Living Aloha

Success is literally in the bag these days for ALOHA Collection founders Heather Aiu and Rachael Leina‘ala Soares.

Aloha is everywhere. From school campuses to business offices, at shopping malls, the airport and even the beach, it seems like everyone — from keiki to kūpuna — is carrying ALOHA Collection bags, those hugely popular 100% coated Tyvek splash-proof pouches and totes that come in various colors and designs.

Founded by Heather Aiu and Rachael Leina‘ala Soares, the company started with humble beginnings — “a single bag, a shared dream and a Kickstarter campaign.” A decade later, ALOHA Collection has grown into a thriving business with 100 employees, and its products are found in 25 countries and about 2,000 stores throughout the United States.

Rachael Leina‘ala Soares and Heather Aiu GREG MERINO PHOTO

The friends-turned-business partners first met in 2009 when Aiu responded to an online ad for a vacant room and moved in with Soares. Aiu was a mortgage banker, working for Wells Fargo for 10 years, while Soares was a flight attendant with United Airlines for nine years before becoming a private flight attendant. Then, in 2013, they both faced challenges in their careers.

“I was living in L.A. at the time and all of a sudden, rates went up overnight,” recalls Aiu. “This market is so volatile, of course, I knew that, real estate and mortgage in general is so volatile. There’s ups and downs, but I think it really hit me when half my office was gone in two weeks. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I need a backup plan fast.’

ALOHA Collection founders Heather Aiu, left, and Rachael Leina‘ala Soares are planning on launching “something really big” next summer in honor of their 10th anniversary as business partners. PHOTO COURTESY ALOHA COLLECTION

“I was cash flowing this customer’s tax returns and thinking all of my affluent customers have their own business or multiple businesses, and (thought) I should start a business,” she continues. “I was an international business major (at Loyola Marymount University), I understand business and money, but I don’t have any ideas. What would I do?

“So, I called Rachael.” And that call couldn’t have come at a better time for Soares.

“I was in a rut,” she explains. “I’m a naturally happy person. I wake up happy. But my mom had just passed away, I got my heart broken and then I ended up breaking my foot randomly so I couldn’t fly and at that time I was a private flight attendant. Heather had just moved out maybe the month before, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, how am I going to pay my rent?’

Aiu and Soares first met in 2009 after becoming roommates. Five years later, they joined forces and created ALOHA Collection. JENN ELLENBURG PHOTO

“I was just down and out when the phone rings — I’m literally on the couch with my foot up ‘cause it’s in a cast — and she’s like ‘I’m gonna come down next weekend and I want to hear your top 10 ideas.’”

Originally from a small town called Crockett in California, Soares had always dreamed of starting a business and was never short on ideas. Inspired by her global travels, she was constantly working on different side projects, but admits she lacked the business skills to make any of them profitable. To her credit, she had asked Aiu to be her business partner multiple times throughout the years while they were roommates, but was turned down each time.

But now was her chance to prove to her friend she had something that could be the next big thing.

“I have a million ideas I’ve been collecting from around the world because I love to travel and I get inspired by all the places I go,” says Soares, who often visits O‘ahu, Hawai‘i island (her brother lives in Hilo) and Kaua‘i. “One was a pareo … and it’s the most amazing pareo ever because I also use it as a scarf and a blanket, and it’s just a rectangle — we could sell a million of these. I had bikinis from Brazil and from Columbia, and I’m like, ‘This material is amazing.’ Nobody was doing it yet and now everybody is doing it, but when I pitched it, nobody was doing it. Also, cute wetsuits and high-end luggage. I worked on private jets and for me, I know all about traveling and I know exactly what to put in your bag.”

Aiu listened and agreed that the luggage line would be wonderful but required too much capital. Some of the other ideas she felt wouldn’t work because of a saturated market or sizing issues.

“There were a ton of reasons I was like no, no, no,” remembers Aiu. “But this bikini bag that she showed me that I thought originally looked like a trash bag, we thought, ‘OK, wait, we’re onto something here. This tiny little bag holds a wet bikini, but if we made it in bigger sizes to hold wet yoga clothes, gym clothes, kids swimming clothes.’ I thought about how many different markets we could target and how everybody needed this bag and how nobody was doing this. There was a huge gap in the market in your travel life and day-to-day life.

“This little black thing, it looks like a trash bag, but if we made it in different colors and prints, people will love it, they will buy it like candy.”

Aiu and Soares agreed on this new business venture, named it ALOHA Collection and invested $2,000 each to use toward their logo, website, trademark and samples. In 2014, they officially launched the company after raising $6,147 through a Kickstarter campaign, which helped them to start production and show their product at the retail trade show MAGIC Las Vegas.

By 2016, they both quit their day jobs and hired their first employee. Then, they opened their first flagship store in Waikīkī in 2021, followed by a second flagship store in Encinitas, California, in 2022, and a third store in Lido in Newport Beach this year.

“If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that we were able to start because when Heather asked me how much money you have, I had a broken foot, I wasn’t working, I had $1,200 in my checking account and $800 in savings … no credit cards, no family support and she’s like, ‘OK give me your $2,000,’” shares Soares. “I was like, ‘How am I going to pay my rent?’ and she’s like, ‘Ah, you always figure it out,’ and I figured it out.”

Now, the company is still self-funded, and the successful entrepreneurs, who are both of Native Hawaiian ancestry, are still dreaming big. From the original small pouch that Soares and Aiu started with, ALOHA Collection has since expanded its product line to include pouches in various sizes, totes, hip packs, duffles, dopp kits, apparel and accessories, including a new Hapa Pareo that is lightweight like a pareo and absorbent like a towel.

Next summer, the company will celebrate its 10-year anniversary with plans to launch “something really big.”

Aiu, who has a 1-year-old daughter, reveals that a baby line is also on the radar, possibly for 2025. The company also gives back to the community, donating 5% of its profits to Hawai‘i-based conservation organizations at the end of each year.

“Our vision is to build an international ‘ohana,” says Aiu, who grew up on Kaua‘i and graduated from Kamehameha Schools-Kapālama. “Then we travel around the world and we see people with our bags. It’s really special.”