It’s not easy staying true to yourself in the business world. But as accounting service founders Wyndi and Eli Tagi have discovered, channelling their Māori and Sāmoan roots was the best business decision they ever made.
When Wyndi and Eli Tagi first opened the doors to WE Accounting and Business Advisory 10 years ago, they received some interesting advice from the people around them: “Maybe don’t advertise the fact that you’re Māori or Samoan too much, it might not be good for getting clients,” they suggested. Worse still: “You don’t want to look too brown.”
It’s heartbreaking for the couple to reflect on now, but Wyndi, who is Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi, and Eli, who is Sāmoan, both knew they needed to feed the family and pay the bills, even if that required playing down who they were to get customers through the door.
“It’s a very white industry,” says Eli, of accounting. “And in all honesty, there were no role models for us. Very few people were marketing themselves as Māori or Pacific businesses back then so we didn’t know if there even was a market of our people to serve.
“I guess it was a sign of the times. We also knew there was racism out there and we had no idea if we could be accepted in a space that didn’t have many people like us in it.”
A handful of initial clients soon multiplied and the Auckland-based business steadily grew from strength to strength. Eli’s experience as a chartered accountant and auditor, which included spells working for the IRD, and Wyndi’s exceptional relationship-building skills from years in customer service roles, meant they secured clients quickly and word spread.
But in 2017, after six years of running the business, a personal tragedy turned the couple’s lives upside down.
“It was not a good year,” says Wyndi. “I lost my grandfather and then my father to cancer, and was diagnosed with breast cancer myself. I was certainly forced to slow down and reflect on what was really important in life.”
In those dark times after losing her loved ones and between rounds of surgery, Wyndi started examining what she and Eli had suppressed professionally all those years before; she began to ask herself who she wanted to be.
“There’s nothing like losing people close to you and having to confront your own mortality to make you think about what you really want from life – and think about who you really are,” she says.
What Wyndi realised was that she was a strong Māori woman who was one half of a very successful business. She realised she wanted to be a role model for other women like her and to help improve the statistics for Māori and Pacific people.
“I had hired a personal development coach when I was sick and through him I realised I actually had a lot to offer and share, both as a business person and a wahine toa.
“I had been a single mum in the past, and had come to a place where I realised I could prioritise both my family and running a business. I knew I needed to really step into my true purpose because I was suddenly aware of how short life could be.”
A big part of that was understanding that if she and Eli wanted to serve the communities they belonged to, they had to be more openly proud of who they were. They discovered through their business that they were in an optimal position to start helping others.
“We needed to walk the talk, and after really assessing our numbers we realised that nearly 50% of our clients were Māori or Pasifika businesses,” Wyndi says. “We realised that we could now be the role models we never had when we were starting out.”
Not everyone agreed, however. They received some business coaching from a large well known company, which asked the couple what made them different from the competition. When Wyndi said it was their culture, the coaching company said that that wasn’t relevant to business and wouldn’t help differentiate them in any way.
“I felt my heart just sink,” says Wyndi. “We went back to the car and I cried and cried. They pretty much said that we should spend less time on family and culture and more on business. But that’s not how Māori and Pacific people work.
“In our culture you don’t need to pretend you don’t have a family while you’re at work, or worry if you have to look after sick kids or parents, or justify why you send huge chunks of what you earn home to the islands. In our cultures, whānau or aiga and business are all intermingled and if there’s a problem, it’s always family first. To be told that our very way of existing and cultural values were not going to work in business in New Zealand was so upsetting.”
But perhaps one day Wyndi and Eli will thank that company, because it hardened their resolve and initiated a turning point in their business. “I had worked in a European-centric environment for so long that I thought we just had to conform to the way things were always done,” says Eli. “That mentoring made us both more determined to prove we could make money and have a thriving business while still being aligned with our cultural values. We knew there had to be a way to incorporate it all.”
And that’s exactly what they’ve done. If you go to one of their very popular He Kākano or Mahi Kotahitanga group coaching courses, it’s entirely possible to see company owners working on their business plan and 90 day goals while their baby sleeps in a capsule next to them.
“We no longer feel like we have to conform to a set of rules that weren’t really written for us and we feel really proud to encourage our business coaching and accounting clients to do the same,” says Wyndi. “Values like whānau, manaakitanga and hauora run through everything we do and we’re finding it’s appealing to not only our own people but pākehā as well. Work-life integration is something we should all be striving for, whatever the culture.”
Now loudly, proudly, Māori and Pasifika in everything they do, WE recently won New Zealand Advisory Partner of the Year at the Xero awards. Wyndi says it was a final validation that they can do business in a way that is financially successful while being true to their cultures.
Soon Wyndi will be getting a moko kauae, something that would have been inconceivable when the couple started their business almost a decade ago. “We’ve changed so much in 10 years as a company, but New Zealand has changed too,” she says. “We are aware of the racism that is still felt towards our communities in certain circles but there’s also an openness and an understanding that’s starting to evolve and it’s so good to see our clients stand proud in their mana and not be embarrassed of who they are and where they come from.”
And the bigger goal of changing those statistics is slowly being achieved. WE are developing financial literacy courses for the Pacific Rugby Players Association as well as rolling out Xero training to the NZ Rugby League Association and providing general financial literacy courses to other Māori and Pacific communities who need it. Both Wyndi and Eli speak regularly at Māori and Pacific business and youth events and have set up a branch of WE in Sāmoa, which serves businesses right across the Pacific, providing a talent resource for New Zealand accountants. “We know we can create work for people in Sāmoa by finding New Zealand businesses who want to redistribute some of their day-to-day work. Covid has really proved that the islands need to find ways to diversify as tourism is no longer as reliable,” says Eli.
“It’s crazy to have gone from people who were pretty under the radar about who we were, to people who are now driven by who we are and what we can do for people like us,” says Wyndi.
“But life changes and society changes and we’re really glad it’s all led us here.”
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