Callaghan Innovation's acting group manager for the Māori economy, Vinnie Campbell.

The beating heart of the Māori economy

Every year Matariki X brings Māori innovators and entrepreneurs together to share their experiences and inspire one another. Callaghan Innovation’s Vinnie Campbell says the Māori economy’s biggest strengths have nothing to do with money.

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Vinnie Campbell (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pukenga) is chatting happily with dozens of people as they criss cross the foyer at Rotorua’s Enery Events Centre. Callaghan Innovation’s acting group manager for the Māori economy is finally able to relax now that months of work is coming to fruition at Matariki X, the Māori economy’s largest annual event.

It’s the fourth year of the event, which started with a humble 50 attendees and now easily fills the main theatre. “It’s definitely changed and evolved from our first one!” he says. “The kaupapa was simply to inspire. To be entrepreneurs, innovators. Simply come along and listen to te ao Māori’s best and brightest entrepreneurs.”

This year’s line up of speakers included former journalist Billie Jo Ropiha, who had the crowd in stitches after describing the journey of bringing her “bathroom” inventions BDÉT and the KiWee to market.

This year the full-day event involves a morning of speakers from different business disciplines, an afternoon of masterclasses and a drinks and dinner “eco-connect” event hosted by 2019 Innovator of the Year, Ian Taylor. Attendees can plan their day and interact with speakers via a dedicated app.

Inspiration is the name of the game, but at the end of the day, it’s the connections that give Matariki X so much meaning, says Campbell.

“Of all the great things that have come from Matariki X, the main thing has been connections; the networking. Not just the participants that come along to listen but the speakers and panellists. The Matariki alumni!”

He lists the star speakers that have come through their doors – Steve Saunders, Jason Witehera, Bailey Mackey, Rachel Taulelei, Miriana Stephens.

“None of them knew one another, or if they did, they didn’t know them well. The connection they’ve made here has strengthened the Māori economy exponentially.”

Campbell is adamant it doesn’t matter the size of the business venture – the whakawhanaungatanga that happens at Matariki X puts everyone on an even footing. “The small and medium-sized, the pre-revenue company right up to the Ngāi Tahus of this world. It doesn’t matter.”

Because Māori IP is in such high demand, Matariki X and Callaghan’s Māori development team have a strong focus on international markets. The 12 masterclasses on offer include the circular economy, social impact, investment and building a global business. “A lot of our exemplars are big players on the words stage. They’re commercialising their ideas, commercialising their products. That’s what we wanted to expose people to.”

Matariki X masterclasses give entrepreneurs a chance to drill down into subjects that will enhance their business skills. Image: supplied

The key message from their speakers is always the same – innovation means nothing without hard work. “Bailey Mackay [owner/founder of Pango Productions], hard core Ngāti Porou; Steve Saunders [of Robotics Plus], Tauranga Moana, started right from the bottom and got where they are today with hard work. We wanted to expose people to the hard work that is needed to be successful. All our speakers exemplify that It doesn’t happen over night, you’ve got to have resilience. And persistence.”

In addition to the hard graft, he says the most successful projects are those with a point of difference – which is innate for Māori. “We took some Māori kids to Stanford [University], Silicon Valley and a few other places in the States four years ago. The Silicon Valley guys were asking the kids: ‘What’s your point of difference? Your culture!’ These are guys that have just sold $500 million companies.”

He stresses that for entrepreneurs here or in Silicon Valley, money is rarely the first or even second step. “Many of these people we talked to over there said they had no money when they started, but they had an idea. How did they become successful? They surrounded themselves with smart people, mates from uni for instance. They knocked on 145 doors and behind the 146th door someone said ‘yes, I will invest in your company’. For our kids and budding entrepreneurs to hear that stuff is just awesome.”

Māori are not typically the first to sing their own praises to the world but Campbell says he’s slowly seeing the whakamā mindset change over time in the business community.

“What’s that whakataukī? ‘E kore te kumara e ki ake mō tōna reka’ (the kūmara does not speak of its own sweetness). Yes, that is a factor, but I think it’s becoming less so. As our people realise, as they grow in the world of innovation and entrepreneurialism and come to grips with the te ao hurihuri (the changing world), that’s becoming less and less of a factor. People actually realise ‘you’ve got to tell your story’. No one else is going to tell it for you.”

Those unique stories have proven popular in markets like Asia, where strong values of family and reciprocity are shared. “One of our points of difference is manaakitanga and whanaungatanga. Looking after your guests. Taking time to get to know your potential business partner. In my opinion the rest of the business world can learn from that. We see mainstream businesses that are all about the mahi. They come into Callaghan Innovation and we put on a mihi whatau for that exact reason. To get to know the person. Find some commonality. That’s one of the keys points about our culture. And manaaki whenua, sustainability.”

He says “green kaupapa” is something Callaghan looks for in all it’s potential business partners. “The good thing about Callahan is that we have contacts globally that are leading the way in sustainability. So we can expose our people to what’s happening on the world stage, not just in our own backyard. Connecting Māori to international whakaaro, events, conferences is something Callahan does particularly well.”

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As for next year’s conference, he has faith in the evolution of the event. The heavy hitters won’t always be available, but the next generation of business leaders is already coming through.

“Of course we’ve got some big hitters in the Māori economy but we can’t bring them out every year, people will get sick of them! So we have to find the next generation, the pipeline of awesome entrepreneurs, which is what we’ve got today with the likes of Jesse Armstrong and Billie Jo Ropiha. She’s like, wow!”

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