They outnumber the populations of most of our largest cities and hold much of the country’s intellectual and cultural capital.
We’ve invested in them, educated them and now they are scattered around the four corners of the globe, often in highly influential positions and markets.
The one fifth of our nation living abroad – workforce of one million Kiwis – is rich and underutilised resource, says Kea’s passionate global chief executive Dr Sue Watson. And at their heart is group of the most powerful and persuasive New Zealand expats, group who just may hold the key to lifting our emerging businesses and talent on to the world stage.
“Those 200 World Class New Zealanders are the key because in there are the people who have the greatest potential to impact and be influential on behalf of New Zealand,” says Watson.
The organisation behind the prestigious World Class New Zealand Awards, Kea is the connector between our international intellectual assets and businesses here that could use their help.
Not all are business leaders and entrepreneurs – Dame Anne Salmond is global leader in anthropology and history whose international reputation and reach goes far beyond her place at the University of Auckland – but all are willing to use their skills, connections and knowledge to help grow New Zealand.
“The country has already invested tremendous amount in creating that talent, and then we export it,” says Watson. “That’s not bad thing – Kiwis have always been outwardly focused, wanted to travel and go into the world and test ourselves in global arena. The question is, how do we leverage the capability of those leaders even if they don’t want to come home?”
The global business community is an increasingly mobile one and world-class Kiwis are cycling in and out of the country as opportunities arise here and overseas. It’s story Watson knows personally. She began her adult life on Rotary exchange to Canada, later using her doctorate in educational sociology from Victoria University to gain faculty position at the University of Pennsylvania. That led to successful educational publishing company based in New Zealand but servicing the North American market, among others.
“I took what I’d learned in the US and built an export publishing company from it. We were niche player but able to help children struggling with reading who weren’t getting the right resources,” says Watson. “Education is an area of real expertise for New Zealand but it was the connections we had that really helped. Those people weren’t New Zealanders but they were friends of New Zealand and it’s finding those ‘friends’ that is also part of Kea’s role.”
And it does work both ways: increasingly recruitment companies are using the Kea network to advertise senior public and private leadership roles that the expat community may not otherwise know about. Watson, in her global tours meeting with Kea members, often creates useful connections between New Zealanders who didn’t know the other successful Kiwis living among them.
“Meeting up with other likeminded New Zealanders ignites passion they have for New Zealand and gives them way to make connection,” she says. “Some of those people have been away for 20 or 25 years. They’re disconnected from their peers. Meeting with other high achieving Kiwis is valuable for them.”
In the past two years, Kea has partnered with other government agencies to help Kiwi export companies break into new markets, including two high-end Maori businesses – Chatham Island Food Co, fishing company that is now supplying restaurants in Melbourne, and Ostler Vineyards, locally little-known wine label that is stocked in high-end restaurants in Greenwich Village, New York city.
Asia, where Kea has 2500 members, is an increasing focus for the organisation. Asian business people who studied in New Zealand as students are another rich resource as Kea friends. “It’s not just the Kiwis based in New Zealand who need those connections,” says Watson. “It’s Kiwis based in London who may be looking to take product to the Asian market and want that local expertise.”
One of the challenges for Kea is getting Kiwi business people to accept the advice they are given by those with experience in other markets. “We are very individualistic people. We’re brave and we’ve always gone into the world by ourselves,” says Watson. “That’s great in one sense but now we need to be able to partner with offshore companies to scale up the way the global marketplace demands.”
Where, asks Watson, is the body of knowledge around creating those kinds of international partnerships? “New Zealand has tremendous potential but do we lack the vision and the consensus to go after it in collaborative way?”
The World Class New Zealand Awards are also about telling the stories of our best and brightest. According to Watson not enough acknowledgment is given to the remarkable achievements of Kiwis abroad.
“Our expats often have nostalgic view of New Zealand that is all beach and bach – they don’t know about the innovation happening here and that Kiwis are leading internationally. They don’t know about Xero and its success, or LanzaTech, which is partnering with steel company in China to create ethanol out of the steel manufacturing process.”
Kea wants to turn that offshore workforce of one million Kiwis into powerhouse of advocates, champions and storytellers.
“Our stories now are of great leaders and thinkers, innovators and commercialisers of IP out of New Zealand. These awards go some way to acknowledging the incredible, sometimes invisible, work our fellow Kiwis are doing.” M
Sarah Stuart is freelance journalist.