Accounting manager Michelle Geronimo had her nose to the grindstone since she was a kid.
“I had this weird sense of responsibility very early on,” she recalls.
Even before she entered her teens, she hurried home to make dinner for her family every weeknight. She sewed everyone’s clothes. She babysat her cousins.
“And I worked and started earning money as soon as I could,” Michelle says. “In high school, when the manapua truck would park behind the school, I would climb in to sell candy bars and taco tubes, or pour sodas, and made $3 a day.”
All the while, Michelle’s older sister Faith spent much of her youth out and about, playing with friends in the neighborhood, then playing music in a band.
“Because of the dynamics of how we were raised — our parents leaving us with our grandparents, moving to Honolulu — we only had each other,” Michelle says. “We had similar experiences, but the way we experienced it was very different… you probably couldn’t get two more different takes.”
Decades later, though it was Faith who would rise through the ranks at Hawaii Information Service, ultimately serving as CEO. And though Michelle would join the company and work for her sister, it wasn’t a simple decision.
Faith and Michelle.
Faith, left, and Michelle, right, with their grandparents.
By the time she was 10 or 11 years old, Michelle would try to be home every weekday by 3:15 p.m., to make sure she could have dinner on the table when the grown ups got home from work at five. This while most of her friends would roam the neighborhood until dark.
“Back then it wasn’t unusual for kids to just be latchkey kids, you could leave kids at home all day,” she recalls. “But the neighbourhood would watch out for them, there were boundaries.”
“Faith was the social one, out in the street blocks from home playing with friends, while I was always in the building, in the lobby, maybe out in the playground,” Michelle says. “I stuck close to home.”
At school, Michelle was deeply involved in student government. At Niu Valley Intermediate, she was the class secretary for both 7th and 8th grade. At Kaiser High School, she held the same class officer role for her sophomore and senior years, and during her junior year, took on the additional responsibility of being the junior prom chairperson.
Michelle, second from right, in student government.
And after years earning money via babysitting and selling taco tubes out of a food truck, Michelle got her first “real” job at Al Phillips The Cleaner. By then working was a habit, and the only difference was that she was finally a taxpayer.
Michelle graduates with the Kaiser High School Class of 1984.
“But when Faith got her first job, I had to take her to the bank and help her open her first account,” Michelle laughs.
By the time Michelle left the dry cleaning company, she was managing the Kahala location. She also worked a second job, first for McInerny, then for a chain of retail clothing shops: Guava Lane, Vis a Vis, Xpec, and Kula Bay Tropical Clothing Company.
“My boss Archie was a former marketing exec, he was with Ogilvy and Mather, and was on the team that created the Happy Meal for McDonalds,” she recalls. “I only knew that because I found the mock up for the Happy Meal in his stuff one day.”
She would work for him for four years, eventually serving as operations manager, and watching the company growing from two stores to 10 stores and 80 employees.
“That was a tremendous experience,” Michelle says. “The company aspired to be the Ralph Lauren of the Pacific, and while they didn’t quite get there, there’s still an iteration of the Kula Bay brand today.”
Along the way, she picked up a gig as assistant manager of the gift shop at Queen’s Hospital.
“The great thing about being in the hospital was that it was a whole different challenge,” she recalls. “Sometimes people would wheel themselves in, and you’re the first person they’ve talked to for months, besides their family… that job required a lot of compassion.”
And she also enrolled in, and then worked for, Elan Enterprises, a corporate training program led by D. Trinidad Hunt.
Michelle with her first class of AIG trainees.
“They had this nine-month personal development program called The Academy, and I was supposed to work part time for them to pay off my $4,000 bill,” Michelle says. “I ended up becoming the office manager, and worked for them for five years, learning to become a trainer myself.”
That background was how she ended up at AIG, an insurance company. Though she started in customer service, she made her way into the training department, and ended up staying with the company for eleven years.
“I loved it at AIG, so much so that they actually have an article of me in the company newsletter saying that I planned to retire there,” Michelle says.
