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Breaking barriers

Mele Wendt MInstD speaks about her accidental path into governance, mentorship, and what it’s like to be the only brown woman in the room.

type
Article
author
By Alex Ashton, freelance journalist
date
17 Dec 2021
read time
2 min to read
Mele Wendt smiling, wearing a red top.

Mele Wendt MInstD had her first taste of governance while living in a student hostel.

At 18, she had just left Samoa for a scholarship at Wellington’s Victoria University. Her residence hall had elections for student president and, after prods from her peers, Wendt put her name forward.

Turned out she had a lot of backing. She won – and exceeded expectations from the start.

“I would go along to the hall’s board meetings, and they were really quite surprised because apparently it was quite common for previous presidents to flag that responsibility, and not show up very often. And I’d be showing up to meetings and expecting to contribute.”

Her early step into governance wasn’t a career move; she had little idea what she wanted to do.

Wendt spent most of her childhood in Samoa with stints in Fiji. She had two teacher parents – her father Samoan, and her mother Pākeha.

“You very much live in both worlds, but then are not necessarily always accepted by either of those worlds.

“I knew I wanted to do work that was about improving the outcomes and the lot of Pacific people and other minorities. And I wanted to serve. My Samoan upbringing very much instilled a servant leadership ethos.”

She graduated with a BA in English Literature – the “default position” she says, because it came easily. She followed in her parents’ footsteps and started out as a teacher, but the pressures of a growing family meant something had to change.

To free up time for family, she took a parttime role at Victoria University looking after international scholarship students – the group which Wendt had been part of.

“I came to Victoria University under an MFAT scholarship, and so I was in a perfect position because I had been in their shoes.”

Further opportunities arose at Victoria. She became the university’s first Pacific Islands liaison officer, which she loved. And then a management position came up. But Wendt wasn’t sure she was the woman for the job.

“I had no management skills but people said to me I should apply. So I did, absolutely believing there’s no way I was going to be hired. But they obviously saw some potential in me.”

A few years later, she was shoulder-tapped to apply as Fulbright New Zealand’s executive director. Mele did, “knowing that it was a long stretch,” and got the job.

“I had no management skills but people said to me I should apply. So I did, absolutely believing there’s no way I was going to be hired. But they obviously saw some potential in me.”

Shift into governance

As the university’s Pacific Islands liaison officer, Wendt had joined the board of her former residence hall again. This time she was the staff representative. She remained on that board for a decade.

 “Most, if not all of the people on that board were the same people that had been on the board when I was 18. Except this time, they were in their 60s and 70s.”

She was co-opted onto the board of Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) as they wanted a Pacific director and Wendt had been involved in VSA selections. Then, as Fulbright’s executive director, she honed her governance skills on fellowship boards.

In 2010, Wendt received her first Ministerial appointment (through the Ministry for Pacific Peoples) and in the decade since has sat on “a variety of boards, for different lengths of time and for different reasons.”

In 2019, she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to governance, the Pacific community and women.

Self-employed now, Wendt serves on the boards of Te Kura (formerly The Correspondence School), Wellington Community Trust, Toi Mai Workforce Development Council and the Real Estate Authority. She chooses her board roles “quite deliberately”, opting for organisations which align with her passion for social justice and reducing inequalities.

“I have always, in both my professional and governance careers, put my effort where it would be about transforming people’s lives for the better.”

Improving boards in the community sector

Mentorship in governance can be ad-hoc, Wendt says, which means boards don’t always work as effectively as they could, especially in non-government and not for-profit organisations.

“Proactive chairs go and seek advice from experienced chairs themselves or rely on the goodwill of people around them to mentor them, but it’s very informal. Many just learn on the job, and by trial and error.”

Now, Wendt is part of a group seeking to put more structured support in place for chairs who are forced to learn on the job. She is both a mentor of Tuakana Teina Chair Mentoring – a partnership between Community Governance NZ and the Institute of Directors – and chair of the group implementing the National Action Plan for Community Governance, under which the mentor scheme was developed.

Tuakana Teina Chair Mentoring matches 25 tuakana (mentors) with 25 teina (mentees). The programme is based on the Māori principle of ako, or two-way learning.

“Teina can learn so much from more experienced and skilled tuakana chairs, who share their knowledge and experience.

“They can hear about tried-and-true methods and best practice and what that looks like in the boardroom. This is real life, experiential learning, rather than theoretical learning.”

She says there are benefits for the mentors too, who can give back and keep sharp.

“In the process of mentoring you’re also thinking about what good practice looks like and thinking about your own chairing performance. It helps keep you on your game.”

“It’s hard to get onto board positions in general, let alone when you are a Pacific person. Bias and racism, whether it’s structural or unconscious, is real and continues to this day.”

Internal and external barriers

Wendt says a lack of confidence puts people off governance. Throughout her career, she has ended up in positions she didn’t know she could get and she credits her feminist upbringing for her willingness to try. Diligence is also in her blood and she’s from a long line of hard workers.

“I’m really thankful for all the key influencers around me, who have said, ‘hey, apply for that job. What have you got to lose?’”

Entering governance is harder, she says, when you don’t see people who look like you or have your life experience on boards.

“It’s hard to get onto board positions in general, let alone when you are a Pacific person. Bias and racism, whether it’s structural or unconscious, is real and continues to this day.”

Alongside Caren Rangi ONZM, MInstD, Wendt runs one-day courses aiming to support Pacific people in governance roles.

Pacific people have innate governance qualities and experience because of their culture’s collectivist governance systems, she says.

“In our cultures there are clear responsibilities and accountabilities, and we prioritise the interests of the collective over individual interests. Unfortunately, some [course] participants don’t realise that their mahi on the committees of church, school, or community groups is ‘proper’ governance experience, which they can leverage to apply for board positions.

“Many also see governance as a very palagi world and a very ‘senior’ world; that is, you have to have grey hair and be at least 50 years old. Those stereotypes pervade. They are barriers and, in some senses, they are true.

“Why would I even put myself up for a board if I’m only 35 and I’m brown and there are no brown people on those boards? I have been on many boards when I’ve been the youngest, only brown person, and sometimes the only woman. And it’s not easy.”

As attitudes continue to change, the governance community increasingly recognises that diversity can lead to better decision making for organisations, she says.

“Theoretically, people are now ‘on board’ with the notion of needing more diversity of thought. And you get that diversity of thought by having different types of people around the table.

“A lot of boards don’t know where to start. There might be the willingness, and the lack of action might be because they don’t know how to go about finding a Māori or Pacific or other ‘diverse’ board member. But there are people with specialist services to help you find and recruit that diversity.

“I also struggle with the fact that, in 2021, we still face having to explain and convince some people why they need their boardrooms to be more ethnically diverse,” she admits 

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