It’s early morning on a workday, and commuters still throng the roads in Honolulu’s bustling industrial airport district. Blue collar and corporate workers alike scuttle between warehouses, trying to get out of the pouring rain. It’s all thriving, capitalistic energy, the beating heart of the island’s economy, with all its unstoppable arteries.
Step into Hawaiian Airlines headquarters, a massive building on a side street off Nimitz Highway, however, and all is calm and quiet. That is, until Jill Tokunaga bounds into the waiting room, a ball of energy and enthusiasm. Hawaiian Airlines’ passionate senior director of U.S. sales and community relations is in disbelief at what the her team has managed to do, both at home and abroad, for their employees and guests. The company’s success, she says, comes down to one thing: people.
“It’s about developing an amazing community,” Tokunaga says. “You surround yourself with tremendous souls who compliment each other with their unique skill sets, background and culture.” Tokunaga works with the better part of 1,000 employees at Hawaiian Airlines headquarters, which the rapidly expanding company—last year alone they hired almost 1,000 employees worldwide—is quickly starting to outgrow. There, she works with folks from all backgrounds, from French to Japanese to locals like herself, who grew up in small-town Hilo. “You can’t get more homegrown than that,” she says with a laugh.
Tokunaga’s team is the muscle in the machine that works to sell business accounts, fill the planes and get the company’s vendors and industry partners to sell Hawaiian. It’s a massive team effort that speaks to the efforts of all its diverse workers. “I’m just quarterbacking,” Tokunaga says. “Everyone has a role.”
“It’s about developing an amazing community. You surround yourself with tremendous souls who compliment each other with their unique skill sets, background and culture.”
A huge part of that role is understanding people and culture, she explains. “If you don’t temporarily put yourself in the shoes of your passengers, you don’t know what they want or why they choose Hawaiian over everyone else,” Tokunaga says. “You got to know your product. You’ve got to know where your destinations are. Understand it, live it, feel it.” Employees are encouraged to travel the routes and visit the destinations, blurring the line between work and play.
Tokunaga’s people-centric philosophy doesn’t only work on an outbound basis. Bringing people to the islands is a major part of the business, and one of her favorite projects involves collaborating with the Department of Education and Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism to share our unique island culture with the world. They’ve already partnered with groups in Beijing, sending local students to China and bringing Chinese students to Hawai‘i. “Edu-tourism—bringing students to Hawai‘i from the outside in,” Tokunaga says. “Hawai‘i is super diverse in culture. It’s amazing how much we can teach each other.”
Again, Tokunaga goes back to people: bringing together the Hawai‘i community, our international neighbors, even the company’s own ‘ohana of workers. “You can see the tenure in this organization, people who have been here for over 50 years,” Tokunaga says. “But we all have one thing in common, and that is we believe in the organization and product. We all feel a sense of responsibility and obligation.”
That means doing everything to contribute to its success: working hard but also playing hard, doing meaningful work for the community, maintaining a company culture that respects personal time and vacations, and giving your crew the space to nurture their other team—their family. “I get it,” she says. “I have two daughters: 11 and 15 going on 25. Things happen. That level of empathy runs pretty strong in the organization.”
Whatever team Tokunaga is quarterbacking for at the moment, the possibilities are endless when you have top-notch people coming together in a group effort and with enthusiasm like hers. “I can honestly say I love my job,” she declares. “I love being here and working with the people I work with.”