Te Whare Hukahuka: Sparking innovation in indigenous communities

A group of Maori social entrepreneurs created Te Whare Hukahuka to train the next generation of great Maori leaders.

by Julia Migne


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Shay Wright, co-founder of Te Whare Hukahuka. © Te Whare Hukahuka

Both from small indigenous communities in New Zealand, Shay Wright and Travis O’Keefe each exhibited strong entrepreneurial interests and were determined to make a difference for Maori people.

Empowered by the Icehouse, an entrepreneurship hub in the country, they decided to pair their experience of growing businesses with their knowledge of indigenous leadership first as ‘intrapreneurs’ within the Icehouse and later on as fully fledged entrepreneurs of Te Whare Hukahuka. Their vision is to “empower indigenous leaders to grow world-class social enterprises focused on creating thriving communities”.

We talked to Shay Wright, co-founder of Te Whare Hukahuka and Kimiora Brown, Ka Eke Poutama programme manager, to learn more about how they are working towards improving the lives of 10 million indigenous people and what inspired them to take action.

INKLINE: How did you come up with your name and logo? 

Shay Wright: It all started when we partnered with an Iwi (Maori tribe) called Ngāti Pukenga. They have a particularly entrepreneurial group of families in their tribe and so they wanted to redefine themselves as the entrepreneurship Iwi. The idea was that we would help bring out some of their entrepreneurial thinking, which was sitting dormant and latent, and help them convert it into entrepreneurial ideas, businesses and enterprises.

During that partnership ceremony, they welcomed us into their marae, which is like their tribal ancestral house and that’s where they gave us this name: Te Whare Hukahuka. That name has two different meanings to it: one is the literal translation for the Icehouse, as Te Whare  means house and Hukahuka can literally translate to snow or froth depending on whether you live by the sea or whether you live by the mountain. The deeper meaning behind this name was that the sea god Tangaroa in Maori mythology used the Hukahuka, the froth that sits on top of the waves, to birth all of the animals of the sea. In that sense, it literally refers to the domain of innovation and creation, which embodies what we want to be known as. 

We chose our logo because it’s the design of an ancestral house with some waves which reflects both Te Whare, the ancestral house, and Hukahuka, the froth sitting on the waves. The reason we chose the colour purple was because of a story by Seth Godin, an international marketing expert, which tells us “to be the purple cow in a field of monochromes Holsteins”, which means to be unique and to stand out, and we want to embody that for ourselves. 

Te Whare Hukahuka’s logo with its ancestral house represented on top and the frothy waves at the bottom. © Te Whare Hukahuka

I: Maori generally fall within the bottom 80% of indicators used to measure wellbeing, why is that and how does it impact on their level of entrepreneurship?  

Kimiora Brown: For me, Maori have always been entrepreneurial! They had their own ways of trading and operating and their own economy. After the European colonisation, there was a certain racism in policies created to assimilate Maori into Europeans. Essentially, they made up ways in which we lost our identity and so this gap in success and well-being just became greater and greater because of Maori not being themselves and not understanding what their place was in the world.

In 1840, a partnership treaty was signed between Maori and the Crown but never honoured. It took 150 years (1995) before the first Maori tribe was able to negotiate compensation for lands and cultural treasures that had been lost and stolen. We are now in a new era of Maori economic development where Maori are beginning to rebuild an asset base and regain a sense of identity and pride so that we can live prosperous lives and lay strong foundations for our future generations too. 

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Matariki Award celebration: Kimiora Brown and Shay Wright with programme alumni and TWH team members Tyrone Hack and Te Huia Taylor. © Te Whare Hukahuka

S: Maori have naturally been innovators! The fact that our ancestors traveled half way across the world and circumnavigated the Great Pacific Ocean to arrive in New Zealand shows the level of innovation that was present inside the minds and the hearts of our people. 

With the arrival of Europeans, the way Maori structured their society was put at risk because individual jobs were created for everyone. Maori assumed the lowest echelon of those jobs or were discriminated against so a lot of Maori fell through the cracks. They couldn’t live in their natural ways and they couldn’t speak their own language.

I: What has been your main challenge concerning Te Whare Hukahuka so far? 

