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Finding Shangri La


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In 2003, when California resident Ben Weitz was close to earning his master’s in Speech at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, he was certain of one thing: One day, he would return to Hawaiʻi to work, live and raise a family. Twenty years later, that prescient vow has been realized. In October 2023, the College of Social Sciences’ alumnus began his position as executive director of Shangri La, Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design. Shangri La is a center of the Doris Duke Foundation on the stunning Diamond Head coastline.

Weitz has had an impressive career since earning his MA in the CSS department now known as Communicology. The native Angeleno was previously the inaugural Chief Brand Officer for UCLA; before that, he spent a decade leading brand marketing and storytelling at Disney in Burbank, California. “Without question, these two experiences will inform the kind of brand cohesion that is critical to Shangri La’s identity,” said Weitz, 45. “The goal is to appropriately translate that identity to the diverse audiences who visit Shangri La. They learn about global cultures and are transformed by its design and collection, while we’re also introducing it to so many from our islands who have not heard of Shangri La or have only seen it from Cromwell’s (beach).”

In his own words, Weitz shares remembrances of his time at UH Mānoa, and anticipation for the job ahead.

From my many visits to the islands as a young man, I felt a deep connection to Hawaiʻi, which inspired me to look at UH Mānoa in the first place. It offered everything I was looking for in a graduate program – an opportunity to strengthen my leadership and communication skills, and world-class department faculty. Even after earning my MA in 2003, my commitment to make a positive, lasting impression in the community was even more certain, and I knew that I would return to put roots here one day.

I credit UH with giving me the leadership building blocks that made me an empathetic, strategic and creative executive. Thanks to the program and its exceptional faculty, my communication and listening skills were optimized at a relatively early time in my career.  One of my greatest mentors was my thesis advisor, Dr. Amy Hubbard. She had the patience of a saint and always had the best advice for me. I am forever grateful for her mentorship.

Reflecting on those years, as bittersweet as it was to graduate, commencement was my fondest memory. There’s no feeling like the sense of accomplishment after working hard toward a goal that you’re passionate about, and having your loved ones and faculty right there alongside you. And, of course, all the lei!

Since starting with Shangri La in October 2023, I’ve been inspired and challenged every day. While it is certainly a museum, Shangri La is also an international center for transformation and we are leading conversations of local, national and global significance.

We’ve had landmark programs partnering with the East-West Center, for example, on the  U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea Trilateral Dialogue. We also launched our fourth annual 8×8 exhibition of 16 Hawaiʻi artists – eight visual and eight performing – interpreting the theme “source” to explore topics from indigeneity to sustainability to feature voices relevant to our community. And mostly recently we hosted Doris Duke Visionary Voices: Women, Creativity and Power, featuring Olympic Gold Medalist and five-time World Surf League champion Carissa Moore and diverse female leaders from across O‘ahu.

 What has been rewarding in my first months is the ability to contribute across all program areas of the Doris Duke Foundation – performing arts, environment, keiki well-being, medical research, and building stronger, more inclusive communities. Another top priority is getting to know the leaders in our community whose work is dedicated to building a thriving, resilient future for Hawaiʻi and learning how Shangri La can be a more vital asset to the islands. I’m grateful to those who’ve already made time to speak with me and I’m eager to meet others in the months ahead.

I’m truly honored to lead Shangri La during such a transformational time in its history. Furthermore, it’s heartwarming to return to O‘ahu with my husband and our twin boys, who we’ll raise here once they finish second grade on the continent.

When I think about what advice I could pass on to current college students to prepare them for enriching careers, I wish them an open mind. Everywhere you go, you make connections. You have a choice to be kind and, from there, doors will open for you. Most importantly, the wisdom of my mother is timeless and unfailing: Worry less about what you “should” do and have the courage to pursue what you love.

Additional news stories from the College of Social Sciences.

Ben Weitz Landscape
Ben Weitz at Shangri La event.
Shagrila Outside Landscape
Exterior of Shangri La, with rainbow in the background.
Shangrla Interior Landscape
A view of one of the stunning ceilings in Shangri La.