This article is part of Mochi’s Summer 2022 issue, highlighting the Everyday Asian American. Media often covers Asian Americans who are exceptional and defying odds (hey Chloe Kim!) or, sadly, when tragedy strikes the Asian community. In this issue, Mochi is switching things up and celebrating what the everyday Asian American enjoys, what’s on our minds, and what life looks like for us. Check out the rest of our issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us by buying us a boba through Ko-fi.
The “trial by fire” is a common saying used to describe how one performs under difficulty and pressure. In 2019, I met iQ 360 founder and CEO Lori Teranishi when I was going through my own trial by fire, working with a Hawai‘i nonprofit organization that was unfortunately going through a PR nightmare. As a result, Teranishi and her team from iQ 360 were called upon to advise, strategize, and help execute a crisis communications strategy that was focused on rebuilding community trust, reestablishing expertise, and ensuring our future.
We recently got the opportunity to reconnect and discuss Lori’s career journey. A force to be reckoned with in the communications and public relations landscape, and a champion for a continuously brighter future for Hawai‘i, Lori has a professional demeanor full of grit and determination — but she still holds small island family values in her heart.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Career Start & iQ 360’s Beginning
KT: For those who are just getting to know you, what’s your story?
LT: I am a fourth-generation Japanese American (yonsei) and have two daughters who are gosei (fifth generation). Overall, I feel that I live in and have had a bicultural existence. I started my life in Hawai’i, and then I went to the continental U.S. for college where I stayed and really experienced the early to mid-part of my career. Then, I moved back to Hawai’i 10 years ago.
Like many people who are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, I grew up in this multiethnic community, but then went to a larger market to work for multinational corporations and I had to make adjustments, both in the way I work and the way I presented myself. Then, when I came back to Hawai’i, again, I had to make adjustments. Because of these lived experiences, I now feel that I have an opportunity to really explain the benefits of being from Hawai‘i and being a part of Hawai‘i to the world.
KT: I feel a connection to you, since I also grew up here, left for school, and came back. On that note, we have a certain community issue that’s always brought up. The state and local advocates are always talking about how we have a “brain drain.” But, as someone who completed your education and started your career outside of Hawai‘i, what was that experience overall like for you? What did you bring back when you started iQ 360, which is actually a company that you founded and remain as a leader for?
LT: Well, I came back to Hawai‘i, mostly because I wanted my daughters to grow up close to their grandparents and other family. I do still believe that Hawai’i is one of the best places to raise children because of this multiethnic community that values all cultures. I also thought that it would be a great place to do business.
However, it was interesting when I told people I was moving back. Hawai‘i is really misunderstood. People thought, “Are you retiring?” — I’m too young to retire by the way — or “Are you going to surf every day?” It wasn’t like that.
I think that what’s difficult about being in Hawai‘i is that it’s an expensive place to live. So, we are seeing people leave. And I want more people to do what I did, which is to go to school away and come back, or just come and be a part of Hawai’i. And that’s why I’m on this crusade right now, to give people these same experiences that they can find in a larger market here in Hawai’i.
When you think about Hawai‘i, we’ve been world-class in a lot of areas, but most people only think of us as a world-class tourist destination. We’re small in size, but we have had a huge impact on the way other destinations market themselves and create a guest experience for visitors from outside. We were, at one time, a top agricultural producer, and that’s actually why we have so many people who are in this multiethnic community: we had immigrants from Japan, China, Portugal, all coming to Hawai’i to work on the sugarcane and pineapple plantations.
Not everyone knows this, but we were also the first state in the nation to declare a net zero carbon goal and we’re actually ahead of schedule in that goal. There are many, many other areas in sustainability where Hawai‘i leads, in addition to how we respect and promote our indigenous Hawai’ian culture. There’s so many things we can teach the world and that is a huge opportunity that we have in front of us. That creates an ecosystem for companies to come in, invest in technology, invest in pilot programs, hear and learn from our culture, and then create the same kind of innovation economy that you see in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.
