The Moxie Sessions: Culture as connection: tikanga Māori as a foundation for business

OPINION

Julie Fry

Straker Translations chief executive Grant Straker

In one sense, there’s no difference between Māori business and any other: demonstrating and delivering value to customers and investors is critical. Many a whakatauki, once translated, would not be out of place in a book written by Jim Collins: "Me mātau ki te whetū, i mua i te kōkiri o te haere / Before you set forth on a journey, be sure you know the stars."

But there is a wider sense in which both culture and history matter. Māori participation in business needs to increase across the board. Visible role models are rare: there are no Māori directors in New Zealand’s top 20 NZX companies, and there is no Māori CEO of a listed company in New Zealand. How can we expand the Māori economy in a way that respects culture, and what roles might technology play? Sounds like time for a Moxie session.

There is a lot to play for: BERL estimates that Māori businesses had an asset base of $40 billion in 2010, and EY Tahi says that this could grow to $100 billion in the next few years. 

Barry Soutar (Ngāti Porou) supports Māori businesses at NZTE, helping them grow internationally for the benefit of New Zealand. He acknowledged that the Māori economy, by any definition, is overwhelmingly focused on the primary sector.  Seafood is the only industry where Māori businesses are in the top tier, although there is a good showing among Māori-owned dairy businesses as well.

But as a former owner of a tech firm – which had $7 million revenue and 40 staff – Mr Soutar reckons there is an obligation to build technology by Māori businesses, and not just because getting to market is much quicker and easier in tech than in the primary sector. “Tech makes up 13% of total exports but the Māori contribution is nowhere near that level.”

It’s not for lack of aptitude. “Entrepreneurial capability is hard-wired into Māori: the same spirit of adventure and restlessness that led our ancestors to travel across the Pacific is still alive in the kids of Ruatoria or Manurewa.”

Grant Straker (Ngāti Raukawa), chief executive of Straker Translations, highlighted the importance of starting early when engaging Māori in tech: “It starts with education, and getting kids into technology and computational logic early on. If a 15 year old school leaver with no qualifications can make a multimillion dollar company, then anyone can.” Self-education might be a way forward for many young Māori, and this is how coding is mostly learned.

Sustainable Prosperity founder June McCabe (Ngāpuhi Nui Tonu) wants to see less emphasis on gaps and more focus on opportunity. “Technology is key to innovation and also to productivity in every sector – the big impacts are not in the tech sector but in users’ sectors.” 

Ms McCabe says increasing the value of Māori business to the level mooted by EY Tahi will raise big questions. “How do we align Māori business and collective (iwi and other) operations? How do we support entrepreneurs to come up with new ideas and new businesses to take us into new industries? How do we use “Māori-ness” as a market differentiator, or, as Pita Sharples put it, how do we reinforce the brand with a ‘Māori edge?’”

One key lever is authenticity. On trade missions to China, Ms McCabe has seen the power of leading with culture, and how it can generate business breakthroughs. Māori principles (believe in people, provide good service, want the other person to prosper, believe that if they benefit, we all benefit, have integrity) tie in well with the Chinese approach to business. 

Protecting Māori culture is paramount but there are also practical economic issues. One participant noted, “If there are no jobs in the regions, it’s hard to protect the culture, because young people move in pursuit of jobs, and the culture will suffer.” Another took a different angle: “Cultural strengthening is as vital as ensuring economic outcomes because, without the culture, what is the point of good economic outcomes?” 

Attendees agreed that using technology to transfer information or decisions or funds between tribe members and governing bodies could help with challenges in Iwi governance, too. For example, it could help maintain relationships with beneficiaries and coordinate geographically diverse owners (in practice at present governance is through the board and the mechanisms in the Te Ture Whenua Māori (Māori Land) Act). This approach could increase economic impact: post-settlement Iwi are very diverse, but Ngāi Tahu’s success shows the benefits of managing structures and communications well. 

Technology isn’t a cure-all. There can be tensions between social and economic goals. Successful businesses may not be run in ways that benefit iwi, hapū or individuals directly, and socially successful enterprises do not always make money. One participant spoke for many around the table, commenting, “Marrying social and economic goals will need a new level of community-based thinking.”

There is certainly plenty of positive news, even if there is a long way to go.  Computer graphics company Animation Research, founded by Ian Taylor (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngā Puhi), won last year’s Sports Emmy for Outstanding New Approaches in Sports Event Coverage for its official America’s Cup app. "Straker Translations is planning to list this year, which will give us our second Māori CEO on the NZX (former Air New Zealand CEO Sir Ralph Norris, from Ngāti Hine, was our first)." With some more innovative, award-winning, Māori-led $100 million companies like these, we’ll be well on our way. 

Julie Fry (@juliemfry on Twitter) is a consulting economist based in Motueka and New York.

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see http://themoxiesessions.co.nz. In June we returned to technology and innovation precinct Grid AKL to discuss the Māori economy and the potential contribution of tech.

Thanks to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for their generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

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