Punahou School – Class of 1997
Executive Director: Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii
Reinvent (verb): to remake or make over, as in a different form.
How has Sustainable Coastlines Executive Director, Kahi Pacarro, reinvented himself over the years? Well, for one, he’s no longer the “kind of a punk” teenager of yesteryear. No, those days are long gone. Since graduating from Punahou School in 1997, Pacarro has maneuvered and shifted his innate sensibilities of the world he sees into action. More distinctive is the transformation he made from a financially fruitful career in real estate development to a simplified, passionate life leading the mission of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii.
The nonprofit’s efforts are extensive like the litter they are tackling, yet direct: to educate the public on the harmful effects of marine debris, to provide alternatives and solutions in order to minimize and combat the over-consumption of plastics, and to charge through the coastlines like a team of fullbacks in their own large-scale beach cleanups. Trying to clean up the ocean, Pacarro says, is like trying to bail out a bathtub with the tap still running. Therefore, stopping the tap, he insists, should be the focus of eradicating our environment of trash and plastics.
If you’re thinking about becoming a part of the field, Pacarro fervently wants you to know that jumping into work with a nonprofit, especially one that is preservation and environment-based, is not merely about having “an awesome life of cleaning beaches.” Rather, it is vital that you have a strong work ethic, be knowledgeable about working across diverse lines of industry, and be able to adapt skills from business world to your work within a non-profit organization.
Read on to hear more from Kahi Pacarro on his own path to directing Sustainable Coastlines and the advice he shares about listening to your instincts.
How would you describe yourself in high school?
I liked to have fun, played a lot of sports, loved girls. I was the stereotypical teenager with a lot of hormones. I’ve changed a lot. I was kind of a punk. I can fess up to that.
You spent two years teaching snowboarding after college. Why did you choose to do that even though you had a degree in finance?
That choice was a simple expression of the freedom that you’re left with after college. It was about not getting bogged down by the “oh my god, I need to get a job! I need to get into the rat race.” It was more like “here’s a way to enjoy being out of school” as well as a perspective contrast to choose to go live in the snow.
After you taught snowboarding, you entered real estate development and became very successful at that here in Hawaii. Then, you traveled for two years and said that it was an “awakening” time for you with respect to seeing the world’s pollution. Do you think you would have been as impacted by the state of things if you had taken that same trip years prior?
I think I would have still been changed in a similar way – not to say that Sustainable Coastlines would have started. I don’t think that opportunity would have existed years prior, but the lessons that I learned while traveling would have been the same: the fact that we need to work more towards preserving and improving the state would have been ingrained. Starting the non-profit and being successful with it really had a lot to do with timing and jumping on the opportunity that was at hand.
How does someone decide that a certain opportunity is the one to grab?
There are opportunities that are always in front of you and it’s a matter of knowing if you should jump on that one, if you should jump on another one or if you should pass until another opportunity comes up. You have to make a decision and go for it. You might fail, but you’ve got to take some risks and grab opportunities when you have the instinct that says “do it.”
What was the first step you took in changing careers?
When I realized that I could make a living in this field of work, I had to build a lifestyle. It’s a matter of being able to figure out how to maintain that lifestyle. The salary in the nonprofit field is drastically smaller than what I was used to, but it sustains the very simple lifestyle that I’ve created here. I live pretty frugally. I don’t really buy much. I eat a lot of caught food and a lot of food harvested from my own backyard. I made the decision to go for it when I realized that I could sustain a lifestyle that I was willing to live.
How would you say your time in real estate development lends to your leadership skills today?
When you’re in real estate development, you have so many different moving parts. You’re managing a dozen different consultants and delegating what you need to – organizational skills are a necessity – having that ingrained translates into managing a large scale beach organization.
What are three tips that people can do on a daily basis that can help change the environment for the better?
The biggest one really is to stop using single use plastics. That’s a real easy one. The second one is stop drinking bottled water, especially in Hawaii. We have the cleanest drinking water in the United States, yet people are drinking millions of bottled water daily. It’s just not sustainable. Also, to recognize that you have tremendous power in how you spend your money. We live in a capitalistic society that’s controlled by supply and demand. If we’re not demanding, supply goes down, and we end up in a society that is sustainable. It will thrive, because we’re not draining its natural resources.
Third – trying to go clean up the oceans is like trying to go bail out a bathtub with the tap still running. It doesn’t solve the true underlying problem of the tap. For us, the tap is over consumption of plastics. Forty percent of all plastic is in totally useless packaging. What I would love to see is people focusing on stopping the tap: using less and realizing that we can’t only just go and clean up this trash.
Yes, what we do at Sustainable Coastlines is really large scale cleanups, but it’s more than a cleanup. It’s an experience that awakens the participants to what we’re finding – and that’s our stuff. We can’t just go clean up the oceans without stopping the tap.
What can a student do now to get started in the field of environmentalism?
I think the best way to get into it is to get out and enjoy it – spend time away from the TV. If you’re in Hawaii, why don’t you see how many peaks you can climb? Go exploring. We have a bunch of cool reefs and caves. It’s unreal to get out into nature. Then the stewardship will follow along once you’re out there – bring a bag with you and pick some shit up. Do that, too.
What does it take to be successful in your field?
The really successful people in our field of conservation all began in business. We all started in a corporate structure that gave us the work ethic and understanding of how to work with industry and government. We all came from somewhere else that taught us the little intricacies. I have people who want to work with us and they don’t even know what Excel is. I don’t want kids to think they can jump into this “awesome life of cleaning beaches” or anything within the preservation or environmentalist without first understanding how to be a worker.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting Sustainable Coastlines to the point of being sustainable even if I’m not around. I’m also trying to create, build, and keep my eye out for opportunities in the field that could end up becoming a for profit. I’d really like to create a B Corps. I’d love to start another business at some point.
What do you think about when you wake up in the morning?
I have a child, so I always wake up thinking about her. If it’s work related, I’m thinking, “What upcoming events and permits do we need? Where do I need to go chase money today?” Those type of questions. It’s similar to when I was working in real estate, because it’s about what you’re going to get done. Spiritually, it’s a lot more fulfilling. Not monetarily, but you can’t take all that money with you.
Is there anything else you’d like our audience to know?
We didn’t have this when I was growing up – kids who are going to get to use RISEHI as a resource are so lucky. To get the broader exposure of other leaders in the community, that was pretty unheard of. Listen, I came from a pretty good education, I didn’t even know what a non-profit was until I got out of college. The current landscape that RISEHI is creating and the overall presence of non-profits in our society is really lending itself to kids being exposed to what it means to do good for the community.