[Maui, Hawaii] It's an absolutely gorgeous Monday morning on the pristine northern shore. At Charley's, a popular breakfast hangout that's frequented by the local windsurfing set, six eager-looking people surround a choice corner table. They're not beach bums; they're transplanted techies who've fled the traffic and smog-choked U.S. mainland to pursue high-tech careers from Maui's remote community of Haiku.
Why Haiku? "Because we can," says Chelsea Hill, a tall, tanned young woman who moved there from Seattle four years ago to start a Web-based company called Origin - The Language Agency. Her company, which also has offices in Seattle; Victoria, British Columbia; and Bristol, England, operates a network of freelance translators from around the world.
Every Monday morning, Hill drives down winding mountain roads that cut through tracts of sugarcane to make an 8 AM meeting with fellow Haiku tech-heads, who are collectively known as the North Shore High-Tech Group.
Also at the table are the cofounders of the group: Lynn Rasmussen, a career coach and occasional angel investor who left the San Francisco Bay Area more than 20 years ago, and David Fisher, director of the Maui office of the Hawaii Small Business Development Center Network (www.hawaii-sbdc.org), who fled New York 13 years ago. Having found success on the island, Rasmussen and Fisher now enjoy helping more-recent castaways do the same. "When you are as physically isolated as we are on this island, you become aware of the importance of connectivity — not just broadband, but with fellow professionals," says Fisher.
Meetings began in early April, and since then, Fisher and Rasmussen have recruited not just Hill, but also Boston transplant Patricia Carnabuci, CEO of a Web-based home-schooling-curriculum provider called Homeschool Learning Network, and Hai Dai Nguyen, an ex-Silicon Valley user-experience engineer who founded Alike Technics Inc., which designs collaborative software tools for such companies as Sun Microsystems.
The timing for tech entrepreneurs on Maui couldn't be better. Hawaii's passage of an important telecommunications act in 1988 provided enough funding for infrastructure upgrades and made the island chain a mecca for Pacific Rim telecom investment. Most recently, passage of Hawaii's Act 221 last year offered powerful tax incentives for high-tech small businesses to relocate their R&D operations to the state. The result? A broadband fiber infrastructure that is accessible from 70% of the homes in Maui. All of this has led to a surprise development: Hawaii is now one of the three most networked states in the nation.
Which brings us back to breakfast at Charley's. "If you have a business that you can operate from anywhere," Hill asks,"why not do it from paradise?"
The Maui Research and Technology Park, which includes the Small Business Development Center, is home to the world's most powerful Linux computing cluster.