Staring Down COVID-19: Chamber of Commerce Faces Biggest Challenge Ever

By Dennis Galolo

Sherry Menor-McNamara addressing the Chamber of Commerce members and
business community during the Chamber’s Annual Membership Luncheon.

At a little past the halfway mark of 2020, more and more people are conceding that the Year of the Rat is turning out to be quite the stinker. The culprit is none other than COVID-19, the virus that for a brief period in April and May brought life in Hawaii to a grinding halt and turned the usually bustling visitor mecca of Waikiki into a ghost town.

COVID-19’s impact has been felt by untold billions worldwide and has shut down entire economies, the U.S. included. Locally, the unrelenting virus has led to State- and City-ordered temporary closures of stores, bars, restaurants and other businesses to slow the virus’ spread. To cut costs, employees were either furloughed or saw their hours drastically reduced.

The government sanctioned closures may have signaled the beginning of the end for many of Hawaii’s roughly 126,000 small businesses which form the backbone of the State’s economy. Hundreds of small business owners have already filed for bankruptcy, despite receiving much needed loans and financial assistance from the federal government and the state. Before it’s all said and done, hundreds more are likely to follow suit and permanently close doors if they are unable to pay their bills.  

One organization that has stepped up to the plate and gone to bat for local small businesses during the pandemic is the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, which is led by president and chief executive officer Sherry Menor-McNamara. The Chamber is Hawaii’s oldest and largest business trade organization and represents companies from many diverse industries.

Over the past few months, the non-profit has worked tirelessly on behalf of its over 2,000 member organizations to help them weather the current storm, including the launch of a new one-stop resource ( to connect Hawaii residents to job opportunities, training programs and career navigation.

The website—which has financial support from the Hawaii Workforce Development Council, American Savings Bank, Anthology Marketing Group, Hawaii Executive Collaborative, Library Creative, UH Community Colleges and Upspring Digital—features job opportunities that match one’s career interests, skills and previous experience.  

“Due to COVID-19, nearly 100,000 Hawaii residents are currently looking for work,” said Menor-McNamara. “The Chamber is committed to helping these individuals find new employment and prepare for career paths that align with Hawaii’s economy of the future.”

The Chamber has also compiled additional resources online to build support and offer help for businesses to re-open as well as to protect their employees and customers. To save small businesses, the Chamber has touted its “5-Point Plan to Economic Recovery” which includes prioritizing safety, communicating confidence in commerce, advocating for policy solutions, building pathways to the future and thinking local first. 

Big Island Farm Girl

Born and raised on the Big Island, Menor-McNamara’s roots are in Hilo. She remembers time spent on her grandparents’ farm in Pahoa where she and her brother helped to raise pigs and pick macadamia nuts, anthuriums, oranges, tangerines, papayas, mountain apples, vegetables and breadfruit.

“We helped pick the bounties of the farm and brought them to town to earn income for the family,” she says. “When times were tough in the community, grandpa and grandma donated many of the goods to neighbors and strangers. This was because of their strong belief in bayanihan—the concept of helping one another for the greater good.”

Menor-McNamara joined the Chamber in 2006 as director of business advocacy and promptly promoted to vice president of government affairs. She holds the distinction as the Chamber’s very first female president, its first president of Filipino ancestry and its youngest ever president.

A graduate of Waiakea High School where she served as student body president, Menor-McNamara received a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA, pursued graduate study in public administration from USC, earned a JD/ MBA from the University of Hawaii-Manoa and received an Executive Education Program certificate from Harvard University.

Her work experience includes stints for ESPN’s Hawaii Bowl, Sony Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Estee Lauder, Elton John Tour, CBS News’ 60 Minutes, the Hawaii State Legislature, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka and Executive Office of the U.S President.

Menor-McNamara’s accomplishments caught the attention of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii (FCCH), which named her as its 2020 Filipino Business Executive of the Year.

“She was chosen for the award because she is an excellent role model for our Filipino youth,” says FCCH president Dr. Nancy Atomspera-Walch.  

