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Houston HR tech platform plans to grow team, expand internationally with recent $21M raise

Kahuna CEO Jai Shah shares how he plans on deploying the $21 million his Houston company just raised. Photo courtesy of Kahuna

With a recent $21 million series B funding round set to fuel more growth and expand an impressive client roster, Kahuna Workforce Solutions is riding a big wave into 2024.

CEO Jai Shah tells InnovationMap that the Houston skills management software service company’s Hawaiian name captures their style.

“Kahuna is that kind of expert, competent leader in a tribe or family,” Jai says. “That’s all because we had this concept of really wanting to be providing a consulting approach. Treat our customers like family, and with respect, love and really just try and deliver on that promise.”

For Shah, Kahuna represents a natural progression, and grew out of his first startup, Hula Partners, a Houston consulting company acquired by GP Strategies Corp. in 2017.

Shah says his initial work in human resource technology transformation for energy giants like Marathon Oil exposed the poor functionality of HR software, especially for employees. The very technology that has revolutionized the workplace has often not met the needs of many American workers, even as they face more demands on their time.

“We saw a need in the marketplace, relative to the consulting, where technology really wasn’t filling the gap,” says Shah, who now lives in San Diego.

Kahuna’s skills management software service bridges that gap, enabling employees train and grow within their field, and employers to track and monitor their progress in key competencies.

Whether it’s a nurse assessing a patient, or a worker turning a wrench properly on an oil rig, employers observe those skills and record them in Kahuna’s software.

“What Kahuna does, is give the organization a lot more confidence in their ability to have these workers do their jobs,” Shah says.

Those frontline workers drive the company’s ethos. “That workforce is super key to the economy, and it’s really been undeserved by technology for many years. That’s why we exist,” says Shah.

Kahuna caught the attention of Baltimore, Maryland-based Resolve Growth Partners, which chose Kahuna as the first investment in their second funding group with the series B. Kahuna’s series A funding came from venture capital group Houston Ventures.

Chip Davis, of Houston Ventures, who remains a key figure in Kahuna, says he experienced his “Eureka moment” when he saw how Kahuna could solve a problem that he witnessed firsthand in another company. He had another investment client in the oil industry, that had tons of data, but didn’t know what to do with it. He saw that Kahuna provides a way.

“The type of data that Kahuna developed, is not easy to develop,” Davis says. “It knows not that just that you went to college; it knows how well you did, and it knows how well you’re doing now, and it knows why you’re doing well now."

Shah says Kahuna’s ability to leverage that granular data sets the company apart from other HR applications. And that technology may even extend to the future workforce.

Memorial Hermann, a new customer, is in discussions with Kahuna to implement its software early in the journey for nursing candidates, in secondary education curriculum.

Students as young as seventh grade who aspire to a nursing career, could use Kahuna software to find out what skills they’ll need, and keep

Shah says the funds from Resolve, divided in two tranches, will help grow his staff of 50 employees by 30 percent. He also says he plans three or four major initiatives in product development, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning and developing new software modules.

The company will remain headquartered at its Houston office on upper Kirby, but plans are underway to expand operations in about a year into Northern Europe, where many energy clients do business.

Kahuna will maintain growth with a laser focus on frontline workers, Shah says, and solidify its position as a category leader in the energy, manufacturing, and health care verticals.

“A lot of these companies are being challenged in more technically tough environments,” he says. “We’re drilling for oil in deeper and deeper ocean centers. Nurses are asked to do more these days than they were five years ago, or 10 years ago.”

Kahuna’s move upmarket may bring challenges common to companies making that same progression, with a more sophisticated buying process and the scrutiny that comes with it.

“An upmarket customer wants to know how you can support them. They’re going to examine you, in a way you’re not used to being examined,” Davis says.

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