Traci Houpapa grew up on a King Country farm and went to school in Taumarunui. That’s not the conventional apprenticeship for someone on the way to flexing serious business muscle. But it’s worked for her. And for more than 10 years now, she’s been the chair of FOMA, the Federation of Māori Authorities which oversees scores of Māori business organisations. 

Here she talks with Dale about the paths she’s taken and the issues she’s dealing with in this role.


Kia ora, Traci. Let’s start with you telling us about your mum and dad who, I understand, had very different whakapapa. 

Yeah. Mum’s whakapapa is German-Croatian along with Irish and Scottish, and that whakapapa has shaped us as a family. Our father Garry was Waikato Maniapoto, Tūwharetoa, and Taranaki. 

My mum Vonda was born in Foxton and met my dad in Taumarunui. He was a farmer and they met on the rodeo circuit.  For both it was love at first sight. They lived together as one until my dad died. A real-life love story. 

And you grew up on a farm?

On a sheep and beef farm just out of Taumarunui in the Ngākonui Valley. There’s me and my sister Melleny and then two younger brothers, Garry and Glenn.

We had an idyllic country lifestyle. We ate what we grew and, once a month, we went into town for stores. Our mother ran the home and family, and E Pā ran the farm. 

One memory I have is that every evening we sat down in the same seat and Mum and Dad would say: “Tell us about your day.” And we’d all chat about things. That was the Houpapa childhood.

We went to the local primary school which sits on our whānau whenua, built of timber that came out of our family forests. That’s the kind of connection I have to that place. 

Were you conscious of what lands used to be yours and how Māori were disenfranchised from our whenua? 

As kids, we didn’t know we were Māori. We just thought we were who we were. Then one time, my sister Melleny and I stayed at a school friend’s family for a weekend. We caught eels, and we thought: “Fantastic! That’s dinner.” 

And when we took them back to our friend’s home, her mother said: “Hang them up in the tree and we’ll give them to the cats.” 

My sister and I were horrified because we thought: “That’s really good food.” And our friend’s mum said, just in passing: “That’s what Maoris eat.” 

We went home and said: “Hey, Mum. What’s ‘Māori’?” And she said: “You are.” It was a kind of revelation. Like the world changed forever, because we’re different people.

Traci’s mother, Vonda. (Photo: supplied)

Bit by bit, though, I suppose you became aware of Māori issues.

We grew up going to land meetings. It wasn’t unusual on a weekend for us to pack up the old Kingswood and head to a land meeting, somewhere in the North Island.

E Pā would sit at one end of a bench and Mum would sit at the other — and us four Houpapa kids would be in the middle with books or kai or whatever. I remember thinking it was pretty boring and wanting to go out and play with the other kids, but E Pā was clear that we needed to sit and listen because one day this would be important. 

And we’d all be moaning. “Yeah, but when? It’s hōhā. We wanna go and play!” So we’d sit there and listen. And, eventually, many years later, it dawned on me that these meetings were to do with revitalising the Māori economy.

I once asked Pā: “Why are we doing this?” And he said: “Someone has to.” 

One of the things my father did religiously was write a diary every day. He’d write about what he did, where he was, and who was with him. Those diaries make for fascinating reading because he refers to these Māori land meetings that we went to. 

Those meetings shaped who I am now. And why. And I think E Pā dying when I was 21 also helped set me on the track that I’m on now — although, at the time, none of this connected or made sense.

Garry Houpapa, Tracy’s father. (Photo supplied)

What are your memories about college?

Going to high school in Taumarunui was huge. Three teachers stood out for me.  Nancy Garland and Bunny Wildermoth who were the first examples for me of what you’d now call wāhine toa. They were articulate and smart. And Norman Tocker who taught us te reo Māori. 

And those three people were pou for us as Māori at school, and they role-modelled what it was to be Māori and professional. They promoted te reo, kapa haka, tikanga Māori.

Then, after college, you were a tour guide, weren’t you? A rousie in a shearing gang too. And other stuff. How important in your personal development do you think those jobs have been?

Hugely. And there was another person from my college days who was a big influence. That was Pete Wikaira, Chris Wikaira’s dad. Pete was clear that education was about life learning as well as academic learning. When you were planning to leave school, you had to spend a bit of time with Pete. He was our career guidance counsellor. 

And I remember asking him: “What should I do?” He said: “Live life, Trace. Get as much experience as you possibly can.” He said learning from books is easy, but learning from life is harder and necessary. 

