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New Zealand Innovation Awards: Most Inspiring Individual, Helen Robinson

Trailblazer and leader are terms that could be applied to Helen Robinson.

Inspirational is another.

Having led technology companies for over 30 years, former roles include the head of Microsoft in New Zealand, chief executive of TZ1 Registry, managing director at Markit Group, and vice president of Pivotal Corporation (APAC). 

She’s an entrepreneur with interests in a diverse range of innovative companies, as well as serving as an independent director and chair on the board of numerous New Zealand organisations. 

Robinson chairs The Network for Learning (N4L), which is responsible for transforming education in New Zealand to “modern learning environments”; Cloud M (Blerter), a mobile network software company with the goal of sending workers home safely; and Valens Group, which focuses on building confidence in women in the early-mid stages of their career with the vision to increase the number of women in senior leadership roles. 

She’s also a director of Auckland Tourism Events & Economic Development (and chairs its Business Attraction and Investment group), the NZ Defence Force, Fulbright NZ and is a trustee of Aktive Auckland Sport & Recreation, which aims to make Auckland the most active city in the world. 

There’s a lot on her plate. But she’s not stopping there. Robinson is also revolutionising womens’ lives with her latest venture, social enterprise Organic Initiative, or “Oi”, a company she set up with business partner Bridget Healy in October 2015.

Oi produces affordable, 100 percent organic cotton feminine hygiene products, with the aim of minimising plastic waste, and improving women’s health worldwide by eliminating the harmful chemicals and materials normally used in sanitary products.

“Most people are unaware that all conventional sanitary and other hygiene products are actually made from plastic, full of chemicals and toxins which are bad for your health and terrible for the environment.” 

She says Oi’s tampons, pads and liners are biodegradable, independently certified and recommended by gynaecologists, midwives and doctors. 

The brand uses a provocative protest strategy to attract attention and invite women everywhere to #jOintherevolution, including slogans such as ‘Safe, Not Synthetic’, ‘No Lies Between My Thighs’ and ‘Revolution in a Box’.

“At Oi we believe we have a responsibility to change the world, to change the conversation and to change the products people use. ‘Oi’ attracts attention, ‘Organic Initiative’ is the solution. Our packaging and our marketing is designed to educate. The slogans are our way of helping people make the right choice – the right choice for them and for their world,” she says. 

Since Oi’s launch she says the company  has received constant feedback from customers who tell them the products have changed their lives and stopped chronic pain, irritation, and cramps. 

 “We are serious about Oi, not just in New Zealand but worldwide; together with our approach, our philosophy, our values and our customers we can remove plastic from hygiene products everywhere; we believe we can change the world, one tampon at a time… imagine the impact if every woman in the world used 100 percent biodegradable products. So much waste would be saved.”

Her first real exposure to making an environmental impact came at TZ1 Registry, which was set up on behalf of the NZX. 

“The goal for TZ1 was to facilitate transparent environmental commodities markets to reduce global carbon emissions and to preserve the environment for future generations.” 

During her years at TZ1, then Markit, she says she had an amazing opportunity to visit countries, including Brazil, and observe the impact of environmental need and growing devastation. 

Oi’s co-executive directors, Bridget Healy and Helen Robinson with the mutual friend that brought them together, Paul Dyson.

“In the Amazonas, for example, the communities and lives we had an impact in changing was completely humbling. We understood that we could help facilitate water quality markets, incentivise clean air action and policies and help contribute to saving animals at risk of extinction – a single organisation and a group of focused people really can make an enormous difference.”

Her six years as a director on NIWA’s board further illustrated the need to look after the environment, climate and water. 

“I believe every human being has a responsibility to do whatever they can to ensure the sustainability of our planet,  and there are simple things we can do to impact this.” 

Last year she was awarded the Supreme Winner of the NZ Women of Influence Award, and was recently awarded the United States of America’s Beta Gamma Sigma Honore, as nominated by AUT.

On her NZ Women of Influence Award win, she says as there are so many amazing women in New Zealand, so she was surprised and a little embarrassed. 

“There were 14 finalists in my Board and Management Category, let alone all the other categories. Once I got past the ‘oh my god moment’ it was obviously satisfying. Awards really are the reflection of the whole picture, all the people and organisations with whom I have the privilege to work with.” 

As well as championing innovation and sustainability, she also champions diversity. 

” Business is like a big jigsaw to be put together in the right way – it is this challenge that inspires me.”

-Helen Robinson

“Every business needs diversity; diversity of skills, experience, age, race, gender. To truly maximise the performance of the business you must have this diversity mix. Statistically, we know that women in business, women-led businesses, and women in leadership in business all have an exponential performance impact on that business.” 

With such a diverse business background, Robinson has seen people, and businesses, come and go, and is aware of the skills and attributes that are needed to succeed in the fast-paced, constantly changing industry. 

“Warren Buffett has a great list of attributes he looks for in leaders, which includes integrity, trustworthiness, skills to do the job, energy and love for the business. I would add to this list self-awareness and the ability to manage ambiguity.”

It is imperative you must be able to know and accept what you are good at and what you are not, Robinson says.

“You can always get others with better skills than you to fill those roles you are not good at doing, and focus on, and excel at, what you are excellent at doing. This will maximise your outputs and achievements and ensure that you love what you do.”

While Robinson is an inspiration to many, she says her own inspiration comes from her love for the business sector, and the challenges it presents. 

“I love how it is different every day, how complex it can be, how so many parts must be put together – the people, the products, the market, the customers, the environment, the timing. Every day we see great achievements being made by normal people who have a passion to deliver what is promised, and who excel at what they do…for me the bigger the opportunity, the more excited I become; business is like a big jigsaw to be put together in the right way – it is this challenge that inspires me.”

Evaluator comments:

Helen’s career is as diverse as it is impressive, but what stood out to me was her commitment to applying her skills and experience to Oi,  to create mass good for many. She is an inspiring and innovative leader, using business as a means of social transformation.

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Review overview