When I think of the type of person best suited to help New Zealanders living in poverty, my mind doesn’t naturally jump to an entrepreneur. I think of social workers, financial counsellors, perhaps even volunteers at food banks. The word “entrepreneur” conjures up images of impermanence in my head: people who give something a go, and move on quickly if it doesn’t work out. They’ve got big ideas, a healthy disrespect for the conventional “way things are done,” and a keen understanding of when to cut their losses and run. What I failed to consider is that the very nature of an entrepreneur is to defy the expectations and definitions of others, and when I met Travis O’Keefe that’s exactly what he did.
It’s a talent deeply ingrained from a young age. Now a sought-after business consultant, Travis grew up “a half Māori, half Irish kid” on the East Cape in Whangara, a small town famous for being the hard-up locale of Whale Rider and not much else. He recalls a childhood spent learning what he calls “grit, the ability to never give up,” taught by immersion in a community beset by family violence, unemployment, and poverty—a front row seat to what policy makers call “social deprivation.” Hand in hand with grit came the ability to think outside the square; creativity driven by a lack of resources.
These two “gifts,” as he calls them—grit and resourcefulness—are what he now spends most of his time teaching other people to access. Travis has spent several years consulting to iwi leaders and representatives of Māori Trust Boards, helping them to refine their business strategies and increase the funds available to funnel back into their communities, to support Māori achievement and solve social issues. Through his work with Māori business leaders as a consultant for The Icehouse, and his new “Business in a Box” venture, he works to help others develop the entrepreneurial mindset that has made him a success.
Travis wasn’t always this altruistic. His first shot at business was the purest form of teenage resourcefulness. Failing miserably in a mandatory high school accounting class, he began using this class time to organise lucrative ticketed keg parties for his schoolmates in a friend’s garage. His first legitimate business opportunity came just after high school, when he successfully tendered for the contract to manage the local swimming pool. Having worked for the previous manager while at school, Travis pulled together a group of his friends and co-workers and managed to convince the district council to take a chance on a local kid instead of the competing management companies.
Running this team was the first step in Travis learning the greatest determinant of success: people.
“If there’s one defining reason, one small thing you can do to unlock most of the value of your business, it is people. Find the best, the ‘A Team,’ your dream team. Don’t just get people that you like on board, but actually people you need to bring the balance, people who’ve been there, done that, and learned the lessons with someone else’s money. The people you surround yourself with are the best measure of your ability to succeed.”
In 2009, there was a moment when Travis’ appreciation of the value of “people” shifted from mere business strategy to a driving mission for his life’s work. He happened upon a copy of The Social Report 2009 from the Ministry of Social Development; a detailed chronicle of well-being in New Zealand across a range of different indicators including poverty, smoking, violence, loneliness, health, imprisonment, and alcohol abuse. The discovery that Māori made up the majority of almost every negative well-being indicator horrified him, and spurred him into a flurry of activity to see positive social change for his people.
Initially he tried in vain to influence legislation and government departments by lobbying MPs and writing policy. Frustrated by Wellington, he looked to the charity sector, but soon discovered that lobbying for change within a traditional charity model wouldn’t fully satisfy someone with such a determined mind for business and the unconventional perspective of an entrepreneur.
Travis returned to business. Previously, his passion for entrepreneurship had been about proving a point: that he could be a success. Now he had a new model. “Business doing good,” or “business with a double bottom line, doing good and making money” is his take on what some call social enterprise. To Travis, business isn’t a dirty word, or a less worthy pursuit. It’s a means of personal empowerment, an act of sustainable creativity, a tangible way that anyone can improve their own life and serve the needs of others.
He found businesses that shared this ethos amongst the almost 20,000 Māori trusts and iwi enterprises that operate around New Zealand. Guardians of land, fisheries, and forests, these trusts run businesses in diverse industries including farming, logging, and property management for a profit, then turn that profit over to their trust’s social arm, which supports the needs of their people. The South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu is the largest example of this model, with a business arm that manages almost $1 billion of assets resourcing a massive social arm that provides education opportunities, social housing, financial programmes, leadership development, and social services.
Travis co-founded the Māori unit at Auckland consultancy The Icehouse, based on the understanding that Māori business culture is different. Communities will elect board members to manage the tribe’s assets and businesses on their behalf, so board members often come to their roles without much business experience; a fact that renders most executive and board training schemes entirely unsuitable. He helps trustees think beyond their current assets and aspirations, creating opportunities with new systems and processes.
“Traditional accounting advisors and lawyers will come up with a traditional strategy which gets written down, put into a drawer and ignored. We work on starting up with new ideas, failing fast, adapting. We ask: ‘What are the one or two values that we must promise to each other?’ and from that point, work on fresh approaches to old problems.”
Travis and his team’s latest venture, “Business in a Box,” is a joint venture with an iwi, Ngāti Pūkenga, and is a shift from this top down approach. In areas like Whangara, poverty is prevalent because there’s hardly any work, yet Māori communities remain understandably committed to the area because of the strong draw of the land as their ancestral home. Instead of working to fund social services for people in poverty, Business in a Box offers people the opportunity to grow their own income and provide for themselves through micro-enterprise. All it takes is an idea.
Travis and his team of entrepreneurial experts take a great idea that a local mum or unemployed young person has come up with in one of their creative workshops, and create a viable business model for them. Rather than expect the new entrepreneurs to go through this process on their own, experts do it on their behalf.
The idea is tested through 11 steps to prove that it is viable, marketing and finance experts create business systems, and the new entrepreneur is coached to run the enterprise on their own. The businesses will mostly remain small and manageable for someone with full-time work, while making enough money to increase the owner’s household income by 50%.
“Research states that if you grow the household income it has a multiplier effect to improve access to education, health, justice, housing, and so forth,” Travis says. “We can’t solve everything, but if we can increase household income, this one thing will have a multiplier effect and do a lot of the work that we have tried to do for people.” Curving across Travis’ shoulder and back are two taniwha—inked black and white—locked in battle. Markers of his heritage, they present a visual challenge: dark and light, good and evil, greed and generosity constantly at war. This tattooed battle serves as a reminder of the Māori proverb that the taniwha we choose to feed will grow stronger and defeat the other. As today’s business culture grows more and more aware of its impact on the world, some view solely profit-motivated business as “the dark side,” in competition with a society that cares for the needs of its people. In fusing his passions for business and people, Travis has found a way to feed both motivations at the same time—a double bottom line he can be proud of.