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Five questions on business and innovation with Kono CEO and Kea Award winner Rachel Taulelei

Kono CEO and Kea World Class New Zealand Award winner Rachel Taulelei is delivering a keynote address at Callaghan Innovation’s Matariki X conference, being held on 26 July in Rotorua. Here she shares the best business advice she’s ever been given, the payoff for being brave in business, advice for tackling one of the biggest challenges that start-ups face and how Te Ao Māori shapes her business decisions.

What’s the best business advice you've ever been given?

My Dad has always been in business for himself and once when he was going through some pretty tough times with the business, he was pacing our driveway and I asked if everything was okay. He told me: "It's fine. It will be fine. Whatever you do in life, just make sure you take time to smell the daphne." Retrospectively, I realised he was telling me just to make sure you allow yourself to take a breath. Usually, when you do that, you get more clarity. If you don’t, you're perpetually sprinting. It’s tough to make yourself slow down, you really have to do that by design, but it’s worth it.

The other piece of advice I was given, by one of my former managers, was that your professional life can hinge on what you read and who you know. Both of those have rung true for me, but particularly the ability to build strong professional networks and look after them. In Aotearoa we tend to think building networks is about making friends but in the US they’re good at building connections that are very grounded in business relationships and business benefits. I've seen and experienced the ability to influence a situation or an outcome through those networks.

To innovate or do something different often requires an element of risk or leap of faith. Can you describe a decision you’ve made in your career that required a bit of bravery?

Before I joined Kono, I had my own business, Yellow Brick Road. It was the first – and only – business I'd ever created, and I was firm in my view that I wasn’t building a business for sale, mostly because it might drive my behaviours in unintentional ways. But then in 2015, Kono wanted to buy Yellow Brick Road. Even though I knew the people involved and had done a period of time as an associate director on the Kono board, and I was offered the job as CEO of Kono, it was still an exercise in great trust. Up until that point I had made all the decisions as the owner-operator, and I had worked on every piece of the business, so it was definitely a leap of faith into a brave new world for me. But that faith has paid off.

It's hard to scale a good idea or even to scale a great, small business. With Yellow Brick Road moving into Kono, all of a sudden, it was cocooned by ideas and access to resource, and people who were heavily invested, so it wasn’t just down to me. You have the ability to supercharge your business when that happens.

Based on your experience, what is a common hurdle that start-ups face – and what’s your advice for overcoming it?

The challenge with having a start-up is that you are constantly ‘on’. You're invariably in a small tight team who do everything from packing product to sales to writing strategy – if you even get the time to write a strategy. So, because you’re constantly working in the business you can struggle to work on the business and to think about the bigger picture.

The answer comes down to discipline. Discipline to carve out part of your week, where you turn everything else off and separate yourself from the noise. That’s when you can tune your mind into how to build your business, because my experience is that it will not – it does not – happen while you're in the thick of it.

You need to separate yourself from the noise quite deliberately so you have the space to ask the big questions: "What would make this a great business? What would make us a more sustainable business?"

My other piece of advice for start-ups is to seek out people who can provide you with advice and direction. It was only in the latter part of Yellow Brick Road, which I owned for ten years, that I put in place an advisory board. At that point I was already sitting on other people's boards and you cannot be advising other businesses without seeking a similar calibre of advice yourself, to grow what you know. It can be scary to open yourself up, especially when your business is already considered a ‘success’, and invite people to provide their critical feedback. It's confronting and it's revealing. I was careful to choose people I respected as my advisors. The key is to seek out people who you consider to be exemplars and then be open to getting their very frank and, hopefully, free advice.

Does Te Ao Māori impact or inform your business decisions?

It’s one of those things that is hard to separate out from who we are, who I am. It's at the heart of every part of our lives and our beliefs and it only allows for one way of being. What you find is that many of us are expert at walking two worlds, very easily and naturally, but your inclination still is to base yourself, your decisions and your perspective on your core beliefs. I think it’s a real strength, a real grounding. What's amazing about my present role is that I get to be Māori every day, to live my values, and unapologetically so, and it's liberating to be surrounded by people who are of the same mindset. For me, what that drives home, is the privilege of having that position of collective thought.

How can New Zealand businesses prepare themselves to succeed now and in the future?

One of the questions [my colleague] Miriana Stephens asks us to think about is: are we being good ancestors? I think that is super profound. When our children look back, will they think “they looked out for us” or will they think that we oversaw a real slash and burn period in our history. If we look back at ancestors, the way that they interacted with the land, was a very regenerative relationship with the whenua and moana. They understood it was all inextricably linked and treated them as living beings, with the idea that you care for them the way you would care for your family. As a society, we don't do that.

So, in terms of where we should focus our energy, science and R&D is exceptionally important. Focusing on nutrition and wellness is super important. But, in the end, if we're not caring for our whenua and our moana, well, all of it is completely lost.

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