Does a warm and welcoming co-working space that also sells homegrown fashion and beautiful indigenous art – all while mentoring young creatives – sound a bit too good to be true? Manawawharepu Udy might have agreed, as Justin Latif reports, until she created that very thing herself.
It’s the school holidays and as I enter Grid MNK’s light-filled space in the heart of Manukau’s CBD a handful of children scamper past. After exchanging hugs with staff members, they retreat to a corner with some colouring books and iPads.
On the second floor, soulful R&B and gentle pop plays quietly. Artfully arranged recycled pallets break up the space into desks for workers, couches and long tables for meetings. There’s also a kitchen complete with an espresso coffee machine.
On one side of the room, local MP Arena Williams chats with a staffer over a plate of pasta salad, and in another corner a group from an NGO are deep in conversation.
Can a co-working space feel like a home?
Yes, if you’re at Grid MNK.
Evolving with the times
But Grid MNK is not just a funky place to work. The business behind it, Ngahere Communities, also runs an e-commerce site, Konei, which markets and sells NZ-made products by primarily Māori and Pacific-owned enterprises, and a mentoring initiative called Tukua which supports budding Māori and Pacific creatives.
Since its inception three years ago, Ngahere has turned over $2 million across its three entities, now employs 14 staff, sells products for 49 businesses from all over New Zealand, and supports 69 creatives and entrepreneurs through Tukua.
Its chief executive Manawawharepu Udy, a past guest on The Spinoff’s Business is Boring podcast, says the past pandemic year has proved both a blessing and curse, forcing them to evolve and expand their offerings as a business.
“The lockdowns were a bit like having your leg cut off because no one used the building for most of 2020,” she says. “But Covid made us relook at our skill sets and our opportunities.”
She says doing things from a “distinctively Polynesian perspective” has enabled them to carve out their own market niche, and their success has also caught the eye of both government and corporates. Ngahere has hosted the prime minister and her ministers for a number of visits, and has established partnerships with Vodafone and Microsoft.
A key factor in Ngahere’s ongoing success has been the backing of council-controlled organisation Auckland Unlimited.
The CCO underwrites Grid MNK’s operational costs, giving Udy and her team the freedom to determine what will best support South Auckland’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Auckland Unlimited’s general manager for economic development Pam Ford says supporting Ngahere has paid off already, and she can foresee a time when the business won’t need council funding.
“It’s really important to have a place for entrepreneurs and startups to have a community and we’ve learnt that through Grid AKL in the Wynyard Quarter,” she says.
“Ngahere Communities have demonstrated that they can deliver impactful programmes that create entrepreneurs and showcase the creativity of South Auckland.”
Ford singles out Udy as the key to Ngahere’s remarkable success.
“Manawa is a really special person in my mind,” she says. “She has an energy, enthusiasm and a persistence that is very much what you need to be an entrepreneur.
“And she’s not just trying to do some kind of cookie-cutter initiative, she’s really trying to capture the essence and spirit of South Auckland.”
‘Just a Māori girl from Rotorua’
Long before she was rubbing shoulders with the prime minister and corporate CEOs, Udy was one of three siblings growing up in a tight-knit family in Rotorua.
“There was never a lot of money, but we also never really lacked,” she says of her upbringing.
“On weekends, my grandfather would take all us kids in a van to gather food and teach us how to stay connected to our whenua. We’d just have a bottle of Sprite and a loaf of bread for the whole day, and that was all good.
“But part of it too, was seeing how enterprising my grandfather was. He used what he had to get what he needed – and that’s what I think an entrepreneur is.”
Udy, whose whakapapa includes iwi links to Te Arawa, Mataatua and Tainui, moved to Palmerston North after high school to study photography, and then headed to Auckland to pursue a career in the advertising industry.
“I won some national awards, so I had a good reputation,” she says. “I ended up doing a lot of product and packaging shoots for big brands. We would literally spend a whole day shooting just a teaspoon of sugar. I remember another shoot with a hand model, and we had to hand feed her, because she couldn’t get her hands dirty.
“At the end of the day I was a fish out of water as I was just a Māori girl from Rotorua, so I didn’t last too long in that scene.”
From there Udy tried her hand at youth work, community development and even studied at bible college, before deciding to start her own creative agency based in South Auckland.
“My very first year being self-employed was hard. I learned so many different ways to cook a cabbage from boiled or fried to coleslaw, as it was the only veggie you could get for two bucks.”
‘I own you now’
But then an opportunity came to tender for an Auckland Council contract to run a new innovation hub and co-working space in Manukau called Te Haa o Manukau.
Udy says she will always be grateful for that chance but having to answer to council management hasn’t always been easy.
“A council staff member said to me, when we signed the contract, ‘I own you now’. It was said with a laugh – but the reality was they actually believed they owned us and we would have to do anything they asked, on top of what was in our contract.”
However in 2020, the hub was rebranded to Grid MNK and the CCO, Auckland Unlimited, stepped up as the primary support organisation.
“What’s been cool about our relationship with Auckland Unlimited is that they really understand the economic reality and they have also buffered us against some of the economic challenges that we’ve faced,” she says.
Udy says the trying times she’s experienced motivate her every day to try and help others in South Auckland overcome their own hurdles.
“I found it so hard not having the money or connections behind me so that’s why I’m passionate about helping our creatives find a way for themselves.
“In South Auckland, we’re rich in things like our social or cultural or creative skills but poor in financial and material capital.”
But, she believes if organisations like hers can help South Aucklanders “overcome generations of bad mindsets” around business and money, then success can follow.
“I felt like I had a vision for this place even before I even started, of multiple floors being filled with people that were flourishing.
“And every step along the way when it starts to feel bigger than I can handle, that vision helps me pluck up the courage to take the next step.”