The 2023 Pasifika Innovation and Entrepreneurship Talanoa was hosted recently in Kura Matahuna Unleash Space, one of the innovation hubs run by the University of Auckland Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE). The event was the result of a collaboration between Auckland University Pacific Island Student Association (AUPISA) and CIE’s Velocity entrepreneurship development programme. The evening featured a panel of three speakers who shared stories from their diverse entrepreneurial experiences, with their strong common thread of Pacific heritage woven throughout. It was an inspiring evening filled with authenticity, advice and plenty of laughter.

The panel included Bertrand (Bert) Jang, founder of Sweet & Me, who is at home in the kitchen and boasts both Fijian and Chinese heritage. Bert has turned his passion for creating delicious treats into a business selling Pacific-inspired cakes and sweets. Faiumu Matthew Salapu (aka Anonymouz) is co-founder and creative director of the production company 37Hz, whose work has been featured on The Fast and The Furious. Raised in South Auckland, Matt is a proud Samoan. Last but certainly not least, Emeline Afeaki-Mafile’o, is the founder of Affirming Works, a not-for-profit organisation that provides mentoring and educational services for young Pacific people. Emeline is a NZ-Tongan and a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

During the talanoa, panellists discussed how they perceive innovation and how their Pacific heritage influences their ventures. Common themes included exploring new opportunities and revenue streams, identifying your unique edge, whilst anchoring business decisions in their strong cultural values.

As an artist and entrepreneur, Matt was quick to point out that innovation is necessary to survive. “You’d be very surprised how many actual artists do make a living in New Zealand off just the arts. You’ve got to really diversify.” By thinking creatively Matt constantly asks himself, “How can I innovatively flip this as many ways as possible to open up to as many opportunities as possible?” Emeline was also adamant about generating diverse income opportunities and is proud of the work she has done to create multiple revenue streams that allow her to deliver greater social impact via Affirming Works.  “We have a small factory in Tonga, so we actually have 50 staff employed here in New Zealand, and we have over 30 staff in Tonga, the cash cow of which is the vegetable chips, made with 25 cooperative farmers.”

Emeline also expressed the importance of identifying what makes you different in a way that’s valuable. “Keep looking for the edge that sets you apart from other businesses. I think that’s what innovation is.” For Emeline, her Pacific heritage is key. “My unique edge has been my diverse Pacific Polynesian culture.”

All three panellists emphasised the importance of their Pacific culture underlying their business decisions. Bert explained how he identified a gap in the market for Pacific cuisine soon after arriving in New Zealand, but his passion for Pacific food goes beyond satisfying the cravings of hungry customers. Bert is driven by a bigger mission of preserving the Pacific food culture “My life goal is heritage and working with communities in safeguarding that information for young people like you so that you can share it with your children.”

Matt encourages entrepreneurs to understand themselves and their values, but also their context. When choosing between business opportunities, he anchors himself in that knowledge, “I’ll go with the one that expands cultural awareness.” Matt emphasised that time is the most precious and finite resource we have, and being guided by strong values helps us all to ensure we spend our time wisely. “If I lose something, I can just sell something and make money back, but time? You just can’t get that back.” Matt also encouraged the audience to be specific about their time and the communities that they serve and said, “You’ve got to be cool with yourself, but you also got to be cool within the context of the village.”

The evening ended with the sharing of kai, while mixing and mingling, with hopefully everyone leaving with both their minds and stomachs full.