Navigating Today’s PR Landscape
KT: Where is iQ 360’s role in helping to be a part of that ecosystem? What was the driving factor(s) to establish an iQ 360 headquarters in Hawai‘i? What continues to drive the company today?
LT: Well, we’re proud to say I’m the founder and CEO of iQ 360. We’re a minority-certified, minority-owned, and women-owned business. As such, I do feel we’re doing a lot of work in ESG [environmental, social, and governance areas]. Because of that lens that we have for the world, we’re uniquely positioned to tell not only Hawai‘i’s story to the world but also work on behalf of other clients who are trying to advance their sustainability agendas, and trying to diversify their workforces and trying to get more women and minorities into leadership positions. This is a space that we are very passionate about.
We’re here to straddle the line between strategic planning, business consulting, and communications. When you’re trying to initiate change within a society, within a community, within a company, that all requires communication. I feel like I have the best job in the world because I can help companies tell their stories internally, help them decide what their purpose is, get everyone aligned with that, and then tell their stories to the world. That’s really important when you’re trying to change attitudes and opinions about sustainability, societal issues, and governance.
KT: With a commitment to ESG, iQ 360 has a focus on the well-being of indigenous peoples as well, including native Native Hawai’ians and other Pacific Islanders here in the islands. That’s especially important when conducting business locally simply because that’s a lot of who is within our community here. With that understanding of the nuances of living in a multicultural society, how does all of that inform your management style, and how you guide clients through diversity, equity, and inclusion?
LT: ESG is more than just a buzzword to leaders here in Hawai‘i. The reason I say that is that when you’re a leader here in Hawai’i, you have the responsibility, or kuleana, as we say, to give back to your community — not just give back money, but to actually actively engage in the community and try to find solutions to problems. That way of thinking helps us whether we’re doing business in Hawai‘i, or whether we’re doing business outside of Hawai‘i. When you look at the massive changes that face the world today, with climate change, with these pandemics, with the war in Ukraine, and just a lot of the inequities and technological shifts that are going to happen in the coming years, if we don’t adopt an approach to life and and a leadership mentality that to me is existent in Hawai‘i, then we aren’t going to be equipped to handle these issues well.
We strive to help our clients see through these lessons to see that ESG is not a passing fad. We’re not doing it because everyone’s talking about climate change. We’re doing it because the very survival of our planet depends on it. It’s actually an opportunity. The environment of AAPI hate created an opportunity for the community to work together. The climate crisis is an opportunity. I mean, it’s imperative, but it’s also an opportunity to address it. And I absolutely am an optimist about it. We can address this together; I know it.
KT: Hawai‘i’s local economy has struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. In your overall work, including iQ 360’s work with local and global clients, what has that been like? What have been some key takeaways that you’ve gotten so far out of learning to navigate COVID-19 with clients?
LT: One of our prevailing themes here is finding opportunities in everything. You can look at a crisis as just something you have to deal with, and somehow make it through and survive. Or, you can also look at it as an opportunity to change the way that you’ve done things in the past. Hawai‘i was completely decimated by the pandemic because our major economic engine, tourism, completely shut down for a long time in 2020. As a result, sadly, many businesses in Hawai‘i did go out of business. Some businesses have come back though and we’ve seen new restaurants opening. Tourism has come back very strongly, but there’s also an opportunity for Hawai‘i to reimagine what it will be.
In terms of what I have learned as a business, you have to be nimble, you have to take advantage of opportunities. Of course, much of our work shifted into crisis communications for helping businesses who had COVID-19 outbreaks, but we’ve also been helping businesses who are looking at the shifting expectations being foisted upon them by investors in the ESG space. We built a whole ESG practice in just the last couple of years and as a business, it’s actually a lot harder than people think. They say a majority of businesses fail within the first five years, right? We’ve been around for 10 years. We consider ourselves very lucky. To be successful, you have to look at the opportunity as you’re dealing with the crisis, and I think that’s what we have been able to do successfully.
Staying True to Yourself
KT: How do you maintain a work-life balance in this day and age? How do you unwind after a long day?
