Journey with Te Ao Māori and changing the meaning of government lobbying

Holly Bennett

October 30, 2020

Holly was nominated and recommended to us through Aotearoa Māori Business Leader Awards. I was super curious about Holly’s journey - as a young wahine Māori, she started her own business - HSB Government Relations to change what it means to be in and participate in lobbying in Aotearoa. She is an advocate for transparent and accessible government. In this interview, she shares her journey with te ao, business challenges, engaging people with politics and how she got off social media to stop the comparison game.

You talk about your multicultural identity and how that affected you growing up: “For nearly ten years I lived with this idea that I’m not Māori enough to be Māori”, what are some of the largest ways this impacted you?

The idea of being “not Māori enough to be Māori” is encapsulated in two words: ‘Plastic Māori’. Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand even defines the term as one used “by more culturally nationalistic Māori to refer to Māori who did not know te reo, tikanga or their whakapapa.”

For me, being Māori is defined by one thing and one thing only: your whakapapa. If you have whakapapa to a waka, you are Māori. End of story, point, blank, period.

We often hear about the “reo Māori journey” or a person’s journey into “te ao Māori” - but not enough is spoken about why this is such a journey, why it is hard for so many and can take numerous attempts, over many decades. I believe it is because we create impediments for our own. We don’t leave the ladder down for other Māori to climb up. Rather we are taught to perpetuate alienation and estrangement of our own people by making them ‘prove’ themselves first. They are plastic Māori, until they satisfy fictitious criteria and demonstrate they are Māori enough. It's unfathomable, but true.

My epiphany came as a result of four different discussions in short succession; all with wahine Māori. They were all business women and all left an indelible mark on me with their words, and mana. Three based in Kirikiriroa, one in Rotorua, and told me the same thing: there is no shame in how I had experienced the world for the first 27 years of my life: growing up away from my marae, without te reo, aspiring to build a prosperous future for myself.

They didn’t have any reason to lie: I was the new business owner, seeking out their help - not the other way around. All four wahine went on to say what I chose to do with being Māori was entirely up to me: and that's when I made the decision to lean into my culture. To not let perpetuated narratives define who I was, or let the ignorance of others continue to make me feel uncomfortable, suckering me into thinking I couldn’t do great things for our people in my own unique way.

What interested you in pursuing law; and inevitably working with lobbying and government relations?

If you ask my parents why I went to study law they will tell you it was because I spent my teenage years arguing about everything. I think the reason I did it was because I had an inherent dislike for things I perceived as “unfair”. I wasn’t thoroughly engaged at law school though: I didn’t particularly like the school culture, and spent more time at the Rec Centre than I did The Dave* (*the University of Auckland Law School library is called the Davis).

What I did appreciate about the study of law though, is the way in which it teaches you to think. Lawyers are taught to interrogate things from all angles, figure out the parameters of a piece of legislation and whether the issue at hand sits inside or outside, and if the law itself even works. Lawyers are taught to inspect what they are being told, which is why I think so many lawyers are drawn to politics.

When I set up my government relations firm in 2017, I knew the easiest way for people to understand what I do is to refer to myself as a lobbyist, despite knowing the term stirs a negative reaction in most. The term ‘lobbyist’ conjures up images of silver-haired aristocrats, sitting around a large oak table setting the agenda for the rest of us to live by. If you google the term ‘New Zealand lobbyist’ you will find over a decade worth of articles canvassing the age-old question: to regulate or not to regulate? Because for some, lobbying is considered the pursuit of buying influence out of the public gaze.

I was always fascinated by the way in which I was lobbied when I was working inside the Beehive: how some organisations have dedicated teams, whereas most SMEs don’t even know the service exists. So, I set up my firm with a distinct desire to change people’s perception of the industry. I want to shift deep-rooted, long held perceptions that lobbying is for the elite, the wealthy, the influential. The truth is that access to government and having your voice heard is a democratic right, and I want to empower people to use it.

Holly is talking to a group of people, behind her is a picture of Beehive projected onto the wall

Tell us a bit about HSB! How has it started off and changed over the time?

The start of my business is quite simple: it was toward the end of 2017, I was sitting in my Dad’s office telling him about some pro-bono work I was doing, helping people better understand how Government works (I had come from four years working in the Beehive). He said to me that I should turn this work into a business, and I replied “that’s weird”. He responded “it’s weird you think that’s weird,” and my business was born just like that!

I have always seen my place in the sector as lifting the lid on lobbying in Aotearoa. It has long been seen as something that is accessible only to those with deep pockets and the right connections, and this didn’t sit well with me.

So alongside growing my lobbying firm, HSB Government Relations, I spent considerable time in my first few years of business, developing and trialling new modes of government relations delivery. This led directly to the establishment of my second pakihi (business), Engage, which will have its official launch before the end of the year, with an event at Parliament.

In what ways has your culture intersected with or influenced your work? Does te ao Māori affect your practice or approach?

I never thought of te ao Māori as being something that guides my decision making until I began in pakihi. It was only when I started to interact with the crosswalk of characters operating in and around my sector, that I began to realise how much these principles meant to me.

My lobbying firm has a whakatauki: Kia tātai pūmanawa ki te ora, which speaks to the heart of what we do: we bind (tātai) different talents (pūmanawa) together for the wellbeing of everyone involved (ora). By acting as the central force that joins these people together, HSB brings social and economic good to all who choose to engage.

