Opinion & Analysis
Dr Sue Watson, global head of expat organisation KEA, talks with business commentator David Slack.
How much more prosperous could New Zealand be if we had a direct line into the boardrooms of the giant corporations of the world?
It's not a fanciful notion. Consider the example of Israel.
"Bombs drop," the Financial Times writes, "yet Israel's economy grows." Foreign investment has poured into the country, even in the face of turmoil.
Israel is emphatically high tech. Their research and development spending in relation to GDP is amongst the highest in the world. Most of the big names in the high-tech industry are there.
It has 7 million people, no natural resources, is in a constant state of war and yet produces more start-up companies than almost any country in the world. How do they do it? The reasons are many, but one of significance to New Zealand is the power of their diaspora.
Start Up Nation, a book describing Israel's economic success story, reports that almost half of the world's top technology companies have bought start-ups or opened research and development centres in Israel. Cisco, for example, initially set up an R&D centre there simply in order to retain the services of one of its key employees who had decided to return home.
That small commitment soon grew. It has now invested over US$1 billion ($1.2 billion) in Israel. It's called "brain circulation"; talented people go out into the world, succeed there, return home years later, and are not fully 'lost' to either place.
New Zealand, with its diaspora of one million, could emulate this success story. One could argue we've already made a start.
Last month the Government released a report entitled Building Innovation, the second of six setting out its Business Growth Agenda. It suggests seven key ingredients to innovation.
One is the strategy of building international linkages, and in that respect, the role played by Kea - as the sole New Zealand agency charged with the responsibility of connecting with its Diaspora - could become significant.
Even though we have a history of trading, our linkages with the rest of the world are, in truth, quite light. We need many more connections. We cannot thrive on our own. Our choice is either to engage more with the rest of the world or grow steadily poorer.
If, like Israel, we could have the degree of connection it enjoys with the world's most successful businesses, and if, like Israel, those businesses were to come to see this country as a viable place to invest in R&D, the economic implications could be profound.
There are multi-nationals with R&D budgets that are orders of magnitude greater than any public or private sector research organisation here. The Chinese company Huawei, for example, which recently purchased a product from New Zealand company Rakon has an R&D budget of US$4.5b per annum. That eclipses New Zealand's entire annual R&D investment.
We're by no means the only country to have many of its citizens living offshore. But we have a greater proportion of our skilled population living away from home than almost any other country in the world. And they are highly capable, highly valued, and highly placed.
In many of the large corporations around the world, there are New Zealanders who have worked their way through the ranks to leadership roles. Mark D'Arcy is a top executive at Facebook. Sarah Robb O'Hagan is CEO of Gatorade Pepsi Cola. Craig Nevill-Manning is a software developer at Google. Leo Lonergan is Procurement Manager for Chevron.
Then there are the up and comers - the next generation of Gen X to Gen Y kiwis who are steadily making their mark. Victoria Ransom, the co-founder of Wildfire. Guy Horrocks, CEO of Carnival Labs.
We are in a similar potential position to the one Israel found itself - a position the country has used to great advantage for more than three decades now. The question is: will we do the same? Will we make the most of this opportunity to help New Zealand grow?
The Building Innovation report recognises the desirability of multi-national companies doing their R&D in New Zealand (it pays very well).
Naturally there is any amount of competition with other countries making the same pitch. But we have a strong hand to play, thanks to those Kiwi expats with leadership roles in those organisations.
We can strengthen that hand by creating a strong bridge back home. Many New Zealanders still value strongly their connection to this country. We should make the most of that.
A direct line into those boardrooms could be the making of us.