Last month I flew to the side of the world, literally.
I had the great honour of being in the International opening keynote of the CEO Summit 2018, in Auckland New Zealand. It was a little strange, strange because I had never ever "talked business" in my home country - I had returned a few times since living in Europe, for a holiday... but that was all beaches, vineyards and campervans - quite the opposite of power suits, networking drinks and government subsidies...
After spending three days in the heart of the Californian desert, which I drove to in a big jeep (that adventure is for another blog post), I touched down in Auckland, where I was greeted by the glistening lights of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, together with the all too familiar smell of dairy mince pies, and the unmistakable "sweet as bro" resonating in my ears and the unforgettable view of typical kiwi attire, "stubbies" - at which point, I knew I was "home."
The conference itself was a deep end dive into the current New Zealand business environment and I have to admit the goosebumps started to form when I heard the opening powhiri (an official Maori welcome that includes speeches, dances and singing followed by a hongi - the pressing of noses). However the goosebumps were soon overtaken by sheer terror, when I looked around the room to witness many of New Zealand's top dogs... all a good few years experience on me and let's face it, I was not only as jetlagged as hell, I also got a tad too overly excited about New Zealand wine and a good friend I hadn't seen in years the night before (you know that moment when you think - "hey, one more glass, you only live once right, tomorrow is another day")... Oh, and to make matters worse... I would be kicking off the conf with a "startup" talk.... all this with remembrance that I had actually spent more of my adult life out of NZ than in it... Holy sh*t.
But despite all that, I think, well at least hope, my talk resonated. It can be actually pretty surprising how many metrics, and core values are pertinent across many different levels of business, be it at early stage startup - right through to mature large enterprise. I think a lot of the audience was curious about not only what it was like to do business in Europe, but what is was like to tech business in Europe, as a woman, a woman who is not yet the big 30... The intrigue was there, at least because of my situation. After all, I had a good fair share of questions after my talk, and managed to explain the story of when I accidentally said "f*ck you, to the number two of Microsoft." Below is the video, please ignore the terrible still shot.
But that was just the beginning of my week long kiwi business adventure. Proceeding my talk was Dame Wendy Pye... Her talk can be summed up with two words - "holy crap" - despite her seemingly, "nice, little old lady" exterior, let's just say - I would not want to mess with her especially late at night, in a dark alley. Dame Wendy blew my mind with what she had achieved in her life time, almost single handily revolutionising the way children learn to read, at a global level and in doing so made herself one of New Zealand's most wealthiest women. She radiated strength, power and knowledge and wasn't afraid to voice her (sometimes controversial) opinions. Wendy - if you ever read this - you are amazing and I will strive to be as strong a business leader as you one day.
The conference drew to a close and I was super proud to have been involved, and extremely greateful for having meet some incredible New Zealand business people. What made me super proud was also all amazing women I had spoken too, women who are making massive waves in their respective domains and who I believe deserve the spot light in order to empower the next generation. Dame Wendy, but also Alison Andrew, the CEO of Transpower, who has both an MBA as well as a strong background in Chemical Engineering, as well as Amanda Santos, CEO of Tekron. And this blog can't miss mentioning the awesome Peter Breggs - the CEO of Antartica New Zealand. Holy crap, after chatting with Peter, Antartica is definitely on my holiday list... maybe just not in Winter, where even a hot tea turns to ice upon throwing it in the air... Anyway.
My adventure wasn't finished... one thing that really made me understand just how similar Luxembourg and New Zealand are was the openness of not only Government officials, but also top NZ executives, illustrated nicely by one very cool dude called Craig Donaldson, the CEO of Kea. Humble and supportive, Craig proceeded to connect me to a number of key and influential NZ tech legends and then things started to get exciting! Thanks Craig - you rock.
Another area of New Zealand business I was extremely eager to learn more about was the incubation scene, for you non-startup folks, I don't mean hatching little organisms, rather environments that empower startups to well, start, and grow in the most supportive and conducive environment possible. At Tada, we went through a few of them, Technoport, but also Microsoft Ventures in London. Everyone I met repeated on name: Mr Andy Hamilton. He is awesome. So after flying back to Auckland (and getting all emotional when flying over Lake Taupo, Mt Ruapehu and see the Waikato Rive from 20,000 feet), I rocked up to "Ice House." Ice House is NZ's oldest, most respected and established accelerators. Upon walking in the door, I knew I liked Andy. Firstly, Andy said "f*ck" in his first sentence (my kinda guy) and secondly because he genuinely cared about the companies going through his program, even personally investing in a few of them. What I found super interesting about the Ice House, was that they didn't limit themselves to a certain sector, or even a maturity level for the company - even well established 50+ year old family businesses could go through IceHouse, if they needed to. That was very different to everything I had seen before.
After understanding a lot more about the startup incubation and acceleration phases, I was super curious to find about startup funding. After all, if startups want to grow and succeed, well, the need some mooolah, and generally quite a bit of it. That lead me to meeting two incredible dudes, and they were both called Phil. Phil McCaw and Phil Veal. These two guys are legends in the NZ tech scene, are have made a significant impact on the NZ investment arena. I learnt so much in talking them, everything from what sectors were hot in NZ, what were surprisingly not? I had really assumed ag-tech would be taking off, but no!! B2B SaaS was still in full steam. I have to be honest, I got the impression that NZ was where London was 5 years ago - hey but that is my all be it limited and bias take on things. I was also extremely surprised to learn that a lot of startups sought financing in China and the US for the series A and in fact NZ had very few funds that could follow through... I guess that was to be expected? I cannot wait to get back and start investing!
A last thing I just had to do before leaving was visit my old high school, Hauraki Plains College. After all, Tada had created a scholarship program there a few years ago that helped young women studying STEM at university with funding there studies. I have to admit... It was so strange going back, but I can see now why it always has been and still is an incredible secondary school. Ngaire Harris, the principal both today and when I was there, has never lost her passion for achieving excellence and took me on a personal tour of the school, where I saw that kids there didn't just have access to a top notch education, the also had the chance to build a house, compete in sport at a top level, record their music in a recording studio and much more... While there, I had the opportunity to speak to the kids - just as alumni had done when I was there. I wanted to really try and resonate with the students, and connect at their level. My biggest challenge however, was not dropping a F-bomb, which miraculously I achieved. I believe strongly in never forgetting your roots, never forgetting where you came from and I really enjoyed the experience.
So, despite only being in for a week - the people that I had the privilege of meeting, and the knowledge that I left with was incredible. New Zealand is a place of huge potential, and I witnessed first hand a number of similarities between NZ and Lux, obviously not the sunshine and beaches, but access to resources and people. I believe NZ has huge value in the fact that it can be a perfect petri dish for Europe, after all, NZ could easily be a member of the EU, if only it wasn't on the bottom of the world. Facebook, Google and many giants are testing out new advances in NZ and I believe many more people need to see this and understand that despite NZ's distance and isolation there is huge potential. Investors - go to NZ - see what is there, Startups - don't be afraid, if there is something that works in Europe, do it in New Zealand. See you soon NZ!
Lastly, I have to say a big thanks to Sara Ellis-Jack of Conferenz who reached out an invited me to speak at the conf. Thanks Sara!