Ziena, who grew up in Fiji, was working for New Zealand Trade and Enterprise at the time and was five months’ pregnant with her first child.
Ziena Jalil speaking at the New Zealand International Education Conference
The challenging role of building NZ’s profile in North Asia
Ziena took up a role with NZTE in Hong Kong tasked with what she describes as the “extremely challenging and exciting brief” of growing New Zealand’s profile in North Asia, as well as demystifying the region for Kiwi businesses.
“In those days, most New Zealand businesses focused on the traditional markets of Australia, the US and the UK and, while Japan was reasonably popular, China was seen as difficult and just too different,” she explains.
“On the other hand, in China, we [New Zealand] were mostly known for our sheep and green grass, a retirement village or holiday destination and not much else.”
During her tenure, NZTE broke new ground creating innovative opportunities to promote New Zealand businesses in the region – carving space for the Kiwi food and beverage sector in high-end supermarkets and at trade shows, for example.
She says a highlight was leading the international communications leveraging off the NZ-China Free Trade Agreement and the huge trade mission that accompanied it.
“It was a dynamic diplomatic environment - we also had the Tibetan unrest and, given this was China’s first FTA with a developed nation, interest was high from several quarters.
“And on the other side, in New Zealand there was still a lot of scepticism about trading with China. So, any communications strategy had to balance the upbeat with a measured tone.”
Hong Kong was an exhilarating experience for Ziena, and the city remains one of her favourites in Asia.
“My office was on the 65th floor of Central Plaza on Hong Kong Island. Not bad for a young girl who grew up in Fiji where the tallest building I had been in as a teenager was 13 stories.”
New Zealand Trade Commissioner to Singapore
Three years later, and pregnant with her second child, Ziena wanted a job with less travel but wasn’t ready to leave Asia. So, she applied for, and got, the role of New Zealand Trade Commissioner to Singapore, having interviewed for the position two days out from her daughter’s due date.
“I was not only the youngest Trade Commissioner, but also the only one of Indian ethnicity. I still hold both those records.”
The key to her role was helping facilitate deals for Kiwi companies in Singapore, which she managed to achieve while juggling the demands of a newborn and a three-year-old.
“My family loved living in Singapore. There was a process for everything, which could be annoying sometimes, but it also meant that you knew exactly where you stood. It was a great place to bring up children.”
Moving to India
After almost three and a half years as trade commisioner, Ziena decided to ditch the order of Singapore for the vibrant pell-mell of India.
She arrived in the middle of one of Delhi’s hottest summers and wondered, “What the hell I had done”.
But it’s the sort of place that gets under your skin, she says.
“A lifetime may not be enough for Rome, but for India, I think seven lifetimes - saath janam as they say in Hindi - may not be enough.”
Career-wise, India was a change in tack for Ziena. She worked for Education New Zealand as a regional director for South Asia and, later, Southeast Asia as well.
When she took over the role, both the regions had declining numbers of students heading for New Zealand. She helped change that by coming up with creative ways to tell potential students and their parents, as well as influencers and media, why studying in New Zealand is a great choice.
“If you googled me, you’d come up with pages and pages of interviews I did during my time in India, telling the New Zealand story.”
Ziena Jalil addressing an audience for Education New Zealand alongside fellow panelists Stephen Fleming, Graham Morton and Nathanael McKay
In January, Ziena returned to Auckland from her decade-long OE and has recently become a partner in public relations firm Senate.
She says her children love having grandparents close to home and are thriving at their local school.
“They’ve also embraced the slower pace of life here and the outdoor lifestyle – something their mother is slowly trying to re-learn.”