FCCH’s prestigious annual Entrepreneur of the Year awards ceremony and scholarship gala, normally held mid-year at the Ala Moana Hotel’s Hibiscus Ballroom, was yet another unfortunate victim of the pandemic. The event was instead presented online via a live stream on Facebook. 

Sherry Menor-McNamara

Menor-McNamara graciously took time to answer an exclusive questionnaire from the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle. Her responses were edited for space and clarity.

Q: Congratulations on receiving the Filipino Chamber of Commerce’s 2020 Business Executive of the Year Award. How does it feel to receive the award?

A:  I am certainly honored and humbled by this award. The recognition is a reflection of my upbringing and the values that were instilled in me by my parents and grandparents. My paternal grandparents moved to Hawaii from the Philippines and they always reinforced the importance of supporting others and working for the greater good. As such, I have embraced these values through my career.

Additionally, this award would not have been possible without the strong support and commitment of our team, Board of Directors and the broader membership to ensure that the Chamber can continue to work towards its mission as the advocate for business.

Q: You are the first Filipino or part-Filipino and youngest ever to serve as the Chamber’s president and CEO. What made you want to accept this position?

A: During my time at the University of Hawaii pursuing a JD/MBA degree, I worked part-time at the Hawaii State Capitol. The experience provided a first-hand look at the public policy-making process. Based on this, I knew I wanted to do something in public policy than practice law. A position at the Chamber opened up just as I graduated.

My career with the Chamber began in the government affairs department. I thoroughly enjoyed this position and had the opportunity to build the program. Six years later, the Board of Directors decided on a transition plan and asked if I would be interested in becoming the president and CEO. Initially, I was hesitant since I did not know if I was prepared for the responsibilities, and I was comfortable with the government affairs position that I was already in.

However, after much thought and based on my grandparents’ value of working for the greater good, I decided to take the leap and one that I’ve never looked back on. While the responsibilities are greater, impact for change is elevated. My favorite quote is, “Refuse To Settle For Anything Less than Butterflies,” meaning always have the constant desire to effect change and drive hope.

Q: Has 2020 been one of the more, if not the most, challenging year for you and the organization? Please explain the specific and unique challenges that 2020 has brought.

A: Similar to others, 2020 has posed significant and unprecedented challenges. When the last recession hit, I was still in the government affairs department but saw how it impacted the overall health of our organization and the business community. Fast forward to 2020, no one had a playbook on this pandemic and it certainly surpasses the impact of the last recession.

We had to think and pivot fast. Our focus and priority were our members. Many businesses that were in a precarious position needed information and resources fast, so we immediately set up a COVID website with resources, provided regular and relevant webinars, stepped up our communications channels, such as social media and newsletters, and partnered with organizations statewide with advocacy campaigns to our government officials.

From a Chamber standpoint, we are a membership organization. Our main revenue streams are membership and programs, such as events. As you can imagine, the current situation has impacted our operations. We immediately reprogrammed our events by going virtual with added value, reorganized some staff positions to address the current and future needs of our membership, and trimmed our budget to mitigate any cost impacts, including salaries and positions.

As we reflect back from March and the path forward, mindset is everything. While this is the most uncertain and challenging time for all, we need to look forward and find ways to instill hope and opportunities, and to focus on creating a future for a better, stronger and more resilient Hawaii. Partnerships and collaborations will be more important than ever before. 

Q: You are a member of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness. Are you satisfied that concerns from Hawaii’s small businesses are being adequately heard and addressed by the state’s top leaders?

A: The Committee has proven to be an effective collaborative partnership between public and private stakeholders. We need to continue to advocate for small businesses through different communication channels, including through the task force.

Q: There are over 24,000 small businesses in Hawaii. To your knowledge, how many are in financially-dire straits, meaning that they have either closed or are on the brink of closing?

A: When we did a survey back in March, 50 percent indicated they needed to shut down temporarily. In April, we partnered with the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization (UHERO) and other organizations statewide. Approximately 40 percent indicated that they cannot open until tourism re-opens and 40 percent said they cannot continue to operate without additional relief. So you can imagine the more delays we have, the dire the consequences become. If we cannot save those businesses that are directly impacted, we will see waves of closures due to the supply chain and those indirectly connected to the tourism industry.