Working in shearing gangs was like that. It’s hard, but it teaches you a good work ethic. It reminds you of how important working as a team is — getting up, delivering, looking after people, getting home, and doing it again. All that was really useful. We learned resilience and stability and doing a job well. That sets you up for life no matter what you decide to do. 

Traci was named a Primary Industry Champion in 2016, as the chair of FOMA and Landcorp New Zealand. (Photo: supplied)

You’ve always had an interest in kaupapa Māori. Why is that?

It’s never ever been a conscious decision. It just felt like that’s my life purpose. Our father came out of the whare wānanga. He was a traditional knowledge-holder. But he wouldn’t speak Māori at home. 

Our mother wanted him to speak Māori and for us to learn Māori, so she said: “Well, if you won’t, then I will.” And her pronunciation was so shocking that I’m sure he was forced into speaking Māori at the kitchen table, and we learned from there.

At college, Uncle Norm Tocker was our Māori teacher. In my year, I was his only student, and they had to change the school study programme so that I could take te reo lessons. I can remember the principal saying to me: “Traci, do you really need to learn this language? No one else is speaking it.” And I said: “Yes, I do. I want to.” And I’m still on my reo path now.

When I left school, I had a job at te kōhanga reo with Ani Henry, who has passed on now, and Ani always talked about how important it was to look after our people and to give back. In many ways, she shaped my career. After kōhanga, I did some time with the Maniapoto Māori Trust, eventually becoming the chief executive. And it just carried on from there.

Today there’s quite a wave of wāhine in strong leadership positions in Māori tribal politics, but it hasn’t always been the case. What do wāhine bring to those roles in leadership, particularly in Māori agribusiness?

I think the role of Māori men and Māori women is complementary, interrelated, and supportive. And I think we’re getting better at it, because we feel more confident about being Māori and operating in a Māori way.

We’re just starting to accept that this is how we work best. Every year for the last 10 years, through FOMA, the Federation of Māori Authorities, we’ve been running Huihuinga Wahine, our Māori women’s leadership summit, and we get 100–150 wāhine there just to hear from one another about our stories, challenges and opportunities. 

New Zealand is now seeing that the Māori leadership model, which recognises our men and women equally, simply makes good sense. Western society calls it gender bias, diversity and inclusion — we call it tikanga and kawa.

Really, it’s about trust and confidence, respect, and honouring an individual for who and what he or she is, and what they’re bringing to the table.  

In the Pākehā world, leadership is often a three-year role. You’re on a board for three years, and then you might win another term. With Māori organisations, you see stable leadership and people who maintain the confidence of their constituents and who stay in place for much longer. 

I’m thinking about people like Ingrid Collins from Whāngārā, Mavis Mullins from Ati Hau Whanganui Inc, Liz Mellish from Palmerston North Trust, Dame Naida Glavish, Kingi Smiler of Wairarapa Moana and Miraka, and the late, great Tumanako Wereta. They’re all people who have provided stability. And it’s a model that works for Māori.  

Traci with former US president Barack Obama. (Photo: Facebook)

We’ve just had International Women’s Day. What needs to happen to break down barriers to women’s business success? While we acknowledge a need for more wāhine in business, the reality is that many women are still struggling in their daily lives with family — and domestic violence remains a huge issue for us too. What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I thought the “Choose to Challenge” theme for International Women’s Day this year was too passive. We all know that wealth and wellbeing should be more equally and equitably shared across economies and communities. And that it needs boards and executives to be changing strategies and policies. But too many aren’t making those changes.

We’ve already talked about some examples of change-makers and legacy leaders — add to that Paul Morgan at Wakatū Incorporation, and Ratahi Cross at Ngāi Tukairangi Trust. They’re leading the way in developing leaders from their whānau whānui.

And we have people like Lisa Tumahai and Arihia Bennett at Ngāi Tahu who are pushing diversity and inclusion from a Kai Tahu perspective and who are holding themselves and others to account. 

Then there’s Dr Ganesh Nana who has moved from BERL to chair the Productivity Commission. Ganesh has always been about how we can improve the quality of life for families and communities as the basis for strong economic wellbeing. 

And even though the Māori asset base is now worth $70 billion, that doesn’t mean anything if our families, many of whom are still the working poor, can’t look after one another. So it’s a system change that we need to make as a country and as an economy, and Covid has provided us with an opportunity to really think about that. 

My biggest concern — along with freshwater quality, climate change, biosecurity and trade — is that we will just roll backwards and accept the old-normal as how we function as a country and as an economy, without focusing on how we can improve the quality of life for people. That keeps me up at night.

