Coleen Kaneshiro: ‘I wanted to slow down, and I did. The experience gave me time to reflect on where I was in my career and where I wanted to go.’
Like many born and raised on Oahu, Aloha Air Cargo Director of Employee Services Coleen Kaneshiro remembers making leis as a child.
“A lot of us grew up picking plumerias to make leis for May Day or graduation,” said Kaneshiro, who now works as Director of Employee Services for Aloha Air Cargo. “I remember picking flowers for graduation with my family and sitting in the garage talking story and sewing leis. We would go well into the night, and our fingers would be sticky from the flowers. Our refrigerator would be full of leis—the fragrance enveloping the air around us. I often joke that when I retire, I’ll rent a stand at the airport and sell leis. I enjoy crafts that take time.
“It’s the journey for me.”
Kaneshiro began her career at Aloha a little more than 10 years ago when she was hired as an Executive Assistant. In 2019, after seven years with Aloha, Coleen Kaneshiro left the airline. She returned three months later.
“Speaking of journeys, I think I needed to do it to help put things in perspective. For me, it wasn’t that I thought the grass was greener. I thought I wanted to slow down, and I did. The experience gave me time to reflect on where I was in my career and where I wanted to go.
Kaneshiro stepped into a role as an HR Manager for a much smaller company. From managing more than 450 employees across Hawaii at Aloha, she went down to 65, though she stayed on at Aloha as a consultant until her replacement was found. That day never came.
“Although my workload dropped dramatically at Aloha, I still put in about 20 hours a week, and it helped to keep me in the loop with everything that was going on,” she explained. “One of the reasons I returned was that there were some exciting changes in leadership and structure happening, and I wanted to be a part of it. Some people don’t like change, but I like the potential it brings.”
Welcome to Aloha
Kaneshiro describes herself as a “latchkey kid,” one of five siblings and numerous cousins who lived in the same neighborhood, often looked after by one of her aunts.
“I think there must have been 20 of us, ranging in age from elementary to high school. One of my aunts used to help watch a lot of the cousins in her small apartment in Waipahu. It was crowded, and we learned to get along and compromise. We grew up not knowing the luxuries of technology and had to learn early on how to take care of the house and ourselves. My parents raised us to work hard and do a good job the first time. They also taught us to speak up and stand up for what we believe in and that there is a time and place for everything.”
She grew up wanting to become an entomologist.
“I always had this fascination with insects—tiny little creatures that worked together to accomplish big things.”
But her first job was in banking in the item processing department doing data entry.
“We encoded information on the microline of the checks so it could be run through a sorting machine to be read and processed. Since I was a night owl at the time, I loved that I was able to work the night shift.”
Kaneshiro joined Aloha in 2012. She wasn’t looking for work when a former co-worker recruited her.
“I don’t think I ever did any serious HR work before coming to Aloha, but all my prior positions involved HR—whether I was aware of it or not. (My former co-worker) called and told me there was a position at her company she thought I would be a good fit for. I was hesitant to step down from managing an office, but she mentioned there was a lot of opportunity and growth.”
Kaneshiro applied for and landed the job and said she worked hard for the next few years through a restructuring that led to her overseeing the HR department.
“I worked hard, stayed humble, and had a great mentor,” she said. “What I like most about my job now is the impact I make with the people I work with. Human Resources is such a broad field to be in. It’s constantly changing and evolving. There are so many areas to master, and every situation is unique. It may sound daunting to some, but I love every part of it.”
Kaneshiro’s greatest challenge was returning to school to finish her bachelor’s degree.
“Making that decision later in life can be intimidating, but I had personal goals I wanted to accomplish for myself. There are fears and hesitations but taking advantage of what the company has to offer in terms of education benefits really helped financially, and I got it done. I’m the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, and it’s such a sense of accomplishment that is unlike anything else.”
Kaneshiro said she’s most proud of her children.
“We have a good relationship, and I enjoy seeing them grow. Kids are resilient and have their whole lives ahead of them. I think I sometimes live vicariously through them in some of their experiences, but the world is so different now. I am amazed at how much they have adapted and how different it is from when I grew up.”
She said the months she spent away from Aloha changed how she approached things when she returned.
“I kept in touch with employees, and they were not hesitant in continuing to contact me for questions and help. That was one of the things that brought me back. It was the people and seeing what an impact I had made on them. Everything was the same except for my perspective and how I approached things. I use it to connect with other employees who are at a frustrating point in their career since I actually lived through it, I’m sure there is more credibility to what I have to share because of that.”
Kaneshiro expects Aloha to continue growing during the next few years. She said she already sees a shift to secure the company’s growth and solidify its position in the industry.
“The pandemic impacted our workforce, so from an HR perspective, we will need to look closely at our people and redefine what makes a company the place people want to be. In the next 10 years, we’ll hopefully have expanded our locations. I also see some aging of the workforce and a shift in demographics for us. We will need to make sure to perpetuate the legacy knowledge from some of our current employees.”
Ten years from now, Kaneshiro said she expects to still work for Aloha Air Cargo—especially if there continue to be people she can help.
“I’m a pretty simple person. I love to see people succeed and grow. You know when you see someone successful or moving up in life, and you say, I was a part of that? I helped to influence that person. For me, that is fulfilling. I think my philosophy revolves around optimism, not so much where you live in a bubble, but more thinking there are always possibilities. In Hawaii, we say, ‘If can, can, if no can, no can.’”