LT: One thing the pandemic taught me was the value of family and the value of slowing down. Growing up in Hawai‘i, every weekend, we would drive down to the North Shore of O‘ahu and we would have lunch with one of my grandparents. Then, we would go and see the other grandparent. Along the way, we would take food to different aunts and uncles and people would always be home. During the pandemic, we would be baking a lot and cooking a lot of food and we did the same thing. We took it to our family and friends, and my husband remarked along the way, “Wow, this is like the old days when we were growing up with everybody home and us taking this food and just standing outside on their porch and talking to them.” And that is one of the things that hit me about the pandemic: how much I enjoyed in Hawai‘i that we “talk story.” We talk story with these people that we’re seeing. That’s one thing that I don’t want to lose so I hope I can keep cooking. That’s how I unwind.
KT: What are some values that are important to you, either personally, or professionally, that you try to stick to in your work and life that you live?
LT: When you’re a business owner, your personal and your business lives just kind of mesh together – it’s hard to separate. So, I tend to have the same values in both spheres. The first would be to be kind. I have always told my two girls, nothing else really matters. You have to be a kind person; you have to think outside yourself. When you adopt that approach to life, you develop empathy and you have empathy for others. You can see their situations and then that helps you in business.
Also, of course, being honest and truthful. We’ve seen so many instances of people failing in that area in the political arena, but my mentor, John Onoda, who now works for IQ and who I believe is one of the greatest communicators of all time, gave a great talk to some CEOs I assembled once. He asked them, “If I gave you a million dollars, would you trade your reputation for that?” All of them, of course, said “no” and yet we see these transgressions of epic proportions in our lives every day in the business world. So, I do think that we really owe it to ourselves, to our kids and our youth to make sure that everyone has this moral compass because it’s very easy to go down the slippery slope.
KT: Lastly, do you have any advice that you would share with your younger self?
LT: A lot of things that you think are huge failures are just imperfections when you fast forward [in time]. Even six months from now, they’re not going to seem as bad as they do at the moment. So, cut yourself some slack and don’t beat yourself up. Consider this failure or this setback as something you’re going to grow from, and that when you have that in the rearview mirror you’re gonna see that it was actually a good thing.
Growing up in an Asian family, we do sometimes want to define ourselves within certain boundaries, and that is a set of rigid boundaries that converge on perfectionism. We should not do that to ourselves and we shouldn’t do it to the people around us. It took me a long time to get there, as an Asian woman, especially in my career, and working alongside people who weren’t Asian, who went to seemingly better schools, who just seemed so much more articulate than me or so much more competent than me. I really beat myself up when I didn’t know as much as them or I couldn’t express myself as well as they could, instead of looking at the process as a journey. So, I just ask everyone to give themselves some space and some grace because this will help them be a happier person on their journey than I originally was.
I tell people sometimes that I’m an accidental CEO. My dream was to become like my mentor, John Onoda, and be the head of a communications function for a Fortune 500 company before I was 50 years old. So, everything I did in my 20s and early 30s was geared toward how I was going to accumulate the knowledge to lead a corporate communications department for a global company. Well, along the way, I was asked to become chief of staff for the chief operating officer at Visa. In that role, I managed business planning and some of the corporate strategy for the company and worked on a lot of the operations and revenue generating areas of the company. At the same time, I was also getting my MBA and that led to me then going into R&D and I developed new products for Visa. Then, I decided I was crisscrossing the country a lot and just wanted to go back to my first love, which is communications. So I started the predecessor firm to iQ. Then, I became the CEO and founder of this company, and I wasn’t planning on that at all.
You need to let it flow, let it happen, realizing that along the way all these skill sets that you’re acquiring are going to help you on the path. You may not even realize it when you’re doing it but in retrospect, all of the pieces, especially the failures, are really important. You can’t really judge yourself by where you are at the moment. You’re going to realize, even if you feel like you’re in a trough of your career at the lowest point, that experience is going to become one of the most enriching and one of the most valuable when you look back in a few years.
Photo credits: iQ 360
Last modified: June 8, 2022