Q: About 125,000 people are receiving unemployment benefits. How many of these are small business employees who have been laid off or had their hours reduced?

We have more than 2,000 members statewide, representing more than 200,000 employees, which was the initial count of unemployment back in April. So with 85 percent of our membership comprised of small businesses, many of the 125,000 are or were small business employees. The surveys clearly showed that as time went and continues to go by, more businesses are forced to shut down or at the least, cut positions and hours.

Q: A survey showed that at the end of June, only 15 percent of small businesses were conducting transactions. How troubling is that to the Chamber’s leadership?

A: Obviously, it’s very troubling. Back in April, the UHERO and Chamber survey showed that 32 percent of small businesses reported no revenue. We need to do everything we can to support our local and small businesses since they are the livelihood and fabric of our communities. If they disappear, it will forever change the landscape of our small business community, many of which are institutions and businesses we grew up with, such as our favorite neighborhood restaurants, retail stores where we buy clothes for special occasions, or even event companies that make our weddings and graduation parties possible. 

Q: What type of small businesses were especially hit the hardest by the COVID pandemic?  

A: According to the surveys, industries that were most impacted are in the accommodations, restaurant, retail and entertainment industries. However, no business has been immune to COVID. 

Q: A big source of financial assistance has been the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). So far, Hawaii’s small businesses have received $2.5 billion in PPP assistance. How long are those funds expected to last or have they already run out and more is needed?

A: Because the initial deadline to use up PPP funds was the end of June, many utilized the monies before Congress extended the deadline. According to the Chamber/UHERO survey, approximately 40 percent indicated they cannot continue to operate if additional relief is not provided and 40 percent said they cannot reopen until tourism opens.

With the delay in reopening tourism, August is a defining moment for many businesses as the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program expired at the end of July and the PPP program application ended on August 8. Therefore, it’s critical that CARES monies and other grants are made available for our local businesses.  

Q: Since March, Hawaii has received about $7.7 billion in funds from the CARES Act. Has any of that amount been allocated for small businesses?

A: The City & County of Honolulu initiated the Small Business Relief and Recovery Fund which has provided two rounds of grant distribution to certain types of businesses. Other counties have initiated similar support. The Legislature has also passed legislation to help small businesses with PPEs, grants for certain manufacturers, and funding to DBEDT for small business programs. The governor has indicated his support for these efforts. The CARES monies must be expended by the end of the year, so we hope and continue to advocate for more support of businesses and our economy.

Q: What changes have small businesses made in order to remain open but still protect employees and customers?

A: Businesses are going above and beyond the expected guidelines as they recognize the top priority is the health and safety of their employees, who are like family, clients and customers. In addition to PPEs, heightened sanitation measures and proper record-keeping such as information for contact-tracing, businesses are also remaining flexible as it relates to telework. Many of us had to pivot overnight from in-person to technology. This move demonstrated that work from home can be done, so those who are able to work from home are given this opportunity. 

Q: Where do Hawaii’s small businesses go from here? What solutions would you like the State to implement in the coming months that would facilitate economic recovery?

A: Grit and resilience are key factors that many of our local businesses have shown during this time. However, we need to step up our efforts to provide them with support through financial relief, as well as flexible and adaptable regulations. We also need a clear-cut, concise and coordinated plan by government to prepare for the reopening of the tourism and economic recovery. Additionally, we as a community can support our economy and local jobs by being vigilant against the virus by wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. Together, we can beat this.

Q: Lastly, numerous small businesses in Seattle, Portland, New York City, and other large cities on the mainland continue to be looted and burned by protesters and anarchists. What lessons from those cities can Hawaii learn from and prepare for?

A: We hope that as an island state with close-knit communities and relationships, we will never reach that point. While peaceful free speech and demonstrations are a constitutional right, we need to do everything we can to support each other and make it through these challenging times and collaboratively create the path forward for Hawaii. 

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