When entrepreneur and CEO Ethan West ’16 was getting his Master of Business Administration degree at Chaminade, he remembers encountering the kinds of questions that still resonate with him today. Like: “What does it mean to be a force for good as a for-profit company?” and “How do you make decisions grounded in ethics?”
“I came up with a personal mantra back then at Chaminade: profit should be a byproduct of a mission achieved,” West said, adding he recalls being inspired by professors and business executives who understood the importance of taking a “business for good” approach to making money.
West’s personal mantra is now baked into the mission of his fast-growing company, Punahele Provisions, which produces organic baby food with a commitment to sustainability. The company uses only naturally- and locally-grown ingredients and shuns preservatives and additives (like sugar).
The baby food is produced 100% locally, too, before being sent off to Hawaii stores.
A foundation in farming
West’s journey to co-founding Punahele Provisions in 2020 started years earlier.
Before he was an MBA student, or in banking on the mainland, he was a kid who lived on a farm.
In fact, West grew up on a small organic dairy and produce farm in Maine. He says he used to wake up at 4 a.m. to help tend to the animals before heading off to school. And on weekends, the whole family would head off to the farmers market to sell what they’d grown and made to their neighbors.
His dad was a chiropractor “but a farmer at heart.”
“That was how we would take care of our community,” West said, adding his dad would even tote produce into the office to hand out to his patients. “It really set the foundation for the rest of my life.”
West attended the University of Maine, majoring in Political Science, and after graduation found a position in banking. That was when one of his best friends, who was living in Hawaii, reached out to him with a question: want a change of scenery? West jumped at the opportunity to move to the islands and “immediately hit the ground running.” He found a job and enrolled in the MBA program at Chaminade.
There, he found professors and peers who were just as interested in becoming drivers of positive change in business. He recalls his mentors making it clear that while leadership in business is about making decisions, leadership in the community—leadership that considers the welfare of your family, friends, and neighbors—is about making decisions “grounded in ethics and who you are as a person.”
West took that advice to heart.
Inspired to make a change
After graduating from Chaminade with his MBA, he set to work on a passion that he first developed during those early days on the farm: helping to feed his community. He took a managerial position at Kunoa Cattle Company, where he focused on partnering with local companies to deliver a quality local product. And from there, he jumped out on his own to form what would become Punahele Provisions.
He credits his young niece and nephew for the inspiration.
In late 2019, shortly after they were born, he stumbled across a report about toxic heavy metals contained in baby foods. Mercury, cadmium, arsenic and lead. As a new uncle, the findings appalled West. As a businessman, it galvanized him. Change was needed—and he was in a position to help.
“From that point on, there was no turning back,” he said. “It was a responsibility that I had to create a better option that honored Hawaii and used the incredible ingredients that are growing here. Ingredients like taro, ulu and Okinawan sweet potato that are perfect for babies.”
To get started, West enrolled in an online course about child nutrition and cooking. He started making and tasting baby food—lots of it—and partnered with local community groups to find parents who would offer feedback about what they wanted to see in baby food (and in a local company).
More than just baby food
All that outreach was central to West’s mission-focused approach.
Because, West said, “we don’t want to just be a baby food company. We want to help shift the paradigm. We want to be resources for parents and oh, by the way, we make really great baby food.”
In early 2020, West and his team were just about gearing up for a crowdfunding campaign. But a roadblock stopped them in their tracks: the COVID-19 pandemic. “From a human aspect I could not in good faith ask anybody for money when so many people were struggling,” he said.
So West went back to the drawing board, picking everything apart.
The pandemic also redoubled his resolve to ensure he was keeping his money in the state. That prompted him to take a hard look at how his products were to be shipped off to the mainland and processed—a common practice because of a lack of infrastructure in Hawaii.
West was able to change things up and keep his processing in the state.
A mission-driven company
Punahele Provisions was born shortly afterward. The brand bears the Hawaiian word that’s best translated as “to treat as a favorite” and it refers to how the company wants to “favor all the children of Hawaii and beyond by providing them with nothing but the healthiest baby food.”
It was also created as a public benefit corporation—a company, as West describes it, “beholden to a publicly stated mission.” That mission includes “strengthening the future” with healthy food and a more sustainable food system, supporting local agriculture, and caring for the environment.
West said that looking ahead, he’s optimistic about the change he—and others—can make with business and community actions. “I’ve been cursed and blessed with a case of eternal optimism. I think many entrepreneurs are, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning,” he said.
“But I am optimistic about the direction in which our food system is heading.” And that, West said, is because of a growing community awareness about where food comes from—and a desire to ensure it’s not only healthy but sustainable. “The market is demanding a better way of doing things,” he said.
His message to consumers: don’t be afraid to ask about the origins of your meal.
“That is probably the simplest and easiest things,” he said, “that you can do as a community member.”