I have walked away from opportunities living by this whakatauki: whether that be because I didn’t like where the conversation was headed or I was sensing an uncomfortable, unspoken reason they were seeking my skills. Some may see this as a juvenile approach to business, but at the end of the day I am the sole Director of my company - I am responsible to society for the decisions the business makes. No amount of money will ever make me walk away from my principles.

Tell us a bit about your values & principles in life? What are some of the things you live by and passionate about?

Not long into my business journey I was fortunate enough to be gifted a personal coaching course from Kirikiriroa-based coach (and good friend), Andrew Miller. One memorable exercise Andrew took me through was around learning more about my core values - the fundamental beliefs or traits I hold, which in turn motivate my actions.

It is a great journey of self reflection, as you start by compiling 100+ kupu that you believe best describe who you are and your place in the world. You then work through the list, grouping the kupu together around common themes and traits. The goal is to get them down to just four words, and mine came to be: vibrant, The Captain, fairrealistic. and  

While simplistic, I do believe this is a fairly accurate picture of who I am: vibrant  The Captainfair realisticacknowledges my personality, always being my true (loud) self; is my tendency to take charge and lead from the front;  - because I have an inherent aversion to things that I perceive as being unjust; and - because I believe we should live life cognisant of realities in every decision we make.

Holly surrounded by four young people: two on each side, posing for a camera in front of posters from Ministry of Education, Tumeke Enterprise and so on.

We tend to assume a lot of things when reading and seeing peoples’ lives online. Based on many “success stories” and things we post on our feeds, it’s easy to assume that we got it all together and know exactly what we are doing. It is good to remember that all of us are really just figuring it all out as we go!  Would you mind sharing some of your personal or professional challenges that you experienced on your journey?

Personally I don’t buy into the social media facade: I deleted Facebook in 2013 and Instagram not long after that. I now only have LinkedIn, which I find is a great way to connect with others exploring the business world, and a place to educate myself on different viewpoints.

What I would say is that social media can be a very disingenuous place, where many people spend a lot of time painting a favourable picture of their life for complete strangers. This means it's on us - as critically thinking individuals - to decide whether we take these painted pictures - or “success stories” - as gospel, or just as they are: a favourable snapshot into someone's life.

“Comparison with myself brings improvement, comparison with others brings discontent.” - Betty Jamie Chung

I spend very little time using social media to validate how my life is tracking. I prefer to use my goals, my business advisors and my mentors to keep me accountable to what I want to achieve. But this does mean that I don’t often publicly discuss my business challenges, despite experiencing my fair share!

Without a doubt the biggest challenge I have faced to date would be having the courage to make being in business work. It is extremely humbling to go from near six figures to zero, and back yourself to make your own living.

I remember in my first few months of business feeling absolutely miserable: no clients, no revenue, and a very dim outlook on my role as a business owner and entrepreneur. I really wasn’t sure if business was for me. However, I was not unique in this experience that it all changed once I got my first client, and first invoice paid. It is best described as the flicking of a switch: what was a challenge has become a success.

No business owner has had an easy ride - business is just an ongoing cycle of challenges and successes. However I believe the true difference comes in the form of one's ability to persevere. In my view, this is one of the most crucial traits for success in business and continues to be something I build in myself to this day - because I am human, and I still have moments where self-doubt creeps back in.

What brings you joy in a day to day life?

My whānau and friends, my ngeru (cat), my mahi (work), and the capacity to learn new things. These things all touch my life everyday and help to keep me in balance.

If you weren’t doing the mahi you’re doing now, what would alternative universe Holly be doing?

I haven’t given the “what if” a second thought - you reap what you sow, and I love what I get to do for mahi.

Holly standing on the stairs in front of the Beehive, wearing black floral dress facing away from the camera

With regard to current events, how have things such as COVID and the lockdowns affected your well-being and your business? What challenges have you faced and what pivots have you had to make to keep going?

The biggest impact COVID-19 had on my life was the fact I had to push off the launch of Engage.

Engage is a government relations education and training organisation, and I believe it's the first of its kind in Aotearoa. It brings the power of effective government relations to the people, by teaching Kiwis the skills, strategies and mechanisms to get results from lobbying themselves.  It was due to launch in April at Parliament, however we all know what was happening in April!

I got the idea for Engage throughout the course of my work: having worked with a range of clients - big and small, private and NGO - to help them access legislators, I thought to myself “these organisations don’t need a consultant - New Zealanders can be empowered to do this themselves.”

I am extremely grateful to the NBR who recently wrote about my journey with Engage, and with a new Government soon to be in place, I’ve started the process for recruiting kaiako (educators) who will help deliver the range of Engage programmes across the motu. I am looking forward to transforming the way in which New Zealanders interact with the government relations sector and educating more New Zealanders to become their own best advocate.

And lastly, who would you want to see interviewed on here?

There are many wahine Māori who are running amazingly successful businesses, changing their own lives and the lives of their whānau. I am extremely grateful to be part of the Cultureflow whanau, with Sarah Reo NZMN supporting me on my reo Māori journey. She has been in pakihi 20 years, and would be a fantastic addition to the Storyo line up!

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