Colleen Yasuhara was the youngest of eight children.
Then she was the youngest of nine.
“It’s complicated,” she says.
. . .
As the VP of Product Development at Hawaii Information Service, Colleen often leads the charge when it comes to improving products and services, and she’s constantly coming up with new ideas and new opportunities to pursue.
“I wake up at 2 a.m. thinking about work, it’s crazy,” she says. “And then I have to wait until I know someone else is awake so I can talk it through.”
She also serves as the right-hand woman to CEO Faith Geronimo, their professional collaboration and friendship stretching back years before they landed at HIS. As Faith sets the direction and values of the company, Colleen is usually the first to step up to implement them.
Colleen is the designated tour guide for visitors to the office. From organizing potlucks and donation drives to decorating the company’s new office, she’s determined to make the workplace feel like home, and making her coworkers feel like a family.
And the HIS family, the motley crew that it may be, is blissfully simple compared to Colleen’s family.
. . .
On her dad’s side, Colleen is a third-generation Japanese American, her paternal grandparents coming to Hawaii from Japan. Her dad joined the military, and met Colleen’s mother while he was stationed in Spokane, Washington.
“We were a military family, so we moved around a lot, and kids were born all over the place,” Colleen says. “Spokane, Louisiana, Michigan, Japan, and Hawaii.”
By the time Colleen arrived at Kapiolani Medical Center, she had seven older brothers and sisters. It was a very full house… but unfortunately, that house eventually fell apart.
“We started out together in Kaimuki, then moved to a home on Matzie Lane near Palama Settlement,” she recalls. “Then two by two we were placed in separate homes, and it would be more than 30 before we were all united.”
Colleen’s first foster family took her in when she was just a year-and-a half. While she was a hapa kid, she was raised in a Filipino-Hawaiian home in Waianae. And while her foster grandfather lived only to see her sixth birthday, Colleen credits him for giving her the strong foundation she would use to survive the years ahead.
“His name was Thomas Brioso, and I’m told that I was the apple of his eye,” Colleen says. “We were buddies and inseparable.”
She would spend hours with him in his huge, immaculate yard with every fruit tree imaginable, tending to rows upon rows of anthuriums, plumerias and white ginger. In fact, when he passed, the family relied on young Colleen to instruct them on how to water all the plants. Colleen traces her love of flowers back to him, as well as her love of books. Most of all, she says he changed her life for good, shaping her sense of fairness and her inner strength.
“Once grandpa was gone all hell broke loose.” she says. “But while my protector was gone, my willpower to fight never left.”
Colleen soon found herself bouncing between homes all over the island, and as a result, between schools as well. She lost count around her sixth move, and says she never felt like she belonged anywhere.
“More than a couple of times in high school, I missed so many classes the teachers didn’t recognize me,” she says. “But I wasn’t a bad kid — no drugs, no jail.”
Even so, things got even more complicated when she got pregnant in her senior year.
She switched to afterschool and evening classes, and visited a teen intervention program at Kapiolani Hospital. There, was quickly recruited, joining the team as a peer counselor. She worked with several social workers, visiting teen parents, giving hospital tours, and showing videos about childbearing and childrearing.
“I ended up staying there for four years, and I enjoyed helping others,” she says. “And they helped me, too… it was a healing place.”
That teen program was where she met the first of a cherished few mentors.
“Her name was Ramona Chow, and I still remember what she said to me,” Colleen says. “She said, ‘All of that is behind you, and you have control over your own life, now.’”
“That’s when I realized that I did have control, and I was lucky to come to my senses while I was still young,” she adds. “I decided that all the decisions about my life were going to be mine.”
Her first decision? She wasn’t going to settle for a GED. She worked with a tutor, went back to school, took one last English class, and got her high school diploma.
“I never picked up my yearbook, and although I got a cap and gown, I didn’t go to the graduation ceremony,” Colleen says. “I was out of there.”
(She eventually did get her yearbook over 10 years later, when she returned to sell and place equipment in the school library. They had one extra copy for her, after all those years.)
. . .
From then on, there was no stopping her.
She got a job at First Interstate Bank as a receptionist. But after learning that her pay was the same as that of the parking lot attendant, she talked a VP into giving her a chance in customer service. And when her days there weren’t interesting enough, she talked her way into working the teller line as well.
“This was at the Dillingham Transportation Building, and I loved it back then, when women and men still wore suits,” she recalls. “I enjoyed handling cash, I was fast at 10 key, and my drawer always balanced.”
Still, Colleen knew she didn’t want to get promoted into loans or mortgages. So she followed a fellow teller to a short stint at an ocean salvage company. From there, she followed her foster aunt to a job at Mutual Distributors, a company that brought in all kinds of goods to sell at retail outlets like Pay & Save.
“It was my job to fight for space in the stores, and I was handling automotive supplies, and back then stores had more than one aisle dedicated to automotive stuff,” she explains.
