The art lover and Shaka Tea founder is committed to building communities one female-led business at a time.
By Marc Graser Photos by Abigail Enright In collaboration with Bentley Motors.
In partnership with Bentley Motors, meet five inspirational women — interior designer Breegan Jane, Olympic surfer Carissa Moore, wine expert Vanessa Price, Shaka Tea founder Isabella Hughes and business incubator Meli James — all passionate thought leaders in their communities who define success and what modern luxury means today through their inherent curiosity and appreciation for detail.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. For Isabella Hughes, it has always been a need for something better. “I think everything I’ve started has been out of frustration,” says the Honolulu born and raised entrepreneur, who even while living in far off places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Washington, DC, always had Hawaii on her mind.
“There’s this global concept of what Hawaii is, but that’s the really amazing, yet problematic thing of being from a place that is so globally renowned, often for the wrong reasons, often for so many mistruths about the place,” Hughes says.
Hughes founded Shaka Tea in 2016 when she developed an aversion to sugar while pregnant in the UAE. Her solution: partner with farmers on the Big Island to source māmaki herbal leaves, endemic to the state, as well as tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, hibiscus and guava that she grew up with to develop a healthier beverage that was bold in flavor but low in sugar.
The result is a brand that quickly found a following and was recently sold to Irresistible Foods Group, the parent company of King’s Hawaiian, which plans on taking Shaka Tea global.
Building consumer brands was never Hughes’ first love. That was always art.
A self-described museum kid, Hughes spent her childhood admiring contemporary art exhibits in Honolulu’s museums. That led to her wanting to curate her own collections, with her first debuting at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, DC.
She later covered art as a journalist in Dubai, and worked closely with the founders of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi.
The move to the Middle East with her husband, Harrison, was a necessity to find employment after the recession, she says — another frustration that ended up paying off when finding herself surrounded by art lovers and investors in the UAE.
Inspired by her connections, Hughes found herself on a mission to put a spotlight on Hawaii’s contemporary arts scene, where she launched a successful Honolulu Biennial art exhibit, also in 2016. The event is now the Hawaii Triennial, an internationally renowned arts non-profit.
“Hawaii has one of the most dynamic but historically under celebrated contemporary art scenes, so we said let’s do a biennial and refocus the global conversation, rooted in place, rooted in our community, but also our focus on artists from the Asia Pacific.”
There’s this global concept of what Hawaii is, but that’s the really amazing, yet problematic thing of being from a place that is so globally renowned, often for the wrong reasons, often for so many mistruths about the place.
THE NEXT MOVE
The sale of Shaka Tea has encouraged Hughes and her husband to make their latest move, this time to Texas, a far friendlier time zone for growing startups.
In Austin, they are supporting other women-led startups as an angel investor through their Roya Capital fund, named after their daughter.
“Our vision is that when she’s my age, women are getting their fair share because women are starting businesses at a much higher rate than men and actually in terms of cash ROI, they outperform all male founders,” Hughes says.
Roya has already backed three ventures, primarily businesses that promote wellness or honor sustainable growing practices. Those include allergen-free baked goods brand Partake, and canned wine producer, Maker.
As an investor, Hughes is seeking entrepreneurs “who can move mountains,” she says. “Being an entrepreneur is extremely hard and then it’s 10 times harder if you’re a woman. If you’re a woman of color, it’s probably 100 times harder.”
Tapping into her creative background as a curator and journalist, Hughes says “I’m a big advocate that anyone from the creative community is probably going to be your very best entrepreneur to bet on because you’re working with very limited resources, high level of creativity, tremendous grit and passion.
“Being a great storyteller is a really wonderful skill when you’re an entrepreneur,” Hughes adds, because being an entrepreneur taught Hughes one of her biggest lessons: that “life is a pitch,” especially when you’re trying to convince someone to back you financially.
“Any entrepreneurial idea is risky to back, but if it’s a commercial venture, there still is the hope that there could be an exit and you can get a return,” she says.
Creating a global arts festival “was by far the hardest thing” for Hughes, requiring years of securing enough funding to launch an event that has since generated more than $100 million in economic impact for Hawaii’s artists.
Hughes credits art for inspiring many of her creative concepts, and helping her develop a sense of self, “and understanding of where I was from,” she says. It “opened my eyes to the world out there, other cultures, other communities, other ideas.
“I think a lot of my twenties, professionally, were really about how can I do things to highlight where I’m from?” she says. “Being born and raised in Hawaii, it has always been really important to me to support my community.”
That community now also includes Austin, which is experiencing an incredible transformation fueled by a mix of startups and major tech players.
“Right now, Austin reminds us of those days in the UAE,” Hughes says. “There’s a lot of great entrepreneurial energy and we’re both really excited to be working on new ventures here. It’s a great community for that.”
Hughes continues to curate new art exhibits, and is developing a new packaged goods business with fellow entrepreneur Semira Nikou, that’s rooted in her Iranian-American heritage and childhood spent in Hawaii. Hughes also co-founded FoundHer, the first accelerator dedicated to for AAPI Native Hawaiian women, with Gloria Lao, the former CEO at YWCA USA, during the pandemic.
“I’ve always been extremely driven,” says Hughes, who credits her unconventional career to her innate sense of curiosity. “I’ve worked since I was 14. I usually had an unpaid internship and two jobs to get to who I am today. I’ve always been really interested in just about everything.”
“I love stories,” Hughes adds. “I’m one of those obsessed folks that loves to research everything. When I learn about the attention to detail that goes into a product or a meal, something luxurious in quality, and to learn all about the backstory, the heritage, the meaning why, that always gets me 10 times more excited.”
She’s also a more conscious consumer. “The more I can learn about how something is sustainably and ethically sourced is really, really important in a way that I don’t think I was thinking about even eight- to 10 years ago,” Hughes says.
Like the art that Hughes surrounds herself with, “really nice things are all about being savored” and “living in the moment,” she says. “Life is so short, so fleeting, I’m committed to products that are going to bring me joy and that I can share with the ones I love.
“I am very committed to joy and love,” Hughes says. “I know that sounds so ‘woo woo,’ but I love distinctive things that make me feel the same way a good piece of art that I choose to collect and live with does.”
Hughes is one of those people who lights up a room and makes anyone feel welcome. Her enthusiasm for pretty much anything is heart felt, genuine and infectious. That’s certainly helped her grow her businesses, lift up other female entrepreneurs, and support a community that often gets overlooked.
But likability only gets you so far.
“I don’t think anything I’ve ever done has been easy,” Hughes says. “Whether I was raising capital for the biennial or Shaka Tea or numerous other ventures I’ve co-founded, it’s never been a yes. You’re getting told no nonstop. But I think persistence pays off.”
For this interview, we met Hughes in Austin and paired her with a burgundy Bentley Continental GT V8, a sports coupe as powerful as Hughes’ personality and a vehicle that easily meets her passion for excellence.