Iulia Leilua, Amy Oding and Gerry Glover (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)
Iulia Leilua, Amy Oding and Gerry Glover (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)

PartnersAugust 5, 2021

Three women at the sharp end of the tech revolution

Iulia Leilua, Amy Oding and Gerry Glover (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)
Iulia Leilua, Amy Oding and Gerry Glover (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)

The way we work – and why we go to work in the first place – is changing rapidly under the influence of technology. Simon Day spoke to three women who have embraced that change. 

This content was created in paid partnership with Vodafone. 

Many of the loudest predictions about the way technology will define the future of work have presented ominous visions of a world run by robots, with humans rendered redundant and unemployable. But while robots are proving cheap, efficient substitutes for some manual roles, people are proving more valuable than expected – there’s something about the human touch that can’t be replaced. In many cases, technological developments are in fact creating more opportunities than they are replacing. 

And it is people allowing organisations and industries to adapt and harness these technological changes. I spoke to three women who have evolved and reshaped their careers to respond to the influences of tech on their sectors: telecommunications, media and farming – sectors at the sharp end of technological revolution. 

These are three people who have refused to stay still as their careers have been changed by the digital revolution. They’re using this rapid change to challenge some of the country’s biggest issues, and try to provide equitable access to the tech that’s defining the future of Aotearoa.

Amy Oding – strategic planning manager at Vodafone New Zealand

Amy Oding (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)

Twenty-one years ago, Amy Oding began her career at Vodafone as a radio network engineer, designing cell sites and towers for mobile phones that had small glowing green screens, 20c texts and Snake. Today Oding is in charge of drawing the roadmap for Vodafone’s adaptation to and capitalisation of technological developments and the way they’re changing how the business engages with New Zealanders. She describes herself as a geek who’s passionate about tech and its potential for making people’s lives better. 

“My current role is more about understanding the economic and social aspects of tech. More recently I’ve built a team and created a platform for AI and automation. That’s an area going through big changes and having a big impact on the future,” she says. 

I asked her what AI means in Vodafone’s context – is it automated help desks and robotic repair units working on the communications infrastructure?

“Don’t think about robot arms. Think more about software,” she told me. “Robotic Process Automation – software that can mimic what staff are doing on their computers to take away repetitive movement. It’s helping programme repetitive behaviour to make things more efficient for the engineers. Our goal is to improve reliability and create a better customer experience.”

Research by Deloitte out of the UK showed that while tech has started to displace jobs, it’s creating them too – and at a much faster rate. Between 2001 and 2015, technological developments contributed to the loss of 800,000 jobs in the UK, but in the same period it helped create more than 3.5 million new jobs. These new jobs were on average higher skilled and higher paid. 

Oding’s career has been about embracing those developments. As Vodafone’s role as a telco changed existentially with the way devices and data have become essential extensions of our lives, Oding’s role changed too. Over the last 20 years that’s meant evolving to become less specialised on tech design and build, and getting involved in the wider conversations on issues like ethics and the social consequences of the company’s work. 

“It’s about having a broader awareness of things like sustainability, and these inform my role in the same way as bottom lines and profitability,” she says. “Keep curious. Keep learning. Machines are always learning. Humans need to too.” 

In Oding’s team they’re designing algorithms that help analyse mobile and data use to predict and understand customer use patterns. They show how the network is performing and allow for better application of capital, better management of faults and improved operations, to ultimately provide a better experience for customers. 

“Efficiency, that’s what people need, and taking away the repetitive manual work frees people to do work that customers value more. That’s the part that’s really interesting,” she says.

As a Chinese-New Zealander who was born in Singapore and grew up in Auckland (“I’ve been eating Marmite for a long time”), she’s invested in the diversity issues that come with new technologies. As a woman she was in the minority in her engineering class at university, and she remains in the minority as a woman working in tech, especially in a leadership role. 

She leads the Mana Wāhine network at Vodafone, helping promote gender equality in the organisation. The network has an advocacy role and acts as a support group for female staff. Network members build connections and share experiences through social events, panel talks and soft skills development. She also champions programmes to encourage kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), including events like the annual Mini Robot Rumble held by the Auckland University Robotics Association and supported by Vodafone.