I suspect that one of the difficulties for the organisations you often work for is having to cope with changes of government and then changes in government policies and also the law.

For me in Aotearoa, the constant is Māori and the drivers are tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake. Yes, governments do change, but the constant is that Māori are always at the table. Whether that’s as iwi, as Māori authorities, or as Te Tiriti partners, Māori have to work with the government of the day and we have to accept that they’ve been appointed by the majority through the MMP system. 

If we’re clear about our strategies and priorities, as Māori we will make progress, glacial as it feel at times.

Part of the problem, though, is that we’re held back as a country because there’s still the sense in New Zealand that Māori need to prove ourselves as worthy, credible, capable partners to deliver on a programme of system change for our people.   

One aspect of the Māori business approach is our intergenerational focus. Not a lot of businesses work in that way, do they?

No, they don’t. And your question brings to mind another question you asked me about our father and the role he played in bringing Māori land back.

I remember on our farm when we were kids, we’d see one of our nannies in the middle of nowhere, walking across the paddocks and hills. And I’d say: “Where’s Nanny going?” And he’d say: “She’s walking our tracks. Those were the old connection tracks between the different valleys and iwi and hapū and lands.” 

That was a marker for me. He said this was always our land, that this had been our land for a long time, and that our nanny was walking on our land with the memory of what this land used to be like.

Then, later on, I think it was 1981 or something, when some of the land came back into our management, we were able to start looking at business models that worked for us. It feels like it’s taken 30 or 40 years to get our heads around what that looks like, in a system that is only just recognising Māori models of economic development. Out of 27,000 or so legal entities for Māori freehold land, there are still only 200–300 that are economically viable, and efficient, effective entities. 

My sense is that this is the first time that government and industry have sat down at the table with Māori, as three parties together, to talk about what’s going on in the primary industry for Aotearoa — and for primary sector leaders to openly acknowledge that they need to learn more about te ao Māori and the Māori economy and the Māori asset base. 

Because that is the future for Aotearoa. And it’s confronting, challenging and exciting. It’s a time when we can discuss how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go.

Traci in 2012, receiving her MNZM (Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit) for services to business and Māori from then Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae.

With your longstanding contribution to taha Māori business, there is a widespread acceptance of your skill, and respect for your work. But, when you go into a forum such as the very male-dominated primary sector, does being a wahine mean that some don’t take you as seriously as the Māori boards do?

When I started out, that was definitely true. One of the things that I’m clear about is that, in order to lead, you must have a good understanding of both culture and commerce, especially if you’re a leader in Aotearoa now. 

I’m fortunate to have the benefit of being part of organisations across the Māori and mainstream spectrum. And people are coming to terms with the fact that Māori are here, that our contribution to society and the economy is significant, and that we’re charting the future for this country and its communities. It’s confronting and challenging for some people. And it’s also kind of cool at another level. 

In the past, people have tended to regard our businesses as “Māori business”. But it’s often much more than that when you think of an organisation like Wakatū. That’s one of New Zealand’s most successful businesses, owned by a Māori whānau, and it’s a significant economic driver for the Nelson region and New Zealand. 

We have to flip the conversation so that people start to see that we’re more than “just” Māori. We’re actually leaders of industry, business and trade.

I’m confident in my ability to communicate strategy in business, and I’m also clear that I’m there because people have worked hard to make space for me. So I want to make sure that I deliver.

What do you make of the ability of your young, articulate, bilingual professionals who will soon bolster our Māori leadership ranks? What do you make of the next crop of Māori business leaders?

I’m delighted, and I’m confident in our future. And I love the conversations that are being had, some of them around the more traditional cultural premise that we contribute and add value, based more on generosity of heart and mind, and less around the western concept of diversity and inclusion.

And that’s something that has really struck me. That in order for us to progress at pace as a people, we must go back to some of those principles around culturally based leadership.

Otherwise, we subscribe to a western mould, where you lead for only a three-year term. Or, if you’re a certain age or gender, then you may not fit in at all. Whereas, for us as Māori, we’ve always been about hearing from everyone across age, gender, sex, and then settling on a decision in the best interest of our people.

And one of the things that I’m mindful of is that we’ve got this bunch of confident, culturally capable people who are ready now to be part of the leadership journey for Aotearoa. 

Couple that with the same phenomenon happening in and across the Pacific Rim and we’re really starting to see reconnection of people and place. It’s pretty exciting. 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2021

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