The summer of Erin Kirihara’s junior year at Chaminade, she attended a job fair organized by the university mostly—she jokes—to appease her parents and stay busy. At the time, she wasn’t sure of a career path to pursue, so she decided to accept an internship offer at a construction firm.
It was an opportunity that would change her life.
“I always thought I’d be really good at management, but I knew nothing about this field,” she said.
That summer spent at global construction and management consultancy firm Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) turned into an impressive career. Eighteen years and many promotions later, Kirihara is now executive vice president of the company’s North American practice and a member of the Board of Directors.
Kirihara, who graduated from Chaminade in 2006 with a degree in Business Administration, said her career trajectory is proof of her motto: “One opportunity used wisely can change your life dramatically.” Sometimes, she added, that means making your own opportunities.
“And you’ve got to be ready to put in the hard work,” she said.
Kirihara graduated from Maryknoll School and chose Chaminade University because she wanted a student-centered and individualized college experience. “I think I would have gotten swallowed alive if I went to a larger school,” she said. “Chaminade was more like a family and felt right.”
The best part, Kirihara added, was building strong relationships with professors.
“They knew you and you got to know them,” she said.
When she landed that summer internship, Rider Levett Bucknall had global backing but only eight people in its Honolulu office, Kirihara said. Today, the firm has about 55 employees across the Hawaiian Islands and is behind several iconic projects, including the luxury Park Lane Ala Moana on Oahu.
The residential development is attached to Ala Moana Center.
“Now that was an amazing project,” said Kirihara, who managed it on behalf of the developer.
The mother of two young children said she’s thankful to her family for their support and to her employer for providing her with the chance to advance her career in a traditionally male-dominated field. Her own success has also inspired her to encourage girls and young women to pursue opportunities in construction. She said the field offers a diversity of jobs for all talents.
“Women just rock. We’re meant for project management,” Kirihara said. “We’re great communicators.”
That’s exactly what Kirihara told a group of Girl Scouts in 2017 when she was named a Woman of Distinction by the organization and got the chance to give young girls a glimpse at what she does. “I walked them through a day in my life and they were like, ‘Wow. This is what you do? This is so cool.’ It opened their eyes to the possibilities they might find in this industry,” she said.
Kirihara said that back at Chaminade, she opted for Business Administration because she thought business was the most universal language. She learned the basics—like accounting and marketing—while also discovering a passion for community involvement and corporate responsibility.
“Everything can relate to business, including doing things that are right and ethical,” she said.
Kirihara added she’s proud to volunteer her time with several Hawaii organizations. She sits on the board of directors for HUGS (Help Understandings & Group Support), an organization that helps families with seriously ill children. She is also on the executive board for Child and Family Service, which programs for at-risk youth, domestic violence emergencies services, elder care and more.
“We have an obligation to make Hawaii a better place to live,” she said.
Her advice to young people just getting started out in the business world, including construction and project development, is to embrace flexibility and remain hungry for learning. “Turn that first opportunity into whatever you want to make of it, do what you have to do,” she said.
“Hard work, commitment, determination—they’ll help you excel in any career.”