“I’m passionate about growing women in tech roles, and encouraging girls to be curious about how things work. We need more women to ensure tech reflects the diversity of the world in which we live,” she says. 

This year Oding was named on IBM’s global list of women leaders in AI. The list recognised 40 female business leaders from around the world “who are using AI to drive transformation, growth and innovation”.

“There shouldn’t be anything holding women back from exploring tech or engineering as a career. The medical and legal professions are becoming dominated by women, there’s no reason why tech can’t do that too.” 

Iulia Leilua – Māori and Pacific systems innovator and cross cultural communications specialist

Iulia Leilua (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)

“Born and bred” in Taumarunui, Iulia Leilua learned to love reading, writing and storytelling from the nuns while boarding at St Joseph’s Māori Girls’ College. After attending the Waiariki Institute of Technology journalism course in Rotorua in 1986, she was chosen for an internship at TVNZ.

Māori on her mother’s side, Sāmoan on her father’s, she quickly discovered her passion for storytelling had an important role in sharing the stories of the people whose histories and perspectives had been marginalised. At TVNZ Leilua started the Māori programme department with people like Temuera Morrison and Bradford Haami. She was a founding journalist at Tagata Pasifika, TVNZ’s flagship Pacific news show, and in 2003 was part of the launch of Māori Television.

As a TV journalist she’d always been surrounded by the latest technological developments. From communications capabilities to the digitisation of the newsroom, she had a front row seat for the way technology was changing how people’s stories were told and how information was consumed. But she also saw it bypassing communities. 

After more than three decades in journalism telling stories about people, she had started to work from within communities to affect change. She’d created Brown Pages as a directory for Māori and Pacific creatives (with her daughter, Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz, who illustrated this story) and was working at the Cause Collective, a Pacific social change organisation.

“The whole thing about the future of tech is it’s perceived as something that is not inclusive of Māori and Pacific peoples. If you watch a lot of the videos about the future, it is very white. In terms of indigenous diversity and inclusiveness, there needs to be a lot done in that regard,” she says.  

In 2019 it was this need that inspired her to return to study a Masters in Technological Futures from Tech Futures Lab, a certificate in Adult and Tertiary Teaching Level 5 and a certificate in Systems Practice. 

“When you’ve worked in journalism for 34 years, you suddenly find yourself being the oldest female journalist in the newsroom.You’ve got to find an edge and I thought doing this master’s degree was a way to stay ahead of the game,” she says.  

Her masters project was to create a programme to disrupt systemic racism. When Leilua started the course in November 2019 she tiptoed around the issue, sticking to terminology like “unconscious bias”. Then on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota and the Black Lives Matter movement became a global conversation. 

“Suddenly racism was there in the conversation and it became an expectation that it was something you have to talk about if you want to move in this area,” she says. 

She interviewed nearly 50 Pākehā experts from a range of different fields to start mapping out what systemic racism looks like in New Zealand. She wanted to plot the attitudes and behaviours that keep the dominant system in place in order to find vulnerable access points for creating change. 

“A lot of research has been done on the Māori experience of racism. But there has not been a lot of research done by indigenous people of the dominant white system and actually finding out what makes it tick over.”

She’s created cultural competency programmes to help organisations understand their own failures and gaps in the system. She helps businesses run cultural forensic audits and then start to introduce changes to the way they work. She’s run her prototype workshop for MBIE and is about to present it at a corporate leadership conference. 

Leilua developed a digital cultural competency programme called Mana Moana that allows organisations to explore Māori and Pacific culture and heritage within their internal communications. She’s using it with The Warehouse Group to incorporate indigenous history, culture and perspectives across the organisation’s digital touchpoints.

“It could be a CEO or it could be someone on the factory floor. We have to be shockingly different in what we do. We have to tell a compelling story,” she says.  

Her mission, and her understanding of racism, is built on her own experience of a system that took away her whānau’s whenua when she was a child. Ambushed by the colonial structures placed on their land, and without coordinated leadership to push back, the system was used to displace Leilua’s family. 

