Staci decided to pursue her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and UC Berkeley, respectively. Through Kokoro Engineering, Staci concentrates on her specialties in water and wastewater design because she wants to help others by providing clean water and sanitation. Her work deals primarily with sewers, pump stations, and wastewater treatment, ensuring people have sufficient and clean water and waste is disposed and treated in a sanitary manner. In contrast to being an employee, she can now pursue passion projects and is even considering starting her own nonprofit.

Despite engineering being a male-dominated field, Staci was fortunate to work for a company that treated everyone equally. “It helped me to see that I can be just as good as any other engineer,” she said. “That’s been very helpful for me to understand. My work and reputation are based on what I put into it, not being female.”

One of Staci’s clients is also a female principal engineer who has been sharing about her experiences and offering mentorship. She told Staci about being treated like a secretary early in her career, but instead of being discouraged by it, she saw it as an advantageous situation where she could learn more by attending meetings that others were not privy too. Staci has taken this to heart and now has a mindset of seeing challenges as an opportunity for her to learn and grow from these experiences.

Many small business owners feel uncertainty about how things will work out, and overcoming this was a big accomplishment for Staci. “Fear was one of the biggest things holding me back because I didn’t know what was beyond and how I was going to make it,” she said. “Once I made up my mind and accepted that I’m going to start my own business and do the best that I can, I let people know that I’m available, and all of a sudden, they were contacting me. I’m proud of just taking that leap of faith.”

Staci first learned about the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center through another client whom she met at a networking event. She has since participated in one-on-one business and financial counseling and will soon be receiving help with taxes. “It’s been great to find out that there are a lot of resources available, especially if you’re a recently established woman-owned business,” Staci notes. “It’s given me options and things I can look into—resources, additional counseling, things that I don’t have a background in. Sometimes as a new business owner, you’re not sure where to start, and there are people to guide you in that direction.”

To her fellow woman entrepreneurs and small business owners, Staci offers the following advice: “If you’re thinking about starting your own business, I would really encourage it, but also there’s a lot to consider and plan for. Try to have money set aside or get a loan or support. I wish I had savings set aside for startup capital because I didn’t understand how long it would take to get work and get paid. Have a plan for how you’re going to find work or clients. I made sure I had a business structure in place with insurance and registration. Once I had that, I felt comfortable to tell people I’m available. Luckily, I’ve been in the industry and active in professional organizations; I had initial contacts. Have a plan of key people to connect with through networking or get introduced to start to find work. Also, look into resources and guidance for where to get started.”

UPDATE – December 2023
Staci achieved a major milestone in her second year of business by securing her first prime contract. In the past year, she successfully completed multiple projects for clients, and an opportunity emerged to work on aging private wastewater treatment plants for homeowner’s associations (HOAs) through an industry contact. After expressing interest, conducting site visits, participating in discussions, preparing proposals, and navigating the board approval process, Staci’s company—Kokoro Engineering LLC—was awarded the prime contract. She will now oversee a team of subconsultants, including electrical and structural engineers, as well as a geotechnical engineer, and surveyor.

“This is my big step for the year, and it was something that I was working on moving toward—being a prime contractor,” Staci said. “This is a step into the private sector of work, versus a lot of my other work has been through government agencies, so this is like a new venture. And because of that, I realized that there’s also a niche of work in this area. I’ve decided that next year, depending on how everything goes with this project, I’m going to focus on trying to get more of this kind of work because there aren’t many consultants doing work in this area.”

Staci credits her success to the relationships she has cultivated over time, both prior to starting her business and since its inception. These connections have enabled her to discover valuable job opportunities and secure subconsultants for various projects. The strategic advantage of being a smaller company further allows her to undertake projects that larger firms may overlook or decline.

As a participant in the YWahine In Business Financial Accelerator with instructor Mariko Gordon, Staci is actively ensuring her preparedness for financial success as her business continues to grow. “What I find really helpful in the class is that it shows you how you can use all of the different statements—cash flow, income statement, balance sheet, everything—to look at the business and how to help make decisions and see how well you’re doing year after year,” she explained. While she felt embarrassed at first about gaps in her knowledge, Staci has found encouragement in the diverse cohort of women from various sectors and stages of business. This collaborative learning environment allows everyone to benefit from shared insights. Additionally, Mariko has offered creative suggestions for overcoming challenges that contractors often encounter, such as the payment schedule.

In addition to moving forward with her first prime contract, Staci is proactively securing the services of a bookkeeper, CPA, and attorney. Furthermore, she has an agreement with another firm to subcontract work to junior engineers, providing valuable industry experience to new professionals. Staci also expresses gratitude for resources such as the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center, which introduced her to the accelerator course and a business banker to facilitate her business line of credit application.

“Overall, I’m happy with how the year has turned out,” Staci said. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to do everything, but slowly, one thing at a time, it’s coming together, and I just follow that, and then I’m able to move to the next step, and that’s been helpful.”

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