Fiona visiting a farm in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, Myanmar, where Proximity Designs were helping farmers improve their rice crops
It's a transition many Kiwi expats packing up their lives overseas and heading home can relate to.
Career-wise, she’d been thriving working at the coalface of international development.
She was a key player with Proximity Designs, a social enterprise in Myanmar designing and delivering affordable, income-boosting products to complement the entrepreneurial spirit of rural families.
Think small-scale irrigation technology, rural financial services and farm advisory services all designed closely with the farmers that need them.
Fiona was a contact for global funders before she moved into a more strategic leadership role – both positions had her rolling up her sleeves to gain an intimate understanding of the impact Proximity Designs had on the more than 100,000 farmers it worked with each year.
And socially, she’d found her tribe.
“In Myanmar, I had a phenomenal group of friends.
“In that environment, everybody looks out for one another, and there is always an adventure going on, always new people and places to meet and explore.”
There were developing world challenges – bouts of dengue fever and typhoid, and a serious bus crash - but her support crew was dependable, and the Burmese people naturally generous, caring, and quick to solve a problem.
“That was the nature of living there – that you could just relax into the chaos that was about to ensue because there would always be someone that would emerge to help you out, before you’ve even worked out what went wrong.”
Fiona came home to prioritise family – there were beloved elderly grandparents and a sister with cerebral palsy not easily able to travel an intrepid destination like Myanmar.
But Fiona says she was careful not to have rose-tinted glasses on.
“Despite trying to treat it like another new country, I found it really difficult coming back to New Zealand. I think it’s something that probably isn’t talked about enough beyond the first few months of coming home.”
When it came to work, she had to think about how to translate her international experience into an exciting domestic opportunity.
“I think Myanmar is a place that a lot of people just didn't understand.”
There was the assumption she’d spent her OE teaching English on the Thai-Burma border; others thought she’d come from Miramar in Wellington.
It took time to figure out what her next step would be.
She landed into a role setting up Ember Innovations, a new entity supporting the development of an innovation ecosystem for entrepreneurial initiatives boosting the mental wellbeing of people in Aotearoa.
The crux of it: The mental health response has been siloed as a job for government, but to meet the huge need in New Zealand innovative private sector responses need to be supported to pick up the slack, she says.
Working in mental wellbeing in New Zealand seems a world away from working with smallholder farmers in Myanmar.
But there’s an obvious connection between the jobs, Fiona says.
“We need innovation, we need to do things differently and use interesting models, and that’s how we’ll achieve step changes in social impact at scale.”
This thread that runs through her career began on an Asia New Zealand Foundation business internship in Cambodia in 2010.
Fiona worked with the ANZ subsidiary Wing, a mobile banking firm.
It wasn’t set up to be a social enterprise, but the impact it was having for people on the ground by allowing more secure, affordable, and faster payments was huge, she says.
“It sparked my interest in Southeast Asia and it really sparked my interest in using corporate business models for social change.”
Fiona speaking at a Festival for the Future event
Connections made through the Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network have helped Fiona find her groove again in Aotearoa.
“They get it. They’ve been through that experience. They’ve lived in different places and are more familiar with some of the challenges.”
A coup d'état in Myanmar in February this year and the resulting unrest that has gripped the nation has been tough for Fiona to watch from afar.
“It has been absolutely heart-breaking watching what's happening in Myanmar and feeling really helpless. Seeing people, your peers, who have built careers like yourself, and just having that future, their security and everything just ripped away from them overnight.”
For her, it’s deeply personal, but for many Kiwis it doesn’t warrant more than a quick mention – not because they don’t care, just because they don’t know what they’re caring about.
“It’s made me look at like any other crisis that's happening in the world through a completely different lens, because it becomes so much more personal.
“I can now picture people in their day-to-day and relate to it in a way that I couldn’t have before…when it was a country and a culture that I hadn’t experienced.”
Fiona has since channelled her expertise and grief around these devastating events to work alongside other network members on tangible projects supporting Myanmar communities in need.
While the pandemic and politics have restricted travel for now, Fiona says Myanmar will always hold a piece of her heart.
And, when the opportunity comes again, she’ll set off on new adventures.
“The learnings, the connections, the different sights and sounds – it brings a richness to life that I’ll always crave.”
In 2019, Fiona was named one of the Foundation's 25 to Watch – 25 young New Zealanders who represent the future of the Asia–New Zealand relationship.