When Hawaiian Airlines chief financial officer (CFO) Shannon Okinaka was seven, her family packed up their Southern California home and moved across the Pacific to a road fronting her grandparents’ house in the small town of Hilo on Hawaiʻi Island. The transition was challenging; Okinaka had to make new friends in a tight-knit community and navigate the various cultural and linguistic nuances unique to Hawaiʻi.
“When I first moved here, I felt very different,” she recalled. “I had a tough time understanding teachers and neighbours who spoke pidgin (a dialect originating from Hawaiʻi’s plantation era). One time in elementary school, our teacher asked us to save our cartons from lunch and bring them the next day for an Easter project, but she pronounced it ‘cah-ton.’ I thought she said cotton, so I brought in a handful of cotton balls the next day. She wasn’t too happy about that.”
But over time, Okinaka came to embrace her new home on Hawaiʻi Island. Her mother got a job in the Hawaiʻi State Department of Human Services, and her father worked long hours as an electronics technician servicing various Mauna Kea telescopes. Okinaka recalled her father having to drive up the dormant volcano – which peaks at over 13,800 feet above sea level – and becoming a master of its once-dangerous roads.
“I loved driving Saddle Road with him. One day, we drove to Kona to meet my mom who was serving on jury duty, and my dad handed me the keys and said, ‘Why don’t you drive?’ Back then, Saddle Road was in horrible condition, but he knew where every pothole and every sharp or unmarked turn was, so we could drive fast and have fun,” she said. “He knew that road like the back of his hand.”
As Okinaka eased into new schools and the community, she discovered a love for and comfort in the consistency of numbers.
“I’m very left-brained and have always been interested in maths,” Okinaka said, adding that in addition to band, cheerleading and diving, she was once a winning mathlete. She reminisced on competition days with her team at Waiakea High School and when a teacher first opened her eyes to the possibility of attending a school like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“My math teacher told my dad I should consider applying to a university like MIT, which was big for me because that was the first time that I felt someone – besides my parents – believed I could really go far,” she said.
Despite the spark of confidence, Okinaka knew that attending a private school like MIT was out of her family’s financial reach. Instead, she accepted an invitation to attend the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UH Mānoa) Shidler College of Business – becoming the first in her family to graduate with a four-year degree. (Twenty-five years later, in recognition of her business leadership, Okinaka was inducted into the college’s prestigious alumni Hall of Honor.)
While at the UH Mānoa campus on Oʻahu, Okinaka dated a boy who got her interested in acting and community theatre. She befriended and performed under Lisa Matsumoto, a graduate student who wrote a series of iconic Hawaiʻi family plays and became someone Okinaka looked up to.
“Lisa had this amazing balance of left and right brain: she was amazingly organised, super creative and an incredible leader,” Okinaka shared. “We, including Lisa, were all a bunch of college kids who would goof around during rehearsal, but when she felt we needed to focus, she would be upfront with us and let us know. She showed me that, while having fun is important, your leadership responsibility trumps friendship if people aren’t doing what you need them to do to accomplish the greater goal. And her being honest with us and pushing us actually made our relationship with her stronger.”
“I’m not the smartest person, but I know who they are,” Okinaka said. “I see the disconnect, and it’s my job to fill that gap. My accomplishments as CFO are not mine – they are my team’s. Everyone on my team plays an important role, and I’m incredibly proud of all of them.”
Matsumoto was among many mentors in Okinaka’s life who, she believes, still play an integral role in how she leads her team at Hawaiian Airlines. “I had so many mentors, including Lisa, my teachers at Waiakea, my friends, my supervisors, etc. I can’t specifically pinpoint where my personal leadership style comes from, but I do know I observed different elements of those different people and decided what I liked and didn’t like for myself,” she explained.
Over the next two decades, Okinaka built an incredible career in Honolulu. She held various financial roles at Hawaiian Electric Co. and Coopers & Lybrand/PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she served Hawaiian Airlines as a client. “I had worked on the Hawaiian Airlines account since January 2005 and supported the company with Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) compliance since it was planning to emerge from bankruptcy in June 2005 as a public company,” she explained.
Okinaka later accepted a senior director role at Hawaiian Airlines in September 2005. In her first years on the job, she recalled, she worked through the remnants of the bankruptcy days, including a scarcity mentality that persisted throughout the company’s long journey toward rebuilding its balance sheet.
“There was hesitancy to purchase things like office supplies in those days. I remember saying we need electric staplers instead of manual staplers, but someone said, ‘oh no, no, we can’t afford that,’” Okinaka said. “People were still trying to make do and work with what they had, which wasn’t always necessary. I think that hurt us back then, and our leadership team had to work hard to tell people to speak up if they needed something and not to try and be a martyr for the company. The answer wasn’t always yes, but at least there was an understanding of a need.”
