Rose Wong grew up in a home with twelve siblings. She passed the time by making jewelry in her garage, which started her half-million dollar business empire. She just turned old enough to drink.
In a sea of Honolulu’s elite, Rose Wong stood out. At the country club gala she attended in 2019, she was a lot darker than everyone, shorter and also a woman. But when she stepped on stage and accepted her award, her confidence glistened, giving us a glimpse at the new age of women in charge.
Wong is a serial-student entrepreneur from UH Manoa. She ran Kolohe, a jewelry and apparel brand she started in high school, balanced a college
workload and was President of the Hawaii Student Entrepreneurs (HSE), a UH Manoa organization that helps student businesses, when she was nominated. She was 20 at the time.
But still, she was never supposed to win that award.
The year Wong was crowned as the 2019 Student Entrepreneur of the Year by the Hawaii Venture Capital Association, women received just 2.7 percent of the total capital invested in venture-backed startups.
Her odds set the stage for a triumphant victory speech, but instead of boasting in her self-made glory, she made it about everyone else. She credited her mentors and other award recipients for inspiring her. The HSE organization for being a like-minded supporting cast. And her family, for being the first employees she “hired” and for providing the garage she originally made her jewelry in. She later named her speech “speak like a lady.”
The splash and noise she made in the business community created a ripple of opportunity for Wong. In the 2019 summer, Wong was offered a subsidized, two-month lease for a storefront at the Alohilani, a five-star resort in the heart of Waikiki.
Quickly accepting, Wong hit the ground running, still riding her unwavering momentum. She designed and installed all the infrastructure during one weekend. She developed a full-working staff within a few weeks. Then created an employee benefit package. That summer gig became her most profitable months as an entrepreneur.
At the end of her term, the hotel executives asked her to stay.
To close out the year, Wong relentlessly evolved the store’s function: She implemented jewelry making classes, experimented with different marketing campaigns and began drafting plans for a franchising venture; her goal now is to put additional Kolohe locations at hotels on the neighboring islands.
Wong says she eventually wants Kolohe to be a global franchise. She said her dream is opening a store in Australia— a long-shot goal for many businesses, but a destiny for the “little brown girl” that started out in her dad’s garage.
“Be the CEO of your life.”
By any metric, Wong is a successful entrepreneur. Her profits are closing in on half a million dollars and has the potential groundwork to satisfy any investor. But that hasn’t been her biggest measure of success, rather it’s the community of people she’s influenced.
“I’m really about using all the experience that I gain as a business owner to help other businesses,” Wong said. “I think that's where my passion truly lies.”
Wong started her mentorship career at HSE. At first, Wong would bring in speakers, provide workshops, put on pop-ups and host networking events. Then she began to receive invitations to collaborate and mentor different people around the country, expanding her network.
Wong extends her business eye with her ability to see the best in people. “I’m good at recognizing opportunities,” she said.
Like a venture capitalist, she invests her time and knowledge into the people she chooses to work with. Her individual approach to teaching and learning the technical skills of business, combined with her infectious demeanor has helped her build an impressive portfolio of CEO minded offspring.
Her network now boasts entrepreneurs, published journalists, photographers, developers, you name it— all making the absolute most of their moment to find a stage and “speak like a lady.”
(Written by Nathan Bek)