Face-to-face at the Maori Business Conference

23:12, Sep 17 2012

We forget sometimes that Maori have been in business for many hundreds of years. They were, and still are, very accomplished traders. Today their sights are set on developing closer economic relationships with China, a people with whom they have a close affinity.

We were reminded of this by Hon Dr Pita Sharples, co-leader of the Maori Party, who formally opened Te Hekenga, the National Maori Business Networks and Enterprises conference in Tauranga last week with a genial mihi whakatau (greeting) and a thought provoking korero (talk).

He also reminded us, particularly those Pakeha present, that Maori are an oral people, "You can't remain silent on the marae, put your head down and kick stones. You have to korero to be heard and you have to whakarongo pikari (listen attentively) to understand. And this is what we want at this hui; conversation and agreement about how we can work better together".

And for the next two days, this is exactly what happened - in an open, vibrant and engaging manner, often with peels of that high pitched, hard case, giggle that was not exclusively unique to Billy T. James. It serves as a good reminder that business and fun do mix successfully.   

The term 'kanohi-ki-te-kanohi' (face-to-face) was used and became the most poignant theme of the hui for me. Not only was it face-to-face conversation, it was a hongi when greeting men and kisses all round by the women. I could get used to this.

The opening ceremony also included a Waiata and a Karakia. This overt spirituality set a positive scene that remained present for the two day duration. And after about 90 minutes, we were asked to jump up, literally - it was exercise time. Seriously? What about coffee? As it happened, we remained more engaged and connected with each other as a consequence of these interludes. Pakeha conference organisers could learn a thing or two from all this.  

I was speaking at dinner on the first night about the New Zealand SME Business Network, a non-partisan group of nearly 2000 small business owners and their advisors, and how these networks could benefit Maori small business owners.

We formed the SME group on the social media site, Linked In, in recognition of the fact that 97 percent of all New Zealand businesses are SMEs; employing 19 or fewer people and yet accounting for 38.6 percent of our total economic output (on a value-added basis), and employing 31 percent of our workforce. SMEs are a vital part of New Zealand's economy.  

Maori business leaders recognise this and intuitively understand why it is important to encourage and support small business growth.

Sharples quoted a range of figures which, if correct, paint an interesting picture for small business.  He suggested the Maori economy was worth $34.8 billion, of which $20.6b was derived from small businesses revenues. I haven't been able to verify these figures but I noticed that the two skinny Pakeha accountants in the audience sat bolt upright.   

At dinner that evening, I was billed with Gordon Tietjens, the rugby sevens super coach; arguably our most successful sports coach ever. 'Titch' was great to chat with over dinner and, for obvious reasons, I was relieved to be up first.

While I couldn't reel out personal stories about Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu and super-skipper, Eric Rush, I could tell personal stories about making small businesses bigger.  

Other than Titch, and those two skinny Pakeha accountants who were still drooling, the room was full of intelligent Maori business leaders, the majority of whom were fluent in Te Reo. They graciously listened to me explain why SME development is important to our economy and how we are engaging with the Minister of Small Business to garner his support.  

My hope is that we will see more kanohi-ki-te-kanohi meetings of small business owners that bring Maori and Pakeha together in face-to-face, rather than face-to-facebook, meetings. We have a lot to offer each other, and New Zealand as a consequence; we just need to meet more regularly to understand this.   

Tenby Powell is an entrepreneur, builder of organisations, and the driving force behind the New Zealand SME Business Network. Join the SME network on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter at tenby.powell