S: I think a challenge that we have faced throughout our journey is ensuring a sustainable business model for our social enterprise, given that those that we seek to make the most difference with cannot afford the cost of our services. They are often impoverished communities who have latent potential but there is a lot of work required to get to a point where they themselves are generating an income to be able to pay for our services. 

At this point, we rely upon government grants that are relevant to creating economic development inside communities and upon charitable funders who are particularly supportive of the mission that we do to empower Maori communities.

Kimiora Brown, Ka Eke Poutama programme manager. © Te Whare Hukahuka

I: Tell us a bit more about your programme Ka Eke Poutama.

S: We had proven that we could make a significant impact with existing Maori tribes leaders and so Ka Eke Poutama was a way of extending that impact to help that new generation of young leaders to continue to build upon the successes that we are seeing inside our tribal entities. We are starting now when they are still young so that as these young people are emerging into leadership roles across our communities in the next 10 to 20 years, they will be – by that time – equipped, capable, confident and connected with one another to be able to step up in this space bravely and lead inside our communities.

K: I’m a product of Ka Eke PoutamaTe Whare Hukahuka saw that there was a constant problem that kept arising and that nobody was coming out with any solutions so they decided to create a programme to tackle that issue. They already had this expertise of governance and there were stakeholders who had interests in developing young Maori to be greater leaders. 

The main goal of the programme is to bring Maori into governance roles but it’s actually bigger than that, it’s an empowerment for Maori leaders, for the future generation as to where we are going. Most Maori are political because of what we’ve been through and we all naturally take part on those types of discussions and conversations. It’s a part of our lives. Governance is a good tool to start thinking of how we are going to influence our people to really start flourishing and to become self sustainable so they no longer rely on other people.  

I: Who inspired you to act within your own communities? 

S: It’s a common Maori experience to look at ones’ family leaders and look up to them. I was inspired by one of my ancestors who was a Maori leader in her own time. She saved a village when there was a huge eruption! She foresaw it in her mind and helped to save that community and they went on and set up a tourism village in Rotorua, which is now the capital of Maori tourism. Her contribution to Maori economic development is something I draw a lot of inspiration from.

K: For me, it’s my grandfather! People talk about him a lot and respect who he was in the community and what he did. He got pulled out of school at the age of 12 to look after the family and so he put an emphasis on sending his kids away to boarding school and made sure that they had an education. Even though he didn’t get a formal education, he would just read at any opportunity that he’d get and make sure that he was constantly questioning things. 

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Ka Eke Poutama participants practicing governance decision-making on the Ka Eke Poutama programme. © Te Whare Hukahuka

I: What is in the pipelines for Te Whare Hukahuka?

S: We are on the process of transforming our enterprise from a training organisation to being a digital technology business that delivers training and education services. It’s a fundamental shift in our mindset and what it means is that a significant emphasis is going into turning all of our programmes and our processes into digital ones and putting our training online.

That’s enabling us also to test whether we add the kind of of value into other indigenous communities around the world that we would like to be able to in order to advance our vision of improving the lives of 10 millions indigenous people. Being online is a key enabler to be able to do that. It’s a low cost, scalable way to create impact.

You can’t do it alone! You need to be strong and self-aware of yourself and you need to be willing to take the reflections and criticisms that will come your way, and just look at it as a way to constantly move towards your goal.

I:  What would your advice be for the new generation of social entrepreneurs? 

S: Be realistic! It is a lot harder than just creating an enterprise because you’ve got that double bottom line of creating social impact, as well as creating financial sustainability.

If you’re looking to set up a social enterprise, it’s really important to start with a clear vision of what you would like to achieve if you were successful, and the kind of difference that would be made through your work. Also, focussing on building a sustainable business model and starting that process right from the beginning is important. A useful tool to do that is the lean canvas model where sits out the nine areas of your business model on one page. 

K: You can’t do it alone! You need to be strong and self-aware of yourself and you need to be willing to take the reflections and criticisms that will come your way, and just look at it as a way to constantly move towards your goal.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Other people have probably done it before in one way or another, so don’t be afraid to look for that. You don’t have to recreate anything from scratch these days so look at what other people have done. 

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