With fewer than one percent of participants in New Zealand’s Government funded startup and accelerator programmes in 2017 identifying as Māori, the team at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa along with a long list of supporters knew more had to be done to support aspiring Māori entrepreneurs. 

So in 2018, the first Māori-led startup programme, Kōkiri, was developed. Since then, 35 businesses have gained $10,000 in funding and been supported through the 12-week accelerator – with spectacular achievements. Of the 26 businesses involved in the first three years, 21 are still actively trading and between them have turned over more than $10 million and employ at least 62 staff.

(L-R) Ian Musson (Head of Young Enterprise Scheme), Saara Tawha (Kaitiaki Kōkiri and Manager – Startup Ventures at Te Wananga o Aotearoa) and Lee Timutimu (CEO Arataki Systems, CEO Te Matarau (Maori Tech Association).

“While we don’t have empirical evidence to understand why the participation in startup programmes were so low for Māori, we do know the language of the startup community – with words like accelerator, venture capital, minimal viable product – can be meaningless to those not using that jargon in their day-to-day life,” says Saara Tawha, Kaitiaki for Kōkiri.  

Many Māori enterprise owners who participate in Kōkiri take a long-term view of their business and the impacts they want to create. This often differs from  mainstream startup accelerators  where there is a strong focus on preparing for venture capital, raising money and exiting the business. Tawha says a lot of the Kōkiri participants are driven by the positive impact they want to have on their community – with the financial element being a means to an end, rather than the primary driver.  

So who are these socially-minded entrepreneurs bringing about change, and would they be where they are today without Kōkiri? 

Arataki Systems joined Kōkiri as part of the first intake in 2018, and since then one of their founders and CEO Lee Timutimu has become a leader for Māori in technology and entrepreneurship around the country.  Lee is a key contributor in setting up Ko Maui Hangarau, an initiative set up to help rangatahi into the technology sector. He is also CEO at Te Matarau – the Māori Tech Association – connecting businesses and building an ecosystem to enable further Māori participation in the technology sector as well as entrepreneurship.  

New Zealand’s first kaupapa Māori electricity retail company, Nau Mai Rā, went through the 2020 cohort with a passion to end power poverty in Aotearoa – through the spirit of manaakitanga (care of others). With a commitment to never turn off a customer’s power, as long as they are still in touch with them, it’s a business that is for the people, by the people, and they continue to work tirelessly towards their mission while competing with some of the country’s largest corporations. Founder and CEO Ezra Hirawani has also been named as Young New Zealander of the Year, further proof of the incredible work he has been a part of.  

Then there’s Barrett Dynamics, trading as Solar Sense, who are optimising solar energy on underutilised Māori land, and Korawai, a pet technology company currently developing a harness with vibrations to help soothe pets who are anxious about being left home alone. 

This year some awesome businesses have participated, including Maxwell Semmons-Russell developing a financial tech solution as an escrow service for trades based businesses.  After completing the programme at the end of June, Greenlight Escrow is launching its services in September.

Kōkiri Cohort 2022.

And as to whether these driven entrepreneurs would be where they are without Kōkiri, some have said  they wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground without it, Tawha says.

“Everything we have in place here, the content, the speakers, the coaches, mentors, advisory boards,and connections to other support agencies as well as preparation for funding options –  is to enable them to grow their business to the next stage.”

It’s real-world stuff, explains Tawha. “It is not ‘let me teach you’, it’s go and find out from real people, real potential customers, whether they like your product – and if they don’t, why not?” 

What’s also different about Kōkiri is that it bucks the stereotypical demographic of being young, male and straight out of university. At least half of all Kōkiri entrepreneurs are female, and the average age is much older than the standard 21-year-old. Yes, there are kuia taking their families on the tech startup journey.  

Over the next couple of months, Tawha and her team will be travelling across the motu to run one-day workshops and spread the word while breaking down barriers for those who don’t have pre-existing knowledge of what entrepreneurship could be for them and how Kōkiri can help.

“We aim to recruit 10 startups, who won’t typically have a working MVP (minimum viable product) yet – and perhaps won’t know if they do, due to it being terminology that isn’t familiar to them,” explains Saara. 

“One of the participating founders has to have whakapapa Māori, and be based in Aotearoa. And while there have been many different types of businesses coming through Kōkiri, our focus is on serving tech-enabled, impact-positive businesses with international growth aspirations.” 

“There is so much value in the community we are continuing to build. We’re here to open doors and support Māori entrepreneurs to achieve their version of success, all in a kaupapa led and encouraging environment.” 

In September, the Kōkiri team were thrilled to be nominated alongside Te Matarau for the Global Entrepreneurship Network NZ Awards, and took the top spot for Māori Initiative of the Year 2022.  This recognition is a big mihi to, and recognition of, the community that is rallying to grow Māori participation in the Aotearoa startup ecosystem,” Tawha says.

As Lee Timutimu, CEO of Te Matarau, so aptly put it “when one of us wins, we all win”. 

Story by Erin Harrison. In partnership with Kōkiri.

Applications for Kōkiri 2023 open in October 2022, with final selections being made in February 2023.

If you, or anyone you know, has or knows someone who has a tech-enabled, Māori-led business or business idea in the very early stages, contact the Kōkiri to learn how they may be able to assist you.

Innovation Nation is an annual series celebrating stories of innovation and diversity in entrepreneurship from around New Zealand.

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