MEttle sat down with three noted entrepreneurs – Cecilia Robinson, Carmen Vicelich and Frances Valintine – all leaders transforming New Zealand’s business landscape into a modern, data-driven ecosystem. We asked them questions to look behind their successes to see what propels them as people, as women, and as leaders – and to ask what New Zealand businesses need to do to advance.
First, some introductions
Carmen Vicelich is the founder of two globally-successful businesses, Valocity and Data Insight. Valocity digitally connects the property ecosystem to streamline mortgage valuation, in parallel with the insurance and property decision process – enabling a more seamless customer experience as well as regulatory compliance. Data Insight helps many of Australasia's largest organisations grow revenue, operational efficiency and customer experiences through harnessing the power of data and technology to accelerate data-driven decisions.
Originally from Sweden, Cecilia Robinson has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade. Alongside her husband James, Cecilia founded Au Pair Link in 2007 and then My Food Bag in 2012. With run rate revenue exceeding $100 million in two years from inception, My Food Bag changed the landscape of the online retail food sector. Cecilia and James’ most recent venture is Tend Health, a digital-first primary healthcare platform aiming to transform healthcare for current and future generations. Tend enables patients to see a doctor, online or in person their way. Having recently made some significant acquisitions, Tend is on track to become one of the largest primary healthcare providers in Auckland in 2022. Creating a hundred-year business, with a 10-year strategy Tend is focused on making Kiwis the= healthiest people in the world with further acquisitions and pharmacy extensions planned in 2022.
Frances Valintine CNZM is the creator of The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab. The Mind Lab was founded in 2014 for professionals to develop contemporary knowledge and digital skills for today's rapidly evolving world and the future of work. Tech Futures Lab is a graduate school and institute Frances established in 2016 to develop understanding of how technology and changing societal expectations impact businesses, their people, the planet and policy. Both institutes work alongside cross sector industries to build a new framework of applied knowledge to support agility, relevance and a commitment to the future.
Tell us about your background:
Frances Valintine says that she was born in Hāwera, in Taranaki.
“I spent my early days on our family farm, living a self-sufficient lifestyle and spending a lot of time working in the family business, dealing with produce and packaging. It was a very industrial childhood, with all hands on deck.
“I moved to Auckland as a teenager, and then at 17 I decided to take a one way ticket to London. I jumped on a plane and headed there, entirely on the gravitational pull of the unknown and opportunity. This was on the cusp of the consumer technology age, and everyone was talking about Apple and Microsoft and how personal computers would change the world. This beginning of the tech revolution really sparked my imagination.
“Some years later, after returning to New Zealand, I became the General Manager and then CEO of Media Design School. My role started in 1999 and continued until 2013. In those early days New Zealand had no tech industry to speak of – it was very, very niche. We were approached by Weta and Massive Software, who said ‘we’re creating this Lord of the Rings trilogy. We need animators and visual effects artists, 3D modellers and talented people to fill the technical ecosystem and no one is teaching these skills here. Can you step into this space?’ Suddenly this whole world of early digital adoption was changing the future of creatives and everything they knew. We learnt about the visual effects industry through a baptism of fire. Overnight high spec Apple Macs and rendering machines replaced standard beige boxes. Computer processing and storage of digital files became our biggest challenge. This was the first look at mass disruption for me.
“My real ‘aha’ moment was when media companies all started to fragment and move online. Television, newspapers and magazines were scrambling to understand how to make digital models work; everything was being democratised at such pace. I recognised how infinitely scalable digital technology was, at negligible additional cost. I thought ‘if the same disruption occurred in every industry, then what skills will people need to learn?’ I realised that all professions would be required to understand technology, integration, and new business models.”
When I think about entrepreneurship it’s about thinking what could be done better, and not letting it rest.
Cecilia Robinson says she was originally meant to be a lawyer, but her path led her in other directions.
“I’d studied really hard at school and had been accepted into the Stockholm Law school – four times. I thought my path was set. But then I went off to be an au pair in the US, and realised I was keen to travel. Then my brother went to New Zealand and I decided to visit him, meeting my future husband the same night I arrived. So, my pathway went from becoming a lawyer to suddenly living overseas and doing odd jobs.
“While I’d studied, I’d worked lots of part time jobs, from administration to waitressing. I also worked for Māori TV for a period, as a receptionist. When I started Au Pair Link, I was 21 years old and working full-time as a receptionist at a recruitment firm and studying full-time at Auckland University.”
