Ian Kitajima: From surfer to “sherpa”

“What are you doing here?”

That’s what Ian Kitajima (AA ’85 Windward, BBA ’89 Mānoa) remembers being asked by a few older high school classmates when he walked into his upper-division international finance course at UH Mānoa.

“I was not a good student in high school,” he explained. “I was always cutting class and going surfing.”

He sat in front of them that semester in the class of about 50 students. When the midterm had been graded, he’ll never forget the professor walking over to him and saying, “This is the curve in the class, and it’s a 98.”

He dropped the paper on Kitajima’s desk.

“Me, the flunky surfer guy!” Kitajima said. “That’s when I realized how much I had changed.”

Kitajima is director of corporate development and “technology sherpa” at Oceanit. For nearly two decades, he’s helped guide the Hawai‘i-based technology company that turns science into applied solutions for the world’s problems.

The firm employs 160 scientists, engineers, technologists and designers who conduct advanced research for government and private clients. He likens the work they do to Q’s famed R&D lab, which created futuristic inventions for James Bond.

Kitajima helps to manage projects and resources with Oceanit’s technical teams. He has a knack for connecting their people and projects with customers’ latent needs. So far he has co-founded three venture-backed startup companies through Oceanit: Hoana Medical, Nanopoint and Ibis Networks. He also serves as a company talent scout in an unconventional way.

“I look for the people we don’t know we need,” he said, explaining that he always keeps an eye out for good people, even beyond HR needs. “Oceanit lives in the future—we invent the future. So I’m actually looking ahead of that.”

But looking back, Kitajima thinks if you would have asked people right after high school if they thought he’d make it to where he is now, they would have said, “No, and I'm not going to invest any resources in helping that person.”

That is precisely the kind of student Kitajima wants to help in the future.

Despite his high school study habits, Kitajima was among the first in his family to go to college. He is a proud alumnus of Windward Community College and the UH Mānoa Shidler College of Business, where he double-majored in marketing and international business.

“It was an incredible experience. So that’s why I’m so grateful for it,” he said. “When you get older, you realize what people have done for you when you were younger. I was fortunate to get scholarships.”  

Kitajima and his wife intend to establish the Lianne and Ian Kitajima Endowed Scholarship through their estate plans. The fund will be available to Windward Community College students with a GPA of 2.0 or higher.

“A lot of times scholarships go to students who do well,” he said. “But it’s actually the students who are maybe the C students—who want to go to college, but may not get the opportunity to go because they don't have the resources, or because they didn’t prove that they were worthy in high school—who really need them.”

It’s important to Kitajima that this scholarship will be available to these students.

“Scholarships can make a difference for the students who finally go, ‘You know, I really am serious. Maybe I wasn't serious in high school, but I am serious now.”

He remembers being there. “I had no study skills. I had to work 10 times harder to get on track and do something,” which he did, making the most of that second chance he was given in life.

Because of his high school track record, he started out at Windward CC. It ended up being just the right place for him at that time. He said the small classes meant the professors were closer to students and really cared.

“I love Windward Community College! It was an amazing school,” Kitajima said. “It was challenging and rigorous. In my first week there, I studied more than I had studied in all of high school. They really, really prepared me.”

He went on to UH Mānoa, where he continued to grow. In fact, Kitajima calls his time at UH “transformative.”

“The lesson, at least for me, was, I was learning how to learn,” he said. “For five years, it was like being in a dojo. A place of practice, where I learned to have discipline, where I learned how to teach myself.”

He remembers great mentors like Dr. Morton Cotlar, then professor of management and industrial relations. “He was the most visionary and demanding business school professor there ever was,” Kitajima said. “Half the class would drop by the end of the first week.”

Cotlar made a big impact on him. “‘Be enthusiastic,’ he would say. ‘Just be that, when you come to my class.’ I later learned he was talking about life. That’s how I’ve lived my life—from that simple advice.”

In addition to his planned scholarship gift to help students, Kitajima shows his appreciation to UH by giving generously of his time. He serves as a virtual professional-in-residence through Shidler College’s Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship. He also sits on advisory boards for UH Mānoa’s Mechanical Engineering Department and Outreach College, and he serves on the UH Alumni Association board of directors and the Windward CC Ambassadors Council.

When he’s not helping around UH, he serves as a board member for PBS Hawaii, Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation, Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs, Jodo Mission of Hawaii and Design Thinking Hawaii, which he co-founded. He was recognized in 2015 by Hawaii Business Magazine for its 20 for the next 20 list.

Kitajima has come a long way and accomplished great things since his “flunkie surfer guy” days. He knows there will be students like him who, if given the chance, can do great things, too.

“I'm really proud that I went to UH. You make the experience yourself,” he said. “You can have a world-class education at the University of Hawai‘i.”

University of Hawai‘i Alumni