Say Aloha to Lua

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Michael Keoni DeFranco was born and raised in Northern Virginia but spent his childhood summers on the Hawaiian islands of Moloka’i and Big Island with his mother’s family -- people that have called Hawaii home since the first migrations between 200AD and 1100AD.

When he was a teenager, his great-grandmother moved from Moloka’i to Virginia and opened his eyes to the depth of his Hawaiian roots, culture, and the role of his people as caregivers to their land.

We sat down with Michael to learn more about his connection to his ancestry and how he is working to bring Hawaiian culture into the mainstream business world through his enterprise mobile messaging company, Lua.

Did you ever feel uncomfortable fitting in as a Hawaiian kid in Virginia?

Definitely. I was in third grade and we were going around the room, sharing where we came from and I said, “my mother’s family is Hawaiian and I’m a native Hawaiian.”  Kids … didn't understand that we are Polynesian and that we have our own language, culture, way of life and belief system. The history books [do a poor job] describing how Hawaii became a state. My grandmother wasn’t allowed to speak the Hawaiian language in public as a child. She was told to forget about the Hawaiian culture in order to become American.

When did you begin to realize the importance of your roots?

When my great-grandmother moved from Moloka’i to Virginia when I was in seventh grade. She was sick and spent the last four-to-five years of her life with us. She instilled the idea of Hawaiian preservation and revitalization in me. There’s a Hawaiian word called “kuleana” which means “your responsibility or why you’re here … what is required of you as a person.”    

What does being Hawaiian mean to you?

Hawaii was discovered by voyagers sailing from Tahiti and Samoa using the stars to navigate the ocean while following sharks. They discovered and settled Hawaii. We are not indigenous to that land, and we honor this with our belief system: ali'i ka 'aina; he kauwa ke kanaka, which means “the land is a chief; man is its servant.”  This distinction makes Hawaiians very proud that we found this place and made it our home; our own paradise. Our belief system shows we’re connected to the trees, the land and the animals. We are all interconnected. We respect nature because we are connected to it. The Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) care for the land as if it was their own blood.

But today, Native Hawaiians are the only indigenous population in the United States that does not have self-government. The US Department of the Interior (DOI) has proposed elections, Na’i Aupuni, for the Native Hawaiian population to address these issues but the structure is being protested. It doesn’t fully honor the Hawaiian culture and our rights to our lands, but it is causing the people are come closer together than ever before. It’s a bit of a Hawaiian cultural renaissance.

Tell us about one of your favorite traditions growing up?

The entire process of the lua’u; The homecoming, the imu [underground oven] process, bringing in the boar and digging a hole and burying it, cooking it overnight, and then eating it. It’s a three-day process. As you grow older, you see how involved and intensive it is and learn about the ancient tradition that’s been passed down orally and demonstrated from generation-to-generation. It’s a very spiritual event that brings the family together. 

You recently performed a rite of passage Hawaiian ritual called “Uniki.” Tell us about why this was important to you.

I’ve been training since mid-2014 in the Hawaiian art of ‘oli or chant.  I have lessons once a week via Skype with the well respected teacher Dr. Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele, "auntie Pua", who resides in Hilo on the Big Island. In October, we had our “uniki” or graduation ceremony in which we performed the chants we had learned in front of about 80 people, all memorized. One of my co-founders is Israeli and he said, “this is just like your Bar Mitzvah.” One of my favorites is, “Mele Mano”, which is a shark genealogy chant. It traces sharks and their migrations to Hawaii from Tahiti and explains their significance in the Hawaiian world and where they reside today. It explains their markings, personalities or other identifying traits. The shark chant is very emotional once you dive into it because of its complexity. The Hawaiian language has many different levels to them and many translations of the same phrases.  As you repeat these words, you begin to see the different levels and the words stir different emotions within you.  It’s one thing to read these words off a piece of paper, but it’s completely different after you’ve memorized them and you’re reciting them over and over again.  It clicks with your mind and your soul differently. Having my grandparents there and making them proud was a big accomplishment. The concept of uniki and mastering things that were in the process of being forgotten is very important. I want to honor their legacy as well as my ancestors and continue the tradition of Hawaiian chant in the modern day world.

How did you come up with Lua?

My parents co-founded a mapping data visualization company when I was young. During high school, they were contracted to help out with the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. I had the opportunity to work and build real-time databases to help map what the physical infrastructure would look like post-storm. There wasn’t a lack of information, but a lack of communication that was the bottleneck. It was startling to see that while Microsoft and Cisco were present, they could not provide secure messaging.  It was at that moment that I realized that I needed to build something. I decided to build Lua to focus on disaster relief work.

What was the importance of the name Lua to you?

My Grandfather gave me a book about the martial art of Lua when I was young.  Lua is a method of communication that warriors achieve when in battle, which resonates well with our focus on relief-work communication. 

What were some scary moments early on?  

The first time I did a full VC pitch, I got ripped apart. It really broke us down. It was during that same week that we met with Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures and he had a different tone. He told us that we needed to test our idea in the field and get customer feedback. We decided to test Lua for six months on a movie set.

We learned that we had built an overly complex tool with a query option and mapping field. We decided to pivot and focus entirely on messaging. We literally pressed the delete button on our entire codebase dedicated our work to creating secure messaging from that day forward.

What was your biggest win of 2015?

It was our entrance into the airline industry, working with United Airlines to help connect airport managers all over the country. It was especially interesting working with their three different CEOs over the summer. We also had a big win with Cisco’s sales and marketing teams, our largest competitor. Cisco has Jabber and Spark, which are direct competitors to Lua. We received an email request from Cisco to use our product internally. Selling our product to a competitor like that made us feel really proud of the product we’ve built.   

Who is a mentor that’s been helpful building the business?

John Maloney, the former president of Tumblr.  He’s been awesome – he’s been here before. He was our first angel investor and even worked in our office in a part-time, teaching me how to transform from a 10-person team to a 20-to-30-person team. His presence is really motivating.

What drives you the most right now?  

We’re currently working with relief groups in Greece and Syria helping refugees. Working with the first responders and getting great feedback from them drives us.  I share these moments with the entire company and it keeps everyone going.  The rapid expansion of mobile-first mentality in enterprise is also motivating. Communication is the core of this transformation and it’s exciting to be at the tip of the spear during this evolution of technology in the work place.

Written by: Paul Prentice & Michael Farber

Graham CohenComment