Carmen Vicelich says she was not ‘your typical entrepreneur’ either.
“I worked for a large corporate, had four children, and I loved what I did. After 10 years of working there I took stock, and my husband encouraged me to start our own business. He believed in me, as I always saw the opportunity to innovate and use my passion for data and technology to solve problems in new ways.
Did you fall into becoming an entrepreneur, or was it planned?
Vicelich says, “I always needed to be an entrepreneur really. I’m the oldest of four children, and I’m not very manageable. I saw an opportunity to do things better, and I am a really driven, disciplined worker. Effort is not always recognised in companies, but I have found that if you’re willing to work really, really hard as an entrepreneur, the sky’s the limit, which I find exciting. It’s so natural to me now, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
“To start one business, I actually needed to start two to fund myself. While building Valocity, we started working with corporates who had lots of data and no insights, who asked me to help them with their own data. The work we did with them grew Data Insight which helped fund the creation of Valocity.
“Valocity recognised that every lender in the world has to validate a property before they can lend money, and for so long very little had changed. I talked to clients, asking ‘with a blank sheet of paper, how would you do this better?’ When we got our first pitch, I was very excited. The reason they chose us was because we solved their problems better than ever before and today we continue to do so globally across 600 cities. The lesson I learnt was to really understand the problem you’re solving, assemble the best team, and collaborate to innovate and as we created a digitally connected ecosystem of valuers, brokers, lenders and customers, we had to create a value exchange, otherwise they wouldn’t participate. When we looked at the valuations industry we saw the need to design a better user journey with the customer at its heart. Buying a house is an emotive process, and it is people’s most expensive asset, so we were working out how to make the process a more seamless and relevant experience.”
For Robinson it was a ‘falling into’ entrepreneurship situation.
“I’d identified a gap in the market for a professional au pair company that could operate at scale. I was trying to solve a problem, having wanted to be an au pair in New Zealand myself. Realising that there was no reputable agency at the time, I went to the US. It was incredibly hard trying to take a cottage industry to something more professional, but we managed to build Au Pair Link to what was at the time one of the largest au pair companies in the world.”
Entrepreneurship is all about the doing – that’s the advice I’d give to people: ‘stop talking about it and start doing it’.
Valintine describes the lifelong entrepreneurial streak that drove her into creating her businesses from ‘always having a side hustle’.
“From the age of five I was running a family produce store with my sister. I always worked after school, partly driven by ambition and partially wanting to make a difference. When I think about entrepreneurship it’s about thinking what could be done better, and not letting it rest.
“The Mind Lab came about because I was thinking about my kids and how their schooling looked like mine. It really bothered me. I kept hearing about STEM and STEAM so I opened The Mind Lab and said to schools ‘bring your kids in’ and let them understand robotics, coding, creative technologies. It was also about showcasing different type of learning. A few weeks after launching in 2013 a visiting teacher said, ‘I can’t believe how engaged the kids are; they’re so connected with what they are doing, but we have no way of replicating this in the classroom – I have no idea how to teach this’. This feedback unnerved me. I decided to find a way to teach teachers, so that the digital divide and new technologies could be taught in schools.
“If there was ever an opportunity to make a difference, here it is: teach teachers. Our programme launched in 2014 – a postgraduate programme in digital and collaborative learning. Since then 6,500 teachers have undertaken this postgrad programme – one in every ten teachers in the country.”
Were there particular people that inspired or encourage you?
Robinson says that her husband James has always been her biggest cheerleader.
“Often people don’t realise that we’ve always done it together. From the early days of Au Pair Link, as joint CEOs of My Food Bag and now as joint CEOs of Tend. He’s always been my biggest champion and he encourages me to be better every day. Theresa Gattung is another source of inspiration to me; she is one of our closest friends and has been with us on this journey from the early days in Au Pair Link to today inside Tend.”
Vicelich says that among the many people who have inspired her, it is her parents who helped her embark on an entrepreneurial life by encouraging the belief that ‘you can do anything if you want it and work hard enough’.
“They instilled into me the self-belief that I can do anything. You really need that as an entrepreneur; you have to overcome so many challenges that you need resilience and self-belief, asking yourself and your team ‘I know this is hard and it’s never been done before, but how can we do it?’ That’s fundamental to success. When you’re starting out, you don’t have customers or money: self-belief is almost a tangible thing that keeps you going.”
She adds that her husband is also her number one supporter, enabling her to chase her dreams in parallel with having a busy family with four children.
