When HMSA board member Lisa Sakamoto (then Kunimune) started college at the University
of Hawai‘i at Manoa, her intention was to become a fashion designer. She’d
grown up in the textile industry (her grandfather, Kosajiro Kunimune, founded Kuni
Dry Goods). The F on her midterm in accounting, her first ever, seemed to undermine
But her professor, Fred Choi, promised to scratch the F if she got an A on her final
exam. And Choi was one of those rare teachers whose enthusiasm is infectious. “He
was one of the best professors I’ve ever had,” Sakamoto says. “He
made it fun and not drudgery. He got me hooked.”
In 1981, she graduated with a bachelor’s in business administration and started
working at Coopers & Lybrand, predecessor to PricewaterhouseCoopers. There she met
Keith Sakamoto, a handsome young accountant. The young couple married in 1983 and
moved to the East Coast to complete their master’s degrees.
“We took turns,” Lisa says. “I worked at Coopers & Lybrand
in Philadelphia while he attended the University of Pennsylvania. And then we moved
so I could get my MBA at New York University while still working at Coopers &
Lybrand in New York City.”
NYU is in Manhattan, near the World Trade Center and Wall Street. In addition to
studying and working, the Sakamotos enjoyed Broadway plays and dining out. But New
York isn’t all bright lights and gaiety. “There’re some hard-core
people there,” Lisa says. “It was a city of extremes, from the haves
and the have nots. It can be stressful.”
They moved briefly to Summit, N.J., where Sakamoto worked for Prudential Capital
in Newark, then returned to Hawai‘i to start a family (sons Jeffrey and John
are 16 and 13).
“It was hard, initially,” Sakamoto says. “We came back in 1989
during the bubble. Real estate prices were a shock.”
That year, Sakamoto accepted a position with Hawaiian Electric Industries, Inc.
A few years later, she was asked to help manage Hawaiian Tug & Barge/Young Brothers.
After some initial uncertainty, she embraced her new responsibilities with gusto.
“In addition to finance and accounting, I got to do some lobbying, learn how
a company is run, and serve the community.”
But in 2005, Hawaiian Tug & Barge/Young Brothers was sold, and Sakamoto found
herself ready for a change. It came in the form of a new job as vice president of
finance. “When the opportunity at Catholic Charities came, I couldn’t say no,”
she says. It was a return to what was once an important part of her life. She and
her sister had attended Catholic schools through high school at their father’s
“He was a devout Catholic and very involved with St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic
society that helps the poor and vulnerable,” she says. Sakamoto remembers
sometimes helping her father load furniture into vans. But she never knew what it
was for until the day she asked a co-worker if she knew anyone who could help a
destitute woman. “She gave me a scrap of paper with a name and number on it,”
she says. “It was my dad’s.”
The offer from Catholic Charities answered a persistent doubt. “I never understood
what was gnawing at me all those years,” she says. “I did the whole
fast-paced, MBA thing, but something gnawed at me.” Working at an organization
whose mission is helping the poor and vulnerable makes her heart sing, she says.
“Sometimes you don’t know who touches you, or who you touch, until later
She brings the same enthusiasm to her position on HMSA’s board of directors.
Appointed last May, she is more learner than expert, she says. “I’m
very proud to be a part of it. Hopefully, I can help bridge business and community