In Aotearoa, the economy is strengthened through its connection with mātauranga Māori. At the University of Auckland Business School, the importance of that connection is taught in a programme dedicated to Māori business development.
Worth around $70b, the Māori economy, in all its vast diversity, is undeniably booming. From primary industries to tourism, technology and the arts, in its small corner of the world, the Māori economy is a testament to the evergreen importance of indigenous mātauranga, and the strength of adaptability in the face of change.
In the heart of the largest city in Aotearoa, the University of Auckland Business School has been nurturing a unique te Ao Māori educational experience for nearly three decades. Designed to empower tangata whenua leaders and entrepreneurs, the Māori Development specialisation of the Postgraduate Diploma in Business teaches practical skills, professional abilities, and specialised knowledge alongside leadership development and career advancement.
Academic director of the specialisation Kiri Dell (Ngāti Porou) is the cornerstone of this initiative. Dell sees the programme as a toolkit, offering a blend of operational skills like finance and marketing and a deep theoretical understanding of Māori economic behaviours within the wider capitalist system. “There’s a mix of theory and practice,” she says, noting that graduates have the option to go down the pathway of an MBA or potentially pursue a PhD.
It’s an initiative that goes back 30 years, initially sparked by the vision of the late Dr Manuka Henare (Te Rārawa, Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kahu) and Dr Ella Henry (Ngātikahu ki Whangaroa, Te Rārawa, Ngāti Kuri), who reached out to Māori communities to help students discover their niche in academia and business.
Dell’s ambition for the future of Māori business is optimistic. “We’re moving as a nation, growing the Māori economy, seeing the definition of Māori business expanded and extended. We really need to know how to manage our assets and resources and develop that capability across all aspects of our Māori population.”
The response from the community, Dell says, has been overwhelmingly positive. “A hell of a lot of the students go on to do an MBA, so that says something.” This sentiment is echoed by two of the programme’s alumni, Witeri Kane Williams (Te Arawa, Tapuika, Waitaha, Ngāti Rangiwewehi) and Te Aroha Mane-Wheoki (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui). Both are nearing the completion of their MBAs and credit the programme as being instrumental in shaping their professional trajectory.
Williams, currently the operations manager at Ruapōtaka Marae, says he found the programme at a point in his career where he felt he had plateaued. Upon starting the programme, Williams noticed an immediate shift in his mentality, a change which led to new opportunities and the ability to significantly contribute to turning the first profit for his iwi authority in a decade. The course helped Williams discover new professional pathways and networks.
“It’s OK to be ambitious. You have permission to be ambitious – that’s one of the main things I took away from the programme,” he says.
The course was not merely a platform for acquiring new skills for Williams. It was also a means of realigning his approach to his work and community. The mutual support within his cohort was a real source of collective strength, he says, citing the significant role of collaboration in his success. Williams also speaks warmly about the influence of Dr Manuka Henare, who helped Williams to integrate his cultural heritage with his academic pursuits, and in turn, use that wisdom to create lasting changes in his work. One such example is the integration of non-financial elements such as an endangered species census into their annual reports, providing a more complete picture of the value of their work.
For Mane-Wheoki, the news manager at Whakaata Māori, the programme has been pivotal in transforming her approach to work. Mane-Wheoki says the experience helped her shape her professional philosophy, opening her mind to the importance of ancestral wisdom in the business space, the value of controlling your own people’s narrative, and how journalism and other forms of story-telling can affirm Māori heritage and values.
“The most instrumental thing about this course is that it changes mindsets. Specifically, if you’re Māori, it helps you to not just value but also to incorporate everything you learned at home and everything on the marae into the way you conduct yourself.”
Talking to the alumni, it is clear that the programme is more than simply a stepping stone to an MBA. It is a tool for personal transformation, an opportunity to be ambitious, a platform to integrate personal, cultural, and professional identity into a harmonious whole. It’s a pathway to understanding yourself better while contributing to the growth of the Māori economy.
Mane-Wheoki saw her studies as a gift, one that allowed her to better understand the decision-making strategies within her industry and inspire her to aim for community impact. The programme not only uplifted her professionally but also ignited her ambition to create change for her community.
“When you become confident in your identity and who you are, that’s when the world is your oyster… my whole education path has changed my life,” Mane-Wheoki says. Her story echoes a common theme among the alumni of this programme – an appreciation for the journey of personal and professional growth it fosters.
Reflecting on their experiences, it’s evident that the Postgraduate Diploma in Māori Business Development at the University of Auckland is not just an academic endeavour. It’s an exploration of self and community. It’s a nurturing space that fosters the growth of Māori leaders, entrepreneurs, and professionals. It’s an incubator of knowledge and skills, where Māori cultural heritage coexists with contemporary business theories.
At its core, the programme is a testament to the vision and dedication of figures like Dr Manuka Henare, whose impact on the students is profound. He, along with other mentors, have helped shape the programme into what it is today – a space that embraces heritage, promotes learning, and empowers leaders to navigate the Māori business landscape confidently.
At a time when wider Aoteoroa is recognising the value of the Māori economy, programmes like this can be a catalyst for socio-economic change, a platform to bridge cultural wisdom with contemporary business strategies, and a beacon of inspiration for Māori leaders and entrepreneurs. Their success stories resonate in the halls of the University of Auckland and echo in the communities they serve, cementing the programme’s legacy in the evolving story of Māori business development.