The power of Network connections

The impact of COVID on Leadership Network members' ability to simply chat and make casual connections was brought home to Sebastian Newman-Dennis following a chance phone call with a fellow network member. That phone call not only produced an unforeseen business relationship it sparked a whole new way for Network members to connect.
A portrait shot of Sebastian

Sebastian: “I can do my job from anywhere in the world, as long as I've got my laptop and an internet connection..."

Sebastian is a Shopify pro. He’s worked agency land, and now he’s branching out on his own. 

Shopify is a subscription-based software that allows businesses to set up an online store and sell their products. 

Initially about becoming a member of the networks Advisory Board, Sebastian’s phone call with Florence Van-Dyke, one-half of the sibling duo behind natural drinks brand Chia Sisters, veered onto the topic of Covid-19 fallout. 

Chia Sisters' products had sold successfully in cafes up and down the country but lockdown brought trade to a grinding halt.

The company's website wasn't quite fit for purpose and hadn’t been set-up for online sales. During the phone call, Sebastian was able to offer a solution to Florence’s immediate challenge. 

A group shot of Leadership network members in front of an old cottage in Otago, with autumn trees in the background

In 2021 Sebastian took part in the Leadership Network's Otago History Tour where the group learnt about the history of Chinese in the region

It was Easter 2019, Sebastian was locked down in his Melbourne apartment, and he worked remotely with Chia Sisters over the long weekend to build them a Shopify website. 

Interacting one-on-one and forming a casual connection with someone that can propel your career forward is at the heart of networking, Sebastian says.

“That is to me, what defines the Network, right? The Leadership Network and the Foundation create these phenomenal opportunities for people to connect and take those connections out into the wider world."

But with the onset of COVID, the network's ability to bring people together was reduced. 

While the Leadership Network adapted to host hui and events remotely or with a hybrid model, it came at the expense of opportunities to form casual connections. 

People weren't chatting at a break, or heading out for a bite to eat after - it’s tougher to engage in a sea of virtual faces. 

Sebastian felt the loss, so came up with a simple way to combat it.

Ngopi and Kōrero was born (although Sebastian is quick to acknowledge the name – inspired by the Indonesian for coffee and te reo for conversation - is not his own). 

The concept: randomly pair members of the Leadership Network for a one-on-one meet-up.

“You have a Zoom or, if you’re in the same city, you can do it in person - it could be a coffee, it could be a beer.

“You can end up talking to someone you might not normally talk to, and I’ve loved that. 

With none of the formalities of an organised networking event to grease the wheels, it may seem daunting to jump into an intimate meet-up, but Sebastian says there’s an obvious natural icebreaker among members of the Network - a shared experience of, and love for, Asia.

For Sebastian, it began with expat life in Singapore from age nine to 14. 

“We did lots of travel around Southeast Asia as a family, and we definitely weren't a resort type of family - We were the, you know, go to the Khmer Rouge killing-fields sort of tourists. 

“I really developed an affinity for the region.”

He returned in his early 20s – first a semester at a Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, on a Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia, then a stint with a tech start-up, back in Singapore. 

Sebastian sitting on a bench with fellow Leadership Network members listening to a man talk

Sebastian (fourth from right) listening to historian Dr James Ng during the Leadership Network's Otago History Tour in 2021

Like others in the Network, Sebastian’s work right now isn’t directly tied to Asia. 

But the region is always on his radar. 

“I see myself going back there sometime in the future…I have a lot of friends and connections there.

“I can do my job from anywhere in the world, as long as I've got my laptop and an internet connection, and so I absolutely see opportunity in those markets, building up a solid client base, and working like that.” 

He also has a side-hustle in Tumjal – an eggplant relish business, and there’s scope to scale in Asia.

“We've got big aspirations for Tumjal in an export sense, or a local production sense, for these markets.”

He's been able to tap into the knowledge of fellow entrepreneurs in the network when needed.

“The ability to comb through the directory and go ‘Oh, look, that person’s bio says they're doing something food-related…I've got this sourcing issue at the moment, so I'm just going to drop them an email and see if they can help’.

“I've never, ever had anyone say no…And I think that's an incredible Network that the Foundation's fostered.”