“One time I had to do a reset, taking over an empty aisle, and because I didn’t know anything about cars, I just put everything up so that it looked nice — hundreds of items organized by size and shape and color,” Colleen laughs. “After spending the whole day on it, a coworker said I had to re-do the whole thing.”
It wasn’t long before her curiosity and drive led to her into the world of manufacturer’s representatives, the people that promoted products to store managers. She linked up with Castrol Motor Oil, and her first mission was to convince the world that synthetic oil was just as good as regular oil.
“I went to every dealership in town, and some were very friendly, but nobody bought any because it was so new,” Colleen says.
But one of the prospects on her list was the Long’s Drugs store in Pearl City, which she knew pretty well, so she tracked down the automotive buyer for the region. And instead of simply pitching the new product, she also asked that the synthetic oil be placed on the “end cap” (prime real estate in a store) and featured in the newspaper circular.
“At first he said they couldn’t do it, that they’d never positioned anything more expensive than $0.99 on an end cap,” Colleen recalls. “But he said he was going to give me a chance, and gave me an end cap and ordered synthetic motor oil for every store on the island.”
But when containers of the product came in, the enormity of the risk became crystal clear. The automotive manager took her to see the massive pallets of thousands of bottles of Castrol Syntec, a product no one had ever heard of.
“He was livid, asking, ‘How am I going to sell all of that?’” Colleen says. “It seemed like the odds were definitely against us.”
But the inventory moved, no product was sent back, and today, Colleen enjoys some satisfaction that everyone knows about and often buys Castrol Syntec.
Despite her success, Colleen knew her prospects for advancement were limited. She sought out headhunters to help her find her next job.
“The first headhunter pretty much laughed me out of the office,” Colleen says. “I was pissed off, but I didn’t quit, and headed to the next one.”
This time, the headhunter was much more compassionate, helping to rewrite Colleen’s resume on the spot, and giving her advice.
“She had just gotten through telling me that the only way I can make the money I wanted to make was by working in sales,” Colleen says. “Then her phone rang, and it was HBE (Hawaii Business Equipment) on the other end.”
Colleen would go on to work at HBE for 10 years.
“That’s where I learned how to sell,” she says. “They had me selling Risograph machines and my target market was the Department of Education — the last territory I wanted.”
But she committed herself to the task, driving everywhere on the island, visiting every school, and coloring in school districts on a paper map as she went along. Eventually she had cornered the education market, and moved on to selling schools their second and third machines.
HBE was also where Colleen met Faith two decades ago. When Faith came to HIS a few years later, she told the management at the time to let her know when they were ready to hire a great salesperson. The company eventually found a spot for Colleen as a second salesperson to focus on the TMK service.
“Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to like having a cubicle and working in an office, because I had been working independently for years,” she says. “When I got the job, I told myself it was going to be a temp job.”
That was seven years ago.
“Back then I had to learn our TMK product line on the fly, and I was on the phone all day, giving demos to customers,” she says. “As I used our system more, I saw more uses for it, and found new customers.”
Colleen was soon bringing in record TMK numbers, and as she started to get more ideas for new products and services, she got more comfortable with technology and working with designers and developers to flesh them out.
“A lot of my job involves technology, and when I started I had no clue about technology,” she says. “Now I love technology. I love learning new things, and once I know it well I can think outside the box.”
She says that she’s stayed at HIS because she’s always challenged, and always learning. And after working in sales around Honolulu and even on the mainland, she loves the customers she has today.
“I love the neighbor islands, and the people there, they still say ‘aloha’ on the phone,” she says. “I like working for them, and I am motivated to work with them and help them, finding ways that everyone can benefit.”
Colleen has definitely come a long way from her early life in Waianae. She bought a townhouse that gave her a sanctuary. She went back to school to get her college degree. And the baby she had as a teenager is now a co-worker, doing design work a few desks away.
“When I had Travis, that’s when I knew for sure that miracles exist,” she says, a very proud mother.
“It has been a huge shift. For me the question used to be, ‘How can I do more with my life?’” she says. “Now I’m always looking for ways to help other people, to give back to the community.”
Indeed, Colleen is often the driving force behind the community service projects the company undertakes. From rallying the staff to decorate tabletop Christmas trees for an elderly home to organizing donation drives for the Institute for Human Services.
. . .
As for her other family?
Colleen and her siblings only discovered a couple of years ago that they had another long-lost brother, who ultimately filled in a conspicuous gap in the years between everyone else’s birthdays.
“One of the biggest life-long goals I’ve always had is doing what I can to keep the family together by bringing us together,” she says.
And last year, Colleen did just that, pulling off the logistically challenging task of reuniting her family once again, this time for the holidays. It would be the first time these nine brothers and sisters, now in their 40s and 50s, would spend a Christmas together.
It’s clear why, whether for her relatives or her coworkers and friends, Colleen is usually the person that people look to for direction and to make things happen.
“I love creating and thinking about possibilities,” she says. “There’s always going to be a way where everyone can win.”