While Michelle excelled at professional development, she admits she needed to learn to take time to take care of herself.
“I worked a second job for 19 years and at one point I had to acknowledge that I was in a state of perpetual motion, and that was because if I stopped, I would I have to seriously contemplate where I was in life,” she says. “At my core, I’m an introspective kind of person, and as I get older, I’m gravitating back toward that.”
When she was younger, she would start her day extra early, just to have a few moments of peace.
“I would get up at 5 a.m., jump in my car, drive to Waimea Bay, get out and sit on the beach at 6 am. with my music and just commune with myself, and sit there for an hour or so, then jump back in my car and go to work,” she says.
Today, that peace comes largely at home.
I call it puttering — I put on a CD, start cleaning, fold laundry, watch some TV, I’m content to stay home and putter around,” she says. “I like to think and be with my thoughts… I always say I’m often alone, but never lonely.”
Michelle also likes to write, recalling that she took a basic writing class at UH and got the only ‘A’ out of 70 students.
Michelle and Danny.
“I think I’m a frustrated writer, and I still try to write now and then,” she says. I’m a storyteller, I love observation, and I think it’s awesome to have the ability to encapsulate a complex process or message or idea in three sentences.”
And Michelle shares her life with her partner Danny, who she met for the first time in 1993 when he came in to the hospital gift shop and serenaded her with “Ei Nei.”
“I proceeded to ignore him for two years, but he’d still come in, and finally one day we got to talking about music, and that was it,” she said. One James Taylor concert later, and they’ve been together ever since.
Michelle had started working at AIG at around the same time Faith had started working at HIS. And while there was frequent talk of having Michelle joining her sister’s company, things got more serious when AIG was bought by Farmers Insurance.
“Actually, I did temp work for HIS when it was in the Gold Bond Building, helping with data entry for a couple of months during a conversion to our accounting system,” Michelle recalls. “I got a typewriter table at the end of Faith’s desk.”
So when Faith encouraged her to join the team full time, Michelle had a good idea of what was involved.
“I’d heard about HIS from the beginning… I was always intrigued by the fact that Faith loved it so much and was so invested in it, even back when she was an accounting clerk, which is not exactly the kind of job you get invested in,” Michelle says. “We’d had the conversation for years, about how company culture is important for her, and how she’s trying to create something different.”
Of course, after years of encouragement, Michelle was given only a day to apply.
“It was like, ‘Hey, here’s your window, you have 24 hours to tell me you’re interested, get me a resume,'” she says. “I had to dig up my resume that was so old, it was done on a typewriter on vellum paper.”
The question of whether or not she could work with family was her primary consideration in deciding to apply.
“We made a commitment to get over anything between us because of the larger purpose, and as a leader I trust her,” she says.
The two had gone from not seeing each other for months at a time to hanging out at least every couple of weeks. And Michelle says she knew that her sister had come a long way from her carefree ways as a kid.
“Honesty, somewhere along the way, Faith got in the drivers seat and never looked back,” Michelle says. “Sometimes we fall back into the ‘I’m taking care of her’ thing, but now it’s more nostalgia and a nod to our past — a way to continually acknowledge our long history together.”
Still, Michelle says it was good that she only had a day to decide.
“It was literally a leap of faith, no pun intended… I just felt for some reason I had to go for it,” she recalls. “I’m a believer in signs and divine timing and I just felt like, I just had an intuition that there was something I was led here to do.”
Two years on, and Michelle is even more confident that she’s in the right place.
“I’m busier here than I ever was, there’s more stress than there ever was, but there’s something so nurturing about the environment here, that it’s okay, I do it gladly because of the kind of company we are,” she says. “I do my tasks, I put money in the bank, but I feel like there’s a bigger purpose.”
And that bigger purpose includes supporting her coworkers, both inside the office and out.
“I get that a good part of why I’m here is to support Faith and Colleen [Yasuhara, VP of Product Development],” Michelle says. “As a company we’re very challenged, but we also have a culture that’s on the same page and very open to exploring its collective energy and growing it.”