How the World Indigenous Business Forum is empowering rangatahi and supporting Māori business

Earlier this month, the World Indigenous Business Forum took place in Rotorua. Aroha Armstrong, group manager for Māori economy at Callaghan Innovation, discusses the importance of empowering rangatahi – and how Māori cultural values match the growing social enterprise/business for good movement.

What does it mean for Aotearoa, and Rotorua specifically, to host the World Indigenous Business Forum?

Aroha Armstrong: Rosa Walker created the World Indigenous Business Conference 10 years ago, when she realised indigenous business issues were being discussed at length by non-indigenous people at international business conferences.

Māori are often acknowledged internationally as indigenous leaders. We are renowned for our language retention strategies, for maintaining our cultural integrity in a modern world, and more recently for our prowess in commercial activities.

Hosting this international event was huge for my hometown of Rotorua – and fitting. We are known for our Manaakitanga, our ability to host, and our commercial success in the tourism and primary industries. I grew up surrounded by Māori businesses, standing proud in our cultural identity and bringing the world to our doorstep.

A wide number of experts from around the world – and particularly Aotearoa – took part in the World Indigenous Business Forum. What does that support mean?

It’s gold. Having 500 international, indigenous business leaders come to New Zealand to not only share learnings and journeys but to challenge each other as well was a massive opportunity for everyone to grow. Some significant business deals and relationships were formed over the duration of the conference.

This is a global network of some of the world’s smartest commercial operators all with shared values around community, future generations, the environment, sustainability, and truly caring about each other’s success. With a network of connected global indigenous businesses, who knows where this can lead? We can change the world.

How do Māori cultural values match the growing social enterprise/business for good movement?

I feel the world is finally catching up with the Māori way of doing business. We’ve always cared deeply about the environment, people and our community. Our decisions consider the long-term and have future generations in mind.

A growing body of research shows us that consumers and entrepreneurs – especially millennials – are serious about social enterprise. New Zealand is producing great examples of this type of organisation, including Banqr in financial literacy, Simplicity with Kiwisaver investments for good, Eat My Lunch of course, and heaps more.

But Māori have been balancing profit with social benefits for a long time – before the “social enterprise” label was thought up. It’s something that really shone through with the indigenous rangatahi we hosted at the conference (our group was young people 16-30ish). They were talented, motivated and serious about business that makes a difference – especially in the environmental space. Some already had start-ups going, including one with a platform connecting young people to employers and career opportunities. 

You’ve also been involved with Kōkiri, a unique business accelerator dedicated to speeding up the development of Māori businesses. What are some of the lessons from the Kōkiri Māori Accelerator that can be applied on a wider scale to Māori businesses, and especially those being started by rangatahi?

Kōkiri is unique as an accelerator because it takes a broader view of business success measures to include social and environmental impact. I think this is something the wider accelerator system can, and should, learn from.

The benefits of our “wananga” style of learning environment (living together) and the resulting whanaungatanga (kinship and support) created over the course of the programme should not be underestimated. The way the start-ups helped each other out, and still do, is the kind of collaboration we don’t see enough of in our wider innovation ecosystem. It’s especially important for founders and entrepreneurs who tend to isolate themselves at a time they should be reaching out for support.

Kōkiri was successful on a number of levels, including all the teams securing funding before the final demo day. But big questions remain. Are we doing enough to have our people thinking about growing global/exponential Māori businesses from day one? Or are we still thinking incrementally? Are our global thinkers stuck with incremental growth because of lack of resources? What we hear time and time again from our counterparts and the people we work with is that Māori and kiwis in general have a lack of ambition, and fear of failure. How can we shift our mind-set, so that failure becomes a natural and important part of the journey to great success?

What comes next? What's the future of Kōkiri, and what about Māori businesses?

As a first pilot, there will be a review of Kōkiri to extract learnings. I would love to see the next iteration of Kōkiri continue to lift the profile of this style of learning and encourage more Māori applicants into our mainstream accelerators. Basically providing the opportunity for others to put their hand up and say “ME! I want to be in the next Kōkiri!”

Māori entrepreneurs generally don’t apply for accelerators and similar business programmes, often because they lack confidence, or don’t know about it. But when Kōkiri launched, heaps put their hands up to join and we even encouraged some to apply for other accelerators where they did really well. I’m still getting Māori asking me about the next round of Kōkiri, some even say they can do better than this year’s cohort! Realising that accelerators are places where we as Māori can excel represents a huge shift in attitude.

We have some great youth enterprise programmes running across the country (Young Enterprise Scheme, for example) but Māori participation in these programmes is still shamefully low. For me, the challenge goes beyond providing opportunities and access. We know a huge hurdle is attracting rangatahi to these opportunities and then giving them the confidence to give it a real go (particularly those that are disengaging early from our education system). Newer initiatives we support like Āmua Ao, lifting Māori participation in STEM subjects, will help to close this gap.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Working with the Rangatahi and Technology Zone for the first time at any WIBF conference was an eye-opener for us. We realised we spend a lot of time as indigenous people talking about future generations – but have we provided a voice for them at the table? Our leadership is often older, and in a world affected by technology and change we need to ensure our rangatahi are contributing to decisions about their future.

At the event, the rangatahi panel stunned the audience with their world views, confidence and advice. The panel was diverse. It included two female tech founders, an environmental activist, two social enterprises. The youngest person was 17, and the oldest was still well under 30. We were left feeling very much like the future is in good hands!

There is certainly more to be done to ensure our rangatahi have a voice in designing programmes and solutions. Growing soft skills like confidence, communication and empathy, as well as solid business abilities, is more important than ever. With a young population, Māori will make up almost a quarter of NZ’s workforce by 2038. We need to give rangatahi the best tools and opportunities we can because they’ll be key to building a brighter future for us all.

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