These days former Wētā animator Nikora Ngaropo’s passion is showing young New Zealanders how tech can change their lives. Still, he tells Simon Day, even a tech evangelist like him needs to switch off sometimes.
Over his career at Wētā Workshop, Digital and Productions, Nikora Ngaropo worked on the visual effects for some of the studio’s most high-profile films. But as he contributed to some of the biggest movies in the world, he started to notice there was little diversity in the staff or investment in developing the potential of communities underrepresented in the digital creative industry.
“I worked at Wētā for 15 years, I came out of there and realised we weren’t seeing a lot of Māori faces through the door. There’s 1500 staff and I could count the Māori on one hand,” Ngaropo says.
In 2016 he left Wētā and Wellington to move to Hamilton and launch his own motion design business, sharing his passion for animation with the next generation of young New Zealanders, especially rangatahi Māori. Nikora Ngaropo Motion & Design | Young Animators runs workshops with young people around Aotearoa covering the basics of animation, from classical 2D through to 3D visual effects. He wants to help give access to tech – and the potential career paths that come with it – to young people who would never have had the opportunity otherwise.
“I launched the business to share my skill set and uplift Māori in that space. We’re working with kids all over New Zealand, in 14 different regions across the country, in rural communities with people that didn’t have access to tech or high end skill sets,” he says.
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He’s also worked to advocate for the role of communications technology in empowering communities while pushing back on misinformation about its impacts. In 2020 he partnered with Vodafone to expose the dangerous myths being spread about 5G, and explain the potential of its arrival in New Zealand.
Ngaropo is a champion of the role of Māori in shaping the future of Aotearoa, and the world. In November he travelled to Dubai for Te Aratini, the festival for indigenous and tribal ideas held as part of the Covid-delayed Expo 2020. The vision of Te Aratini is to elevate Indigenous and tribal peoples’ knowledge and aspirations, and Ngaropo hopes it will show how connections made between communities can increase the power of Indigenous perspectives to help solve global issues.
His ambitions at home are similar – just on a more local scale.
The Spinoff: Why is tech such a powerful tool for young people?
Nikora Ngaropo: They are born in a world that is digitally native, and being able to show them how to not just consume but create and express themselves in different ways is really empowering. Tech can provide a very different pathway and living standard for communities if those doors are opened. I like being able to share that with kids who are coming through. It’s about changing people’s perception of what the opportunities are.
We use animation as an entry point to higher paying jobs in the tech sector. It’s about opening doors to different types of work that people weren’t aware of. Tech is aligned with higher value and higher paying jobs that can change the way people live.
Hamilton doesn’t feel like the most natural place to launch a tech start up. How would you respond to that?
It’s funny you say that. It’s changing a lot. There’s quite a few tech companies that have sprung up here in the last two years. You’ve got us, Company-X and Straker Translation, for example. And we don’t have the Auckland traffic. The pace of life is really good and it’s really central.
I was worried about being away from creative hubs like Wellington. In hindsight it’s been one of the best moves I’ve made. The Waikato has provided me with lots of opportunities. I feel very fortunate.
Do you worry about the potential negative impact of tech on young people too?
It does come with social pressures that didn’t used to exist. Especially for that younger generation. It’s a balancing act. It makes things easier, but even though you can learn things on your phone, the screen is still restrictive. And while it connects you, it disconnects you from lots of things too. You miss out on the art of conversation. Being able to engage people with words, there’s a real art to that. That’s not something that’s as cultivated now because of the time young people spend on their screens.
How essential is your phone to the way you work?
It’s a fundamental piece of my business infrastructure. I don’t think I could do my job now and work in this business without those things. My phone is an essential core part of my business. I use it to manage my schedule, to hotspot so I can work from anywhere. It allows me to always be available but also manage that availability and ensure I’m prioritising the right things.
What’s your most important app?
The calendar for scheduling. I try to carve out time for different tasks to make sure I actually get stuff done. I have to put my foot down around that or else you just end up spending all the time in meetings and get nothing done. You have to make time to do the work. You’ve really got to lock off those working blocks of time. If my phone is on silent, my team knows that I’m not available during these times. I make sure I create those spaces.
Do you have a positive relationship with your phone?
I do now. I’ve gotten much better with it. I don’t spend a lot of time on social media. The relationship I have with my phone isn’t just scrolling through the feed, it’s allowing me to be versatile and enjoy my pastimes that I haven’t been able to embrace. Being portable is such a huge thing as it allows me to be flexible and dynamic. Like today being able to do this interview outside basking in the sun. That’s something you couldn’t have done 10 years ago.
Unless I’ve got something worthwhile to say I won’t post on social media. So now the things I share have a lot more meaning; New initiatives, family or community. I want to be more present in the real world. If someone pops into my head and I haven’t seen them for a while, I’ll send them a quick video. The reason I like doing that is everyone has got 20 seconds. And getting a video that has your face and your voice and your interest and expression is quite different to sending a text. That’s one of the things I try to do now, if someone pops into my head I send them a message.
Finding balance between work and family – especially during Covid-19 – can be really hard, particularly for entrepreneurs. How do you make sure you’re present when you’re with your family?
In our household there’s me, my partner, and our three boys. We both run our own businesses as well, so trying to run the family while trying to manage the other things is a challenge. You’re bringing your work life right into your home. We make sure we put times in calendars when we’re not available and we’re committed to the family.
If you’re not able to do that, what is it all for? The reason we set up our own businesses was so we could spend time with our family in the way we wanted to. It’s a blessing and a curse. When you’re running your own business you’re responsible for everything, but you do have that power to move things around as you need to.
At the moment family time is looking like bike rides down to the awa. We’ll take an hour and a half out, throw some stones in the water. The other thing is just being in the same space. One of the boys might be on their device and I’ll be on mine, but he’s happy that I’m there. If he’s got something cool that he wants to show me I’m around and available.
What’s your guilty pleasure online?
Reading light novels online. My genre has usually been fantasy. I love it. It’s a bit of me time too. It allows me to switch off. I just finished Reincarnation of the Strongest Sword God. That was almost 3000 chapters. At the moment I’m reading Seoul Station’s Necromancer.
It’s not for everyone, but it’s great to take my mind off stuff. It also keeps my head in the game for the animation side of the game. Undercover research. I want to read something that takes me out of my everyday life.