“Why does the robot dog have no head?” I asked Brandon Hutcheson, the founder and CEO of the Aware Group. Brandon had brought his company’s Boston Dynamics dog, one of only two robot dogs in New Zealand, to the Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI) Summit in Waiuku, a gathering of over 30 New Zealand entrepreneurs the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono has taken to Asia since 2015.
This, and other far more intelligent questions, was asked over the course of the next day and a half as we got down to business. We wanted to bring this group together because we couldn’t do what we normally do: take amazing Kiwi entrepreneurs to Asia and host top entrepreneurs and businesspeople from Asia in New Zealand.
This COVID-enforced break from business as usual was an opportunity to deepen the YBLI network, a network of over 160 leading entrepreneurs and business leaders across New Zealand and Southeast Asia. In 2020, much of this was done online, but we jumped on the opportunity to do get together in person with our New Zealand entrepreneurs in December.
The summit provided the entrepreneurs with a chance to share their stories and hear from others tackling similar problems as themselves
As an organisation, the Asia New Zealand Foundation believes in taking the time to build connections kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face), continuous learning and sharing the challenges and opportunities we face. This guided the Summit and allowed us to initially focus on the values that drive us and to take the time to invest in whakawhanaungatanga (making connections and building relationships).
The participants were able to have meaningful conversations with top entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia (via Zoom), admit some of their ‘best’ mistakes at a fireside session, and hold a ‘give one take one’ session where YBLIs could offer what they needed – advice on how to raise capital or hire staff for example - while offering something in return.
It was fantastic to get everyone together. We had entrepreneurs from all across the country, including Raglan, New Plymouth and Dunedin, representing all sectors and at different stages of expansion into Asia. And we were touched by the video messages sent in from Southeast Asian entrepreneurs who have visited New Zealand through the Young Business Leaders Initiative over the years.
For many businesses, 2020 was a year where an entrepreneurial spirit was a necessity just to survive
The entrepreneurs shared their ups and downs of 2020 — business pivots, innovative social media, and expressions of support from their customers, but also the stress of making payroll, challenges with production, major markets falling over and the downstream results of travel bans. It was both inspiring and tough to listen to.
A key theme was that entrepreneurs are well equipped for situations like these – the same appetite for risk and the ability to learn and change that made the group such great entrepreneurs have helped them through this tough process. I was also struck by the collective responsibility the group felt for their employees; with most employing five or more people and many employing more than 20, this was obviously something that weighed on them.
One of the lessons of COVID is that Asia has become even more important to New Zealand’s future. Therefore, it was encouraging to see that many of New Zealand’s leading entrepreneurs recognise this fact and that they know how important it is for them to understand this complex and fascinating region.
The entrepreneurs reflected on what they had learnt from their visits to Southeast Asia through the Young Business Leaders Initiative and spoke of the region’s continued relevance. In Brandon Hutcheson’s case, 65 percent of the work that Aware Group now gets comes from Southeast Asia.
Green Meadows Beef co-founder Nick Carey described how his trip to Singapore and Malaysia in 2017 grew the business. “That was the enabler for us to commence our export business and make our connections to Singapore. We’re now exporting to our second largest customer.”
And Katy Pfeifer, of Wellington tech company MarginFuel, described how increased global interest in using technology to “come back stronger” was growing MarginFuel’s relationships with companies in Thailand, with expansion planned to other parts of Asia.
The Summit affirmed the Foundation’s role in building a community of peers both in New Zealand and in the region that can offer support, inspiration, pathways and – sometimes - cautionary tales.
It also demonstrated how the Foundation is a key part of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in New Zealand and that we are well placed to continue building bridges between New Zealand and Southeast Asia into the future with the support of this network.
And, if you’re interested, a robot dog doesn’t need a head as it would overbalance it. Creepy maybe, practical definitely.
The summit brought together more than 30 entrepreneurs the Foundation has supported over the years
About the Foundation's Young Business Leaders Initiative
The Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono has been delivering for the Young Business Leaders Initiative for the New Zealand Government since 2012. Funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), the Young Business Leaders’ Initiative (YBLI) is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s initiatives with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The programme sets out to create an interconnected network of entrepreneurs learning together and supporting each other in their business successes across Asia and New Zealand. It does this by supporting young entrepreneurs in New Zealand and Asia to build connections and business relationships; to identify and promote new business opportunities; and to grow sector-specific knowledge and confidence to engage in the New Zealand and ASEAN business environments.