a woman for women: sherri okinaga

Lynn Shizumura
March 08, 2019

Sherri Okinaga, a vice president and talent development manager for First Hawaiian Bank, believes that great plans can come from chance encounters. 

After all, a leadership program she helped develop got its start on a flight to Seattle.

On the flight, Okinaga was seated next to another woman executive and friend who needed help getting the program off the ground. The women joined forces and helped to start the Patsy T. Mink Leadership Alliance, a 10-month program for local women who want to grow their management and leadership skills.

The goal? To help them overcome barriers they may face in the workplace. Although women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, they’re often paid less than their male counterparts and are less represented in management and executive roles. Women also report having limited access to mentoring opportunities from women in senior leadership roles.

The program brings in women executives to teach courses on topics like negotiation, strategic thinking, innovation, and leading change. 

Okinaga is one of those executives and was instrumental in developing the program’s curriculum. Now in its fourth year, 56 women have graduated from the program with 25 percent of them reporting a job promotion or change since. 

The program helps women gain confidence and find supportive mentors. “Many women who lack role models struggle in the crossfire of what it takes to be a leader,” Okinaga says. “They have the skills but need the courage to step up and into the unknown.”

Sherri Okinaga speaks to women in the Mink leadership program. Photos by the Patsy T. Mink Center for Business & Leadership.

Okinaga’s interest in equal opportunity for women started as a student at ‘Iolani School. As one of the first girls to attend the school after it went co-ed, she didn’t face discrimination, but still had to hold her own at the previously all-boys school. She was also on the girls’ basketball and volleyball teams, which taught her how to lead and collaborate with her peers.

After high school, Okinaga went to the University of Hawaii and started her career selling computers for IBM. Since the job didn’t feed her soul, she was inspired to find one that did. “It’s really about where you can add the most value and contribute in a way that gives you energy,” she says. “If you work in your space of talent and natural gifts, five hours seems like five minutes and you can keep doing more.”

As the force behind First Hawaiian Bank’s various leadership development programs, Okinaga helps people find and strengthen their talents at work, too. “It’s her super power,” says Terri Funakoshi, director of the Mink Center for Business & Leadership. 

To learn more about YWCA Oahu’s Patsy T. Mink Leadership Alliance, go to mcblhawaii.org.

Remembering Patsy T. Mink

You may remember Patsy T. Mink as the first woman of color elected to Congress and a champion of equal rights for women. But did you know that she also ran for president of the United States? In fact, she was the first Asian American woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Although she didn’t win, the decision was symbolic.  

Mink got into politics because she wanted to open doors for women. A Maui High School valedictorian and class president, she couldn’t get into the medical schools she applied to because of her gender. She went to law school on the Mainland instead, returned to Hawaii to practice law, and found barriers to employment at home. She went into politics shortly after and the rest is history. Today, we honor her as a trailblazer and key author of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination in educational programs and activities.

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The theme of this year’s campaign is #BalanceforBetter, which challenges people to support a more gender-balanced world.

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