Related: Save the Dates: Festival of Ideas + Alumni Week
By Robyn Fukumoto ’05
They say the true test of character comes during times of crisis. Over the past year I was lucky enough to experience Punahou’s true character first hand. As my sunscreen start-up met its first true test during COVID-19, unexpected help from fellow alumni and path-setting luminaries became the community that helped us thrive.
Lani & Kai, my sustainable sunscreen line, had been a year in the making. After working in private equity and observing the plush margins and undifferentiated formulas of chemical sunscreen manufacturers, my co-founder and I saw an opportunity to reshape an industry. Inspired by Hawai’i’s pioneering 2021 chemical sunscreen regulation, which banned two of the most potent reef-and-human-harming chemicals – oxybenzone and octinoxate – we realized there was more than enough runway to formulate a quality reef-safe product at the standards of top brands.
We developed a zinc-based, clean mineral formula and fought for FDA certification. We borrowed from baby foods and created a resealable soft pack that eliminated 60% of non-recyclable plastics from traditional sunscreen bottles. Our sunscreen is travel-sized, safe for Hawai’i’s reefs, and after many rounds, finally created a silky matte formula. We were well on our way towards a spring 2020 launch, focused on reef and eco-friendly tourism. Then COVID-19 hit. With our big launch plans on hold and day jobs migrating to remote working, I made it home with very little in the way of a plan.
As I slowly reacquainted myself with life on the Island, I rekindled bonds with the Punahou family. An Instagram tag led to a conversation with a classmate, a mention in a holiday newsletter led to an outpouring of support, and before I knew it, I was staring down an order in my inbox from Steve Case. After I got over the absolute bewilderment of having my hero buy our sunscreen, I wrote a letter. I thanked him for paving the way to sustainable innovation, for being the standard I would hold myself against throughout college and beyond, and told him that his purchase made my entire year.
They say lightning never strikes twice, but a month later, he wrote me back. He told me he tried my sunscreen and shared the work he was doing with Punahou to bring start-up innovation and education to the students. Through that email, I connected with Mark Loughridge, director of the School’s Case Accelerator for Student Entrepreneurship (CASE). Within the first 20 minutes of knowing him, my head was spinning with ideas for Lani & Kai, serious envy over the highly impressive programming he is running, and a slot in what is going to be an absolutely fabulous Festival of Ideas the School is planning.
Each day has a theme: Building Bold Futures, Innovation in Education, Sustainability. On Wednesday, June 9, Lani & Kai will be guest sustainable entrepreneurs hosting an innovation workshop teaming up with Hawaiian conservationist and scent expert, Moani Hibbard. Participants will step through the stages of entrepreneurship from product R&D – mixing scents and pigments to create new lines, all the way through to business differentiation – developing and delivering a pitch highlighting how their solution will drive sustainability in market.
Moving home and reconnecting with my Punahou roots has introduced me to a network of individuals whose accomplishments, generosity and care for our Island is stunning. I am humbled with this opportunity to give back to a community that has not only bolstered my business, but also my sense of purpose. I greatly look forward to seeing all of my fellow and future alumni in June!