Emblematic of changes in Hawaii leadership, forward-thinking Sherry Menor-McNamara takes over as head of the Chamber of Commerce

The leadership landscape of Hawaii is changing before our eyes. As corporate, community and governmental successions take place, new and fresh faces are emerging in key positions.


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Menor-McNamara with (from left) Elizabeth Hata Watanabe and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono at Taste of Hawaii on Capitol Hill in Washington CHAMBER OF COMMERCE PHOTO

Unprecedented demographic, gender and cultural change is in progress, spurred by retiring baby boomers. It is said the new generation may think about the world in a different way, but that doesn’t make them poor leaders.

One such fresh face of leadership is 43-year-old Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive officer of Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii. Named 11 months ago to head Hawaii’s venerable and most powerful voice of business, she exemplifies the shift taking place in the corridors of commerce and political power.

Don’t be fooled by her youthful looks, effervescent personality and Pahoa farm-girl values. This experienced package of business advocacy is a potent force.

Taking the helm of Hawaii’s oldest and largest business trade organization, Menor-McNamara represents 1,000 local companies with more than 200,000 employees in diverse industries.

The 164-year-old organization she leads has a public profile that goes beyond its dues-paying members. The Chamber of Commerce represents Hawaii’s employers who, no matter what their products or services, herald free enterprise.

Considering the transformative era we’re living in, Menor-McNamara’s ganbatte (Japanese term for “do your best”) spirit may be just what is needed to motivate the masses.

Her Neighbor Island roots also assure a balance to what can be an Oahu-centric focus.

If the Chamber is the voice of business, Menor-McNamara wants to turn up the volume on how it benefits our community.

“We can’t be a status-quo organization,” she asserts. “We need to find ways to reinvent ourselves, refresh products and services, ensure that we are relevant and provide value to our members.

“We need to be constantly thinking ahead of our members’ expectations and be proactive to build a sustainable economy.”

That means thinking “collectively, collaboratively, and finding common ground,” the Hilo native says.

Menor-McNamara joined the Chamber in 2006 as director of business advocacy. Within a year she was promoted to vice president of government affairs. In 2010, she was named chief operating officer and senior vice president. Last September, the board appointed her president and chief executive officer to succeed Jim Tollefson, who retired after 12 years.

It marked several milestones. Menor-McNamara is the organization’s first female president, its first president of Japanese-Filipino ancestry and its youngest president.

She is “honored” by the distinctions but acknowledges some hereditary karma exists.

“My dad’s side of the family is in public service,” she says. “My mother (Naomi Menor) founded and operates a successful travel agency in Hilo.”

Her father, Barney Menor, was a state representative and a charter member of Filipino Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii. Her Uncle Ben Menor, a former state senator, was the first Filipino justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court. Her cousin is Honolulu City Councilman Ron Menor.

That’s not the end of her influential line. Madame CofC is married to John McNamara, associate director of athletics for the University of Hawaii.

They met at a sports function more than seven years ago when she was event manager for ESPN Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

Born and raised on Hawaii island, Menor-McNamara is a graduate of Waiakea High School in Hilo, where she was student body president. She has a degree in political science from University of California at Los Angeles, and a law degree and master’s in business administration from the University of Hawaii.

Her work experience includes being events and sports project manager for Sony Corp. in Japan, press assistant for Estee Lauder Co. in New York, and internships in the Executive Office of the President and with former U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka in Washington, D.C.

Recently, Menor-McNamara returned to the nation’s Capitol for a Chamber-organized trade and promotional mission in partnership with U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono. The successful “Taste of Hawaii” event drew 1,000 congressional officials and staff, who marveled at the products and industries showcased by the 50th state.

“The aloha spirit was pervasive,” gushes Menor-McNamara. “The event exceeded our expectations, and there already are plans for a ‘hana hou’ next year.”

Fifty companies were represented with made-in-Hawaii food products, transportation, healthcare, defense and information technology, complementing the Islands’ prevailing tourism imagery.