Is it easier today to commit to becoming an entrepreneur
Says Vicelich: “It’s different. Now people talk about how much they’re raising. We had to mortgage our house, we had to fight a large monopoly just to start. We bootstrapped, which forces you to be super focused and disciplined, an incredible executor.”
Robinson thinks the difference is that these days people are more inspired to head into entrepreneurship.
Emotional resilience and the ability to be able to make sacrifices in other parts of your life are really critical to becoming an entrepreneur.
“When I was young, it wasn’t a ‘career’ pathway, but nowadays everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, which is awesome! I do sometimes worry that people underestimate how hard it is, the sacrifices that you make along the way, and that there is no ‘get rich quick’ plan. The truth is most entrepreneurial businesses don’t make it to scale. Emotional resilience and the ability to be able to make sacrifices in other parts of your life are really critical to becoming an entrepreneur.”
Valintine adds that the world of business has shifted again over the last 18 months, through the massive circuit breaker effect of Covid. A whole new set of opportunities has been created and the demand for talented people who understand digital transformation has never been higher.
“Over the last 18 months every significant education provider in the world has moved online. The education environment has been totally democratised, there are many new entrants challenging traditional delivery methodologies by offering compelling content online, engaging through virtual experiences.”
What was the best thing about being an entrepreneur? And the hardest?
“The best thing has been solving problems and making a real tangible difference to people’s lives,” says Robinson.
“My Food Bag and Au Pair Link really defined our initial career and set us up well to focus on our biggest challenge today, which is Tend. We are setting out to transform healthcare in New Zealand and make New Zealanders the healthiest people in the world.
“We’re doing this so that the next generation of Kiwis don’t inherit the health system that we currently have. The best thing is looking at something like the healthcare system and saying it’s completely flawed but guess what, we’re going to fix it. We are going to be part of the solution. We are just at the start of building a hundred-year company with a transformative 10- year vision for improving healthcare for all Kiwis.”
Vicelich says that the best thing is being in charge of your own destiny.
“No one will come and rescue you, so you have to make decisions at speed. That’s the big difference to the corporate world – the pace. We’re here to get stuff done, to innovate, with no analysis paralysis. Sometimes you don’t have all the information or it's a completely new experience, but you need to make decisions, so embrace it – it is about always moving forward. This is where your personal and company values are very important too; having really clear values you never change makes it easy to make the right decisions.”
In a similar way, the best thing for Valintine is, “there are no limitations, no one tells you that you can’t go faster. You can move at the speed you feel comfortable, with fewer constraints. However, the hardest part is that there are times you have to be superhuman, show vision, strength, empathy and confidence, when inside you are paddling as fast as you can just to keep your head about water. Being an entrepreneur also comes with significant personal responsibility. You get to know your team well, and you know their families. This gives you the burden of knowing that your decisions affect everyone around you.”
You need resilience and self-belief asking yourself and your team ‘I know this is hard, but how can we do it?’ That’s fundamental to success.
What do you think corporate New Zealand can learn from entrepreneurs and people like you?
“In my view,” says Valintine, “businesses create too many unnecessary layers and complexities in an attempt to mitigate risk. Leaders should give their people enough clear space to grow into. We should identify talent and give people the space to grow and develop.”
Robinson also talks about learning, ‘on the go’.
“Entrepreneurship is all about the doing – that’s the advice I’d give to people: ‘stop talking about it and start doing it’. The idea is only ever 1% – if that – and execution is 99%. I’ve always said, ‘find a way to say yes, rather than a reason to say no’. People naturally gravitate to saying no instead of saying yes. However, by saying no we are static and don’t move forward, and in many instances, we are moving backwards without even knowing it. To be successful in entrepreneurship and business you’ve got to say YES!
“I also wish that corporates would lean more into entrepreneurship. It seems to be a lot of similar people on boards who come from a similar background and make similar decisions. Don’t get me wrong, accountants and lawyers are important on boards, but for businesses to thrive and be successful we need diversity of thinking as well as diversity in the background, ethnicity and gender of board members.”
Vicelich agrees with this saying the corporates need to “be bolder and braver. The world is changing faster than ever; driven by us changing as humans with technology and data. Many corporates want to do things right but take so long executing that things change before they do the project, so they can lose the customer and technologies evolve even before they do it. My advice is to think about the reasons why you should do something, not why you shouldn’t, embrace change and transformation.”
