By Rich Figel
Above: Henk Rogers, founder of The Tetris Company, Blue Planet Foundation, and the new Blue Startups accelerator project.
I wear a lot of hats between my roles as Career Changers TV producer, writer, and member of the 808HALT coalition to put a stop to human trafficking in Hawaii. But one common theme keeps coming up during my interviews and meetings: the need for immigration reform. Earlier this week we filmed a segment with Henk Rogers, the man who turned Tetris into a multifaceted business/social change empire based in Downtown Honolulu. He didn't invent the addictive puzzle game, but after he got the licensing rights and established a relationship with the Russian creator of Tetris, Henk was able to grow it exponentially as handheld game players and mobile wireless platforms came into being. One article I read describes him as a self-made billionaire.
He's also an alien of sorts: Dutch-Indonesian, born in Holland, moved to New York with his family when he was 11, studied computer science at the University of Hawaii in the 1970s (funny stories about his jobs back then, including driving for Charley's Taxi) and moved to Japan because that's where the action was in the early days of video games. Suffice it to say, he could live and work anywhere he wants. So why Hawaii? In part, it's because of our diversity and location as a crossroads of the Pacific. He's a global kind of guy. Actually, he thinks much bigger than that. One of his major missions in life is to promote space exploration -- and settlement of Mars as a starting point for transforming other worlds into places where humans can live. In effect, we'd become the aliens.
You may not be aware of HI-SEAS, which stands for Hawaii Space Exploration Analog & Simulation, but he told me that on April 15 they will be launching a 4-month long project on the Big Island to test foods that could be consumed in space. Awhile back they advertised for qualified volunteers, who were willing to simulate living on Mars during that period. I'm not fully up to speed on the details, but from what Henk explained, they will be living in close quarters (a faux space capsule) and have to wear space suits if they venture out. Mauna Loa was chosen because the terrain is similar to Mars. Beginning Monday, you can follow the project on Twitter.
There's so much more I could tell you about how that project fits into Henk's other missions -- like Tetris blocks, in a way -- and how a heart attack in 2005 was the impetus for him to start the Blue Planet Foundation here in Hawaii. Coincidentally, I recently blogged that many successful entrepreneurs I know of have had near-death experiences that caused them to reassess their "purpose" in life. As it happens, his goal of reducing our dependence on oil and eliminating carbon emissions, also aligns with segments we just produced about Pacific Biodiesel (currently airing on the April episode of Career Changers TV -- click here for viewing times).
One of the tangents we went off on involved immigration policies. Since he's in the high tech field, it's no surprise he -- along with scores of business leaders/job creators -- sees a need to allow more high-skilled foreign workers to come and stay in the U.S. because there is a shortage of Americans with those kind of math and science skills. Seems hard to believe, huh? Yet I've heard that same complaint from other CEOs on "60 Minutes" and read it in a few business mags.
However, Henk was also referring to the need for low-skilled immigrant workers because he's a proponent of sustainable agriculture. And he recognizes the fact that for all the talk about supporting local farms, the reality is we need to import laborers from other countries since there aren't a lot of Americans who are willing to do back-breaking work for the kind of wages that are currently being paid. He mentioned that as a result of his heart attack, he bought a ranch on the Big Island where he could get away and relax. He's also trying to do sustainable farming on the property, so he's witnessed first hand the difficulty of finding local labor for ag work.
In future posts, I'll tell you more about the interview with Henk and the new Blue Startups accelerator program he's backing for a mix of homegrown and imported entrepreneurs, who are now working out of his Harbor Court offices. Very cool stuff going on up there!
It's not your typical business environment. There's art work by Roger Dean, the guy who did the Yes album covers and original Virgin Records Twins logo -- which ties into Henk's story about a gift he recently gave to Richard Branson (just noticed in the lower left corner of the photo at top, you can see Branson posing with him). Of course there's a Tetris motif running throughout the entire place, including stuff like these stackable seat cushions. We'll begin airing the Henk Rogers and Blue Startups segments in May, so stay tuned for details.
WEEKEND FESTIVAL ALERT
Regarding the 808HALT human trafficking project (here's that link), one of the coalition partners is inviting the public to attend the Burmese Water Festival this Sun., April 14 from 9 AM until 2 PM at Wilson Elementary School, 4945 Kilauea Avenue. It's sponsored by the Myanmar Association of Hawaii and Pacific Gateway Center. There will be authentic Burmese food, "Water Throwing," and other treats for you to experience and enjoy.
It's just another reminder of how our wonderful mix of cultures and people makes Hawaii such a special place... even if many of us might be considered "aliens" by others. When you look at it from Henk's universal perspective, we're all just citizens of one Blue Planet. BTW, there's an interesting story behind the Burning Man Festival hat he's wearing in the picture that I'll share some other time!