Their orchard and gardens became a pony club. Their land was subdivided and in some cases the whānau was forced to start renting from the new owners. 

“My own experiences of racism have given me permission to experiment. It’s given me permission to be shockingly different. [I wonder] what could I have achieved if I was equipped to educate some of those people I knew growing up who were part of the system.” 

Gerry Glover – ​​Searching for new opportunities

Gerry Glover (Image: Ngapeita Leilua-Gotz)

Gerry Glover describes herself as the queen of reinvention. She’s run a farm, launched successful startups, left school at 17, raised a family, returned to study an MBA, become a grandmother and sailed around the world. Now, fascinated by the effects of technology on the world, she’s looking for her next mission. 

“You shouldn’t be afraid of keeping looking. I’ve never been afraid of change,” says Glover.

After she dropped out of school – “the nuns were happy to see the back of me” – she got a job, then married her husband at 21 and became a “farmer’s wife”. But her role on the farm was an active partnership with her husband as they attempted to do dairying a bit differently. 

Their management of the 228ha Drumlea Farm in Waikato was environmentally, socially and financially progressive. Their commitment to looking after the land – and their staff – earned them a reputation as smart modern farmers, won them a number of sustainability awards and then a sizeable profit when they sold in 2010. 

After more than 20 years at Drumlea, this presented an opportunity for Glover to invest in her own career. Although she’d never studied at university before, she was accepted into an MBA programme at Waikato University on the strength of her professional credentials. Tertiary education was a shock. 

“I didn’t know how to take notes, I didn’t know how to study. It was a competitive environment. I didn’t want to put my hand up at 40 and say ‘I don’t know’.” 

She graduated with a B+ average. Did she enjoy it? After a long pause she responds:

“It was a real sense of self satisfaction, having left school at 16. It really showed our girls that you can be multifaceted in life,” she says. “In this time of rapid change we have to keep evolving ourselves. Young people don’t appreciate that.”

When she finished her MBA she went back to dairy, contracting to other farmers sharing her knowledge and perspective. Then in 2015 she helped launch an online health service to guide women through menopause. As GM she helped her partner – the academic expert – commercialise the idea.

In 2017 her husband decided he wanted to do a round-the-world sailing challenge. He was going to be away for 13 months, so Glover decided to sell her share holding and follow him around the world. 

“Halfway through the journey, I realised I’d done the business thing with the farm, and I’d done the startups, I’d done some travel. But there was something that drew me into this boat challenge. I wanted to see if I was as strong as I thought I was.” 

In 2019 she did four legs from London to Cape Town. It tested her in ways farming, business and education never had. On a 70 foot yacht with 15 other crew, just 15kg of kit, no internet, no showers and only one toilet, they’d split four-hour shifts, and spend up to 30 days at sea.  

“You get assaulted with everything,” Glover says. 

When she returned to New Zealand she wanted to reconnect with people. She saw the way technological and social changes were arriving like a giant swell and wanted to better understand how to respond to it and how to help others navigate it too. 

“We are looking at change that is confronting us on so many levels that we’ve never faced before. We are having so much change forced upon us and it’s not just in one area. I think people are really stressed by it,” she says.  

Last year Glover chose to study again, completing a postgraduate certificate in Human Potential for the Digital Economy from Tech Futures Lab. It helped her understand the pressure people feel from how fast the world is changing, and it also has guided her to the next challenge of helping people find the knowledge they need to adjust to the new world. Because fear of the unknown is a feeling she sees in many people. 

“We don’t know where to go and get the information to understand it. The passive resistance comes from people because we don’t understand it and we don’t know how it’s going to affect our world.” 

She also found the experience an important opportunity to challenge some of her world views. Her classmates were from demographics she wouldn’t usually connect with and it was an essential way to understand what the world will look like.  

“We need to listen to things we don’t normally listen to. Talk to people you don’t usually talk to, talk to young people. If we’re going to create a better society, we need to be more cognisant of those views.” 

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