Written by Kimberly Rees, Alumna 2013
Teresa Tepania-Ashton credits her humble parents for her success. As the oldest of her siblings, she saw her father work three jobs to make ends meet for their life in South Auckland.
At a young age, she worked alongside her family in developing their own tree felling business which taught her to be adaptive and gave her a variety of core business skills. “My parents always told us to be proud of who we are and that we can do anything and everything. They encouraged me to do as much as I could do, and then some more! They also said not to be afraid, to take on new challenges and to walk on your own two feet.”
Perhaps this is why at the age of nineteen, Teresa was doing anything and everything (administratively) for a small engineering company. Later she spent two years in Demark working at the company’s head office. This was a big challenge and a brave step into the unknown for a young Maori girl from South Auckland in the 1980s. “It was because I had a strong sense of values and the belief that I could do anything,” Teresa says. “I jumped at the chance to live in a foreign country, outside of my comfort zone. Being overseas actually strengthened my Maori identity because it made me appreciate how being Maori was core to who I am.”
Teresa’s next professional challenge came when she transferred to Citibank at the age of 25 where she worked in both a sales and service role, building relationships with the largest corporations in Australia and New Zealand implementing global transactional banking strategies. Teresa says, “I’m so lucky to be born Maori because I inherently used the values of manaakitanga (respect and care for others) in my work when dealing with very different people in different environments. Utilising my Maori values provided the confidence for me to make hard decisions.”
After 12 years of success in the corporate world, Teresa made the hard decision to leave in order to spend more time with her family and reconnect with her larger whanau, hapu and iwi. “This had its own challenges as it required a very different way of thinking and living for me, coming from being totally immersed in the business world - it certainly tested my ability to be adaptive,” she says remembering. A few years later in July 2004 Teresa was appointed as CEO of Te Runanga-a-Iwi o Ngapuhi. This role was tough but rewarding as it allowed her to focus on developing the assets of her iwi and the aspirations of the Ngapuhi people.
Teresa says “It was such a complex and busy time in my life – juggling family and this important CEO role. Attending the Leadership NZ Programme in 2006 kept my sanity. It was pivotal in clarifying so many things for me and keeping me on track. The Programme re-instilled my father’s mantra about being able to do anything and doing more on a grander scale.” “Through the Leadership NZ Programme,” Teresa says “I learned not to be afraid to be open and sharing. I also realised that being a CEO is not about being in charge – but instead, it is about appreciating the unique skills in others and supporting them to be and do their best.”
Teresa praises the Leadership NZ Programme in not only giving her this insight, but also the tools and processes which helped her take Te Runanga-a-Iwi o Ngapuhi through a decade of expediential growth and development. Her legacy, she jokingly says, was that she left the iwi with “a succession of operational leaders.” Since November 2013, Teresa is CEO for Maori Women’s Development Inc, a micro-lending organisation providing business loans to Maori women and their whanau. She considers this her dream job. “I am helping women to be fearless, to overcome adversity and to be self-sufficient in their own business; which is adding to the economic success of Maori and making a valuable contribution to this country as a whole.”
When pressed for final words of advice for future leaders Teresa says “Don’t hold back, be brave, adaptive and embrace change. Be clear about your values and stay true to yourself.”
Teresa Tepania-Ashton is a petite person in physical stature but very large in mana – she is a great role model of courage and authenticity in leadership. “I also realised that being a CEO is not about being in charge – but instead, it is about appreciating the unique skills in others and supporting them to be and do their best.”