Women discuss ups and downs of running a business

Mylen Fe Yamamoto introduces herself and her sustainable bamboo chopsticks to the audience Friday at King Kamehameha Golf Club. She was taking part in a panel discussion, “A Woman’s Place Is . . . ,” that was organized by the Maui Business Brainstormers. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAIKAPU — Melanie Marrero, co-owner of award-winning Maui Brewing Co., has enjoyed a good deal of success in the business world, but that has come with tackling some of its harsh realities, including letting go of employees.

It’s hard “to say goodbye to staff, when you know you are affecting their lives,” she told a group of 50, mostly female, audience members during a panel discussion Friday at the King Kamehameha Golf Club.

The decisive moment came at a “very early point in time” of her and her husband’s business, which started in 2005, she said. She had to sit down and think about what she was doing.

And she told herself: “If I can’t do that, I can’t be a business owner.”

“It’s difficult,” Marrero said during “A Woman’s Place Is . . . “ — a panel discussion featuring female business owners and leaders from across the state organized by the Maui Business Brainstormers. The event was held in conjunction with American Business Women’s Day, a nationally recognized day to honor and reflect on the contributions of women business owners and working women in the United States.

Maui Brewing Co. co-owner Melanie Marrero (with microphone) shares insights into her career and business Friday at King Kamehameha Golf Club. She was taking part in a panel discussion, “A Woman’s Place Is . . . ,” that was organized by the Maui Business Brainstormers. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Marrero and her husband and business partner, Garrett, were honored earlier this year as the national Small Business Persons of the year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Maui Brewing Co. began as a seven-barrel brewpub in Kahana with SBA financing. Now, it’s based in Kihei and is the state’s largest craft beer producer.

She said she has enjoyed making craft beer more widely known.

“We really changed, I think, the way people on the island and the state looked at what is craft beer,” Marrero said.

Her “biggest pleasure” is seeing “the enjoyment of people” who come into the brewpubs and take photos of chalkboard beer menus.

“It brings me joy,” she said.

Moderator Jay April asked Marrero about the most important lesson she’s learned in business. She said that she couldn’t pick one. As business owners, she and her husband are “learning lessons every day.”

“You have to be constantly evaluating how you can be better,” she said.

April asked panelists about experiencing any challenges of being a woman doing business in Hawaii.

Debbie Finkiewicz, president of Maui Closet Co. in Kahului, said she has “been blessed” that she has been respected in her field, even if she sometimes works in a more male-dominated business where hard hats and boots are the norm.

She noted that she had to get a contractor’s license for her business and was the only female in the class.

Finkiewicz said that since she has been installing and working with cabinetry and other home fixtures, her knowledge of the business and the installation work is like “common sense” to her.

So when she points out that something may just be a 16th of an inch off, her current installation staff members — who are all males — “are pretty shocked I can do that.”

Mylen Fe Yamamoto, who invented Cropsticks (bamboo chopsticks with a built-in rest), said that while she’s mostly been accepted as a business owner, there was an experience that caught her off guard.

She and a male colleague were at a trade show, scrambling for packing material after the show was done. The colleague went to look for the material and said someone would provide it but there would be a charge. Then Yamamoto went out to look for material and managed to get some for free.

The colleague told her, “You’re a pretty girl, that’s why you could get it for free.”

“That shocked me,” Yamamoto recalled.

She turned it into a “teaching moment” for the colleague who learned that gender actually did not play a role in obtaining the free materials.

Yamamoto, who was born and raised on Oahu and splits time between Oahu and Los Angeles, has a talent management company, CliqueNow. Her line of eco-friendly chopsticks was featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” On the program, aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to investors, but Yamamoto didn’t get a deal.

As for giving advice to a woman wanting to have her own business, Judy Capertina of Haole Girl Island Sweets on Kauai said, “You have to love what you do.”

“You cannot walk into being a business owner with the mindset, it’s a job. It’s not, it’s your life,” she said.

Capertina, who helped open the Grand Wailea on Maui as a chocolatier, has worked at various hotels across the nation and has been featured on the Food Network.

She said that an aspiring entrepreneur should find a mentor or someone who is the best in the business and work under his or her tutelage.

“You suck them dry with every information you can get,” she said.

A second panel of businesswomen also was featured. Panelists include Gladys Coelho Baisa, a former Maui County Council member and a former executive director at Maui Economic Opportunity; Diane Haynes Woodburn, publisher of Maui No Ka ‘Oi magazine; Susie Thieman, executive director of Lokahi Pacific on Maui; and Leslie Malulani Shizue Miki of Abundant Life Natural Foods of Hawaii island.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.