As Hawaiian Airlines eventually came to thrive, so did Okinaka. And she attributed much of her success at that time to supervisors who gave her flexibility to manage her work while caring for two young children with her husband.
“I feel super lucky I was hired at Hawaiian when I started having kids,” she said. “My supervisor Paul Kobayashi was the controller, and he was extremely flexible. He had young kids, and the accounting department was heavily female with young families, so he understood if I needed to leave early one day.”
Then in 2011, Hawaiian Airlines’ then-CFO Peter Ingram – now president and CEO – encouraged Okinaka to consider a new role as vice president and controller. However, the job wasn’t one she envisioned herself doing. “I thought it was a nerdy accountant role, and I am not a nerdy accountant. I like processes and systems, working with people and teams,” she said. “But Peter continued to push me and wanted me to go through the interview process.”
She got the job and held the position for four years before she was tapped again for a new role, this time by former president and CEO Mark Dunkerley, who wanted Okinaka to serve as CFO.
“I really didn’t think I was ready for the CFO role,” she remembers. “When Mark asked me if I had ever thought about it, I told him I wasn’t interested but could give him a list of names. But – like Peter – Mark persisted. He wanted someone in the CFO role that he was comfortable with and could trust. I was nervous that I would make one big, bad decision and have to look for a new job, but after some time learning the role, I became less nervous about it. It took me a while to figure out what Mark was seeing in me that made a fit, but I learned he wanted someone who could look at the company from a broader perspective.”
She added, “If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t have taken either the CFO or controller job if my leaders didn’t see something in me and push me into them.”
Seven years later, Okinaka has settled into her C-suite seat at the executive table.
“It took me a long time to get comfortable with myself,” she said. “Going back to my theatre days, I never believed I was a contributing member of the theatre group – I believed I was the girlfriend of one of the guys in the group, and I would sit in the back while he shined. I had to learn to accept myself and realise that I had a purpose there, too, and that I deserved to be there just as much as anyone else.”
Okinaka today believes her biggest strength at the company is bringing the right people together to get things done. For example, when asked about how she successfully navigated the unprecedented challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, she looked toward her team’s smart thinking and hard work.
“In looking at the bigger picture, I know that if our people feel appreciated and supported, they’ll do great work and deliver the high level of service our company is known for delivering. It all comes full circle.”
“I’m not the smartest person, but I know who they are,” she said. “I see the disconnect, and it’s my job to fill that gap. My accomplishments as CFO are not mine – they are my team’s. Everyone on my team plays an important role, and I’m incredibly proud of all of them.”
When asked what advice she would give someone trying to advance their career, she affirmed the value of understanding and knowing yourself and being a good listener. “People need to understand their strengths and weaknesses, learn to accept each other’s differences, and listen respectfully,” she said. “It only benefits the greater whole and makes us stronger.”
She added that while both men and women should support each other, women especially shouldn’t be afraid to speak up.
“I appreciate the strong female leaders I’ve worked with at Hawaiian Airlines,” Okinaka said. “Sometimes I didn’t always agree with what they said, but their willingness to speak out always amazed me, which helped me speak out too. I wasn’t always comfortable doing that, but I am now and know how to hold my seat at the table.”
When Okinaka isn’t overseeing Hawaiian Airlines’ finances, she’s supporting her now-teenage children and volunteering in the community. “I have two very wonderful and active children, and because of them, I don’t have many hobbies of my own. All my extra time goes to chauffeuring, watching soccer, baseball and basketball games, doing science fair projects and studying for tests,” she said.
Okinaka also serves on the board of directors of the Honolulu Japanese Chamber of Commerce, the State of Hawaiʻi Workforce Development Council, and is a co-chairperson for the executive leadership team for the American Heart Association – Hawaiʻi division. In 2016 Hawaii Business Magazine named Okinaka as one of 20 emerging leaders who have made major contributions to Hawaii and whom they expect to have an even greater impact over the next two decades.
Despite her many personal and professional responsibilities, Okinaka says she’ll never stop trying to be better and improve for her family and team. “I am constantly learning from the amazing people around me, and about myself, how to be a better leader for Hawaiian, Hawaiʻi and my family, how to be a better analyst/business thinker, etc,” Okinaka said.
“Ultimately, my job is removing obstacles so that those in my team can do their jobs well. So, every day I’m thinking about how I can better support the people around me. In looking at the bigger picture, I know that if our people feel appreciated and supported, they’ll do great work and deliver the high level of service our company is known for delivering. It all comes full circle.”