Maru Nihoniho remembers the moment she was prepared to throw it all in on her career. She was sitting in a bland hotel room in San Francisco, scanning a menu for room service. As she surveyed the empty words on the list, her heart sank, tears fell with abandon and a mountain of emotions collided in her head. She was running on empty, emotionally, physically and financially, her and her husband's credit cards were maxed out, and funding was further away than she could imagine.
"I felt so sad, it hit me all at once. I felt like I was wasting my time, my money and all I could think was 'this is such a stupid idea' and that I had failed. The tears kept falling, and it was at that moment that I thought I couldn't go on and couldn't do this anymore."
The feeling remained until she boarded her flight back to New Zealand. Her inner critic screamed louder as the journey progressed, ‘You should have stayed at school’ and ‘You should have stayed at work’.
"Maybe the teachers were right; maybe I should just go back to waitressing even if it isn't my passion. I was lonely and sad, I felt guilty about eating up our savings and leaving my husband to run a business and take care of our children,” Nihoniho says. “These feelings were bombarding me. It was so hard. But, somewhere at this moment, I found the strength to change. I knew I had to change my thinking and my approach to make this succeed."
Her persistence paid off. By the time she landed, she had the idea for the game that would become the first product she had gained investment in.
That was more than 15 years ago, and since then Nihoniho has gone on to become one of the foremost founders and developers in the New Zealand gaming industry, leading the way with her pioneering and award-winning company Metia Interactive. In addition to creating games that support young people with their mental health, she is on a mission to create games that educate, inspire and change the world.
These games include SPARX, an interactive game which was designed to help rangatahi (youth) with depression, won the 2011 United National World Summit Awards and the 2013 Unesco Netexplo Award in 2013, and Tākaro, which aims to get more young people into STEM.
In 2016, Nihoniho was honoured with a New Zealand Order of Merit and later named in the Forbes Top 50 Women in Tech 2018 and Māori Entrepreneur of the Year 2018.
Nihoniho left school during sixth form, much to the disappointment of her mother and teachers who implored her to stick it out and told her it’s hard for women, but even harder for Māori women. Despite this, she jumped at every opportunity a 16-year-old could grab, even working a short-lived stint helping a friend on the milk run.
While volunteering in an op-shop, she discovered a passion for helping people, and this kicked off a 14-year stint in hospitality, which culminated in eventually owning a restaurant with her husband. Life was comfortable: a stable career, a beautiful home, a growing family. But underneath the surface, a familiar itchiness was simmering.
"It didn't take me very long to figure out what was bothering me, I knew it was games and gaming. I had been playing since I was a kid and that's how I knew; it was driving my curiosity and desire to explore,” Nihoniho says. “The decision happened overnight, and I knew it was time for a change. I had to do something about it – I didn't want to be a waitress all my life."
This instant change in mindset can be a gift for some people, but for others, it is a shock to the system, including Maru's husband, who had to make adjustments to both work and family life to support and accommodate Maru's return to school and trips overseas to conferences and other industry events.
'Without the support of my whānau, I wouldn't have been able to do this. I had to step away from the business and leave it to him – it was a lot of task management, and it was hard."
Her complete dedication and all-or-nothing approach enabled her to navigate the change she was experiencing, including the constant learning curve that comes with building gaming prototypes.
With little experience in pitching or investment, her ideas remained on paper and didn't gain the traction she was hoping for until the moment in the hotel room changed her outlook on what she'd given up, and what she had achieved.
"Wahine were not taken seriously when I started out in the industry. It was a tough environment, there was not enough support, education, information or even respect,” Nihoniho says. “It's better now, but there is still work to be done. I experienced gender bias and sexism, and I was told 'girls don't make games,' but I dealt with it, and I didn't give a shit. Comments like that just didn't compute, as all the people I played with were girls."
Nihoniho says she is still working with and for people, much like she did in hospitality, but she is communicating differently.
"I found my 'this is it' – this is what I was looking for. For every milestone I'd hit in my previous life, I was thinking, is this it? Now I'm at this point, and it’s meant to be."
Keep an eye out for the rest of this series in the coming weeks, featuring Banqer's Kendall Flutey, Beyond's Jessica Manins, Sharesies' Brooke Anderson and Sonya Williams and Trade Me's Diana Minnee.
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