What observations do you have as a female entrepreneur
Robinson says that although it is ‘without a doubt’ harder to get cut-through in New Zealand as a female entrepreneur, “it’s easier now than 10 years ago because there is a lot more awareness and conversation around it. However, there are still massive gaps, and when you look both globally and locally, female-led companies tend to be valued lower and attract less capital. For me, as I’ve gone to co-ed schools my whole life and always felt very confident around men, it’s made it easier for me to navigate some of these pitfalls, but I definitely think a lot of women are disadvantaged.”
Valintine says that she thinks there are fewer female-led technology businesses.
“We need to keep addressing gender imbalance in the tech sector as the effort over recent years is making a difference. It is still very male-skewed, but I’m seeing interesting new things happening, with more opportunities and pathways in tech and data for a more diverse workforce.
“As a general rule most females start a business because of a particular passion, rather than a business opportunity. I don’t know any female entrepreneurs who have developed a business in a sector they are not passionate about.”
Vicelich adds to this by saying that female leaders are naturally more emotive and customer and people-centric.
“There’s nothing wrong with the authenticity that female leaders bring. As females in tech, we want to be recognised for our successes, not our gender – no special exceptions, just equality. There is still a massive shortage of female tech entrepreneurs though and as the mother of four with three daughters, I really hope to inspire our future generations to be tech entrepreneurs.”
How important is having a ‘purpose' to you personally and your businesses?
This is critically important to all three entrepreneurs. Says Robinson first:
“Purpose is the most important thing for us. James and I learnt the hard way that there are three key things that drive our purpose. They now guide our decision-making on what we do, or equally important, not do. The first is that we must do work that is meaningful and makes a difference. We want to create big businesses that operate at scale in large markets where we can make a tangible difference. This is why Tend ticks such a big box for us. The second – and probably the most important – is that we will only ever work with people who we enjoy working with, can learn from and where there is mutual respect. Lastly, our focus will continue to be on New Zealand, as we have no desire to move our family overseas.”
For Vicelich, success is all about purpose and people.
“I’m passionate about making a difference and making life easier for people, leveraging tech and data. We all have so much choice, so why you do what you do is important. Our children are growing up in an era of transparency, that’s their expectation. My children are already more deliberate than me about the choices they make, and corporates need to understand the link between purpose and people. Purpose is not a nice to have – people demand it.”
“For me,” says Valintine, “purpose is all about positive impact. My legacy has to mean something. I like working, and I want to be proud of my contribution.”
Better never stops. Embrace change, understand the problems your customer has, and solve them.
What one message would you send our readers?
“What we’re experiencing now is the most rapid advance of technology we’ve ever seen,” says Valintine.
“Covid is doing everything to speed up digital adoption rates. There has been a massive reset, and people are imagining new business and economic models every day. People are re-inventing how they see the future. Priorities have changed. Business is increasingly seen through the lens of impact, sustainability, responsiveness to changing customer expectations and technological adoption.
“In New Zealand we have two massive reliances. First, we rely on our industries staying the same – we’re not seeing the emergence of many new sectors, even though technology has been a massive catalyst of progress and development of new industries. Second, we’re highly reliant on imported specialist talent. Data shows that the top 10% of talent in our country were generally born and educated offshore. We need to develop our own domestic pipeline of highly skilled professionals who understand the significant benefits of adopting technology. We need to learn how algorithms, data, sensors and automation are a core part of business today and tomorrow.”
Robinson echoes the theme of change.
“New Zealand is changing, and we need to embrace that change. I’m hoping corporates will look to move to a 50/50 representation of women on boards and that they encourage and embrace this change.
“Businesses also need to be prepared for ongoing change post-pandemic and that their employees will want to continue working in ways that suit them, offering a suite of work environments rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all that is quickly dying. It's no longer cool to be the first one at work and the last one to leave.”
Vicelich also urges us to embrace change, and to “be the change you wish to see. For many corporates, they have a lot of success and are in a comfortable position, usually. But the world is changing, and it needs entrepreneurs, innovators, and transformation.
“My advice is to embrace change, embrace diversity and look to the future. Make decisions faster to be part of change. Better never stops, and we always ask ourselves ‘now what can we do? How do we make it better?’ Embrace change, understand the problems your customer has, and solve them better than ever before. Recognising that the future is ours to create.”
Download MEttle Issue 15
MEttle, a collection of stories and interviews with influential New Zealand business leaders, curated by MinterEllisonRuddWatts.