As a girl growing up in Invercargill, Dale Pfeiffer dreamed of one day living in Washington DC. The image of the White House, the world’s most glamorous home office, got under her skin. But meeting its principal occupant? Pitching an idea to the World’s Most Powerful Man? Never in a million years.
Yet fast forward to July 2014 and there’s 37-year-old Pfeiffer, selling Barack Obama on the merits of her fundraising start-up, GoodWorld, during a presidential visit to a DC business incubator. Talk about a pinch-yourself moment. The next day, a photograph of the expat entrepreneur and the US President ran on page one of the New York Times.
“He called it an outstanding opportunity for philanthropy,” says Pfeiffer of Obama’s take on GoodWorld, which aims to make it easier for social media users to donate to charity. “It certainly created a lot of magnetism around the company. All of a sudden people wanted to join the team.”
Pfeiffer is part of a great Kiwi diaspora, by some measures the world’s largest per capita, with close to one million New Zealanders living overseas. Few will ever meet the US President, of course, but there are plenty of innovative and driven expat New Zealanders making waves out there. And while they may slip off our radar, many go out of their way to help other Kiwis chase their overseas dreams.
Take Catherine Robinson. The communications and marketing specialist was part of Xero’s founding team before helping to establish Aptimize, a Wellington-based provider of software that speeds up the load time of websites. When San Francisco’s Riverbed Technology acquired Aptimize in 2011, Robinson went with the business.
“I had this view that Silicon Valley was very flashy and high tech, but I found that in reality it is all about people,” she remarks. “Everything happens in Silicon Valley, but it happens because of people having coffees with potential partners, discussing ideas, solving issues. And it’s very vibrant, very fast. I enjoy that sense of pace.”
She also thrived on being able to deploy her skills in a far bigger market. As a “full spectrum” marketer in the US, she says, there’s potential to communicate to more specialised audiences in far greater detail than is possible in New Zealand. “It’s a very different conversation you get to have.”
But the ties to home are strong for this daughter of South Taranaki dairy farmers. After leaving Aptimize a couple of years ago, Robinson took on the role of Director of the Kiwi Landing Pad (KLP), a San Francisco-based non-profit that helps New Zealand tech companies break into the US market.
“Having been involved in two fast-paced tech start-ups, it was a good opportunity to share some of those experiences. I spent a lot of time supporting the entrepreneurs coming through, helping them with my marketing experience, and to integrate into the local business and technology scene.”
“It’s a very different business culture here and there are some real potential pitfalls for Kiwi companies. It’s about getting your head around the marketplace. Who are the important companies or investors? What are the important connections you need to make? They need to start thinking in terms of an ecosystem they can build around themselves, getting specialist advice and being prepared to pay for it.”
Despite leaving KLP recently, Robinson continues to support New Zealanders trying to crack the San Francisco tech scene. One “special project” is Olly Johnson, an 18-year-old entrepreneur from Taupo whom she met through the Kea expat network. In November, Johnson stood in front of an audience of hundreds of investors and tech journalists at San Francisco’s prestigious DEMO Enterprise event to launch his new app.
“It was exciting to see,” says Robinson. “And it just reinforced for me that we Kiwis are as bright and capable as anyone here.”
It’s not entirely accurate to describe Gavin Faull as an expat, although it would be equally misleading to say he lives in New Zealand. A true global citizen, the Chairman and President of the Swiss-Belhotel hotel management company typically divides his month between a Hong Kong base, mainland China, Indonesia, Australia, the Middle East, and New Zealand, where he is also managing director of Faull Farms, an award-winning Taranaki dairy operation.
“I’m constantly flying,” says Faull, one of five high achieving brothers (including the neuroscientist Professor Richard Faull) who were raised in tiny Tikorangi, North Taranaki.
Asia has been the fulcrum for Faull’s successful 40 year business career, particularly Indonesia, where the majority of Swiss-Belhotel’s 95 hotels are located. But China has become increasingly important, and its transformation has been astonishing to witness up close.
“When I arrived in Hong Kong as a young chartered accountant in 1973, China was a closed shop. All I could do was look across the border and think ‘There’s something there that is going to take off one day’. What amazes me about China is that they’ve covered two generations worth of development in ten years. There are more millionaires and Ferraris there now than anywhere else.”
The rapid rise of China’s middle class has created a huge opportunity for the hospitality industry, he adds.
“On public holidays in China there are 350 to 400 million people travelling over a weekend. It’s mind boggling. And virtually every city has had a new airport built in the last five to ten years.”
For Kiwi exporters, too, China has the gleam of a Promised Land. Increasingly Faull is being called on by the likes of Trade & Enterprise to help New Zealand companies trying to crack the Chinese market.
“I don’t necessarily get involved from a business point of view, but I try to be a mentor and give them contacts to talk to,” says Faull, who always stresses the complexity of China and the importance of building strong relationships on the ground.
“I make sure they’re aware of the need to be careful and to sometimes walk slowly. It’s a whole different culture and feel, and success in China doesn’t come easy.”
That’s true of anywhere, though. In Washington DC, Dale Pfeiffer has worked tirelessly on GoodWorld, which allows Facebook and Twitter users to donate to charity by simply using a hashtag.
Her first entrepreneurial venture after several leadership positions in the US non-profit sector, GoodWorld launched in October and quickly signed up an initial 30 partner charities, including the American Red Cross and the ALS Foundation. It’s early days, but the response from the non-profit sector has been extremely positive, she says.
“What you have to realise is that these non-profits made exactly nothing last year through social media. There’s not a culture of giving on social media, and our mission is to change that. We will become the way to donate on social media.”
Covering the GoodWorld launch, the Washington Post speculated that the future of philanthropy might lie here, with small, instant online donations, multiplied millions of times.
Perhaps GoodWorld could become the iTunes of charity? Pfeiffer certainly hopes so.
“I decided I wanted to create a company that was going to do good in the world, and every day I got up and immersed myself in learning what I needed to do. It has been the most liberating, incredibly challenging, joyful journey of my life.”