As part of impactmania’s Women of Impact series, we are traveling to New Zealand in November 2019. A number of the women from the program will meet their peers for cultural exchange and to create economic opportunities and partnerships. The U.S. Consulate in Auckland, New Zealand is supporting 12 interviews and a special welcome reception at the U.S. Consul General’s residence. You are invited to meet and connect with the women from the program at the Women of Impact event, November 8, 2019, in Auckland, New Zealand.
Building and leading businesses in both the United States and New Zealand, Bridget Coates served various roles as Chairperson, Director, and CEO across a range of public and private sector entities. She is currently Chairperson of the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand, Director of Tegel Group Holdings Ltd., Chairperson of White Cloud Dairy Innovation, and a member of Fonterra’s Sustainability Advisory Panel. Until recently she was a Director of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. In recognition of her work in global business development, Bridget received the prestigious New Zealand Order of Merit.
BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG
How did serving as a Director on the Board of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand inform you as a business person?
In the early years, I worked in senior-level roles in the finance industry. One of them was at the Reserve Bank. Another one, an important one, was the New Zealand Superannuation Fund. It is a large investment organization for all the citizens of New Zealand and provides retirement income for New Zealanders. Talking about interesting roles in life, that was actually a startup. I was part of the founding board of that organization. We developed all of the basic information for that fund, including asset allocation, how the fund would be structured, and what its focus would be. We gave flesh to the bones of the legal structure that set up the fund for the country. It was a terrific experience.
Within the finance industry, you became familiar with impact investments. Through this, what you were able to realize for New Zealand?
As part of establishing the New Zealand Super Fund, we signed the PRI, Principles for Responsible Investment. That was 15 years ago. New Zealand was a founding signatory, and I was the founding signatory for New Zealand.
We started out, very early on, making sure that the fund invested responsibly. Responsible investing, at the time, was more about exclusions: watching out for what we were doing in the landmine area or in terms of weapons.
Today’s categories for responsible investment oversight are a lot more varied. I am involved as the Director of an organization that set up a website to help people determine the extent to which their investments are responsible. It covers a range of different funds.
Is this for private investors?
Yes. In New Zealand we have KiwiSaver, a state-supported savings plan. People put aside money every month from their paycheck to build funds for their retirement. A range of providers manage these funds; historically it was very difficult to find out whether or not those investments were being invested responsibly.
The fund providers may not be forthcoming with exactly they are doing. This new organization enables people to evaluate for themselves where their money is being invested. It is democratizing the investment process. A big part of impact investing is making people conscious of how money can be used for good.
In order to do that, you need to know what good investment practices are and how you can achieve them.
You may be the best person to ask this: why do so many people have a troubled relationship with money?
That is a really good question. Funnily enough, it is Money Week in New Zealand. The central goal of Money Week is to encourage positive habits around personal finance. By encouraging honest conversations about money, we’re trying to make people feel more open and more relaxed about money.
People do have a troubled relationship. It is a shame because financial decisions are important decisions. Money is not out of sight, out of mind at all. In fact, you can make some very big mistakes. It is important to get good, trusted advice and then be thoughtful about how you invest. These are very important aspects of responsibly managing money wealth.
Responsible investing is related to the issue of supporting women-led and women-owned businesses. We are not as well-funded as our male counterparts, even though we can demonstrate a solid bottom line. Can you talk about your experience with women entrepreneurs and money?
This is a really interesting area. When I was in the United States, I was a member of Golden Seeds. Golden Seeds is an angel organization that invests in women entrepreneurs. When I came back to New Zealand in 2014, I established a women angel organization called Arcangels, which has invested in 20 women entrepreneurs.
The organization is largely female investors, and many have relatively low confidence in managing their investments. They might not have grown up managing funds, or the male in their household has taken responsibility for financial matters.
This is often their first foray into independent investing and decisions. It is great because it brings people into investing that might not otherwise be engaged.
Most importantly, with the support of women around them, women entrepreneurs are more inclined to ask the hard questions. They feel there is an atmosphere of trust and security, which empowers them to talk about their positive and negative experiences with building their businesses.
Investing in this way is much more than financing a business; it is about making good decisions over how to grow the business or what strategies might be used and how companies might go global.
As a woman entrepreneur, what lessons did you learn?
There is a lot of talk in the entrepreneurship community about mental health and wellness. Building a community of support is crucial for both male and female entrepreneurs. Encouragement through this network helps assure entrepreneurs that even if they fall short of success, they are doing their best.
This is an important perspective. As an entrepreneur you often get buried in your business. When it is not going well, you get totally overwhelmed by what failure might look like and it is easy to get very down.
That is obviously risky from a mental health point of view. There are lots of different ways to provide support for women entrepreneurs, but having women investors involved is part of it. Not all women are supportive, of course, but we do work really hard on wellbeing for entrepreneurs now.
That’s interesting. I previously interviewed a woman who developed an eating disorder as a CEO. She is back running a global company, but she took four to six years off. She literally was not involved in anything because she had to deal with her own demons, as she calls it.
Do you have any statistics on the prevalence of mental and health issues among entrepreneurs?
There are many studies saying your career is among the most stressful and difficult periods of your life. If you are an entrepreneur, you have to learn coping skills—resilience.
How did you deal with this? What did you do to ensure that you stayed balanced and healthy?
It was very hard. I built resilience by being very conscious of the external forces beyond my control.I acknowledged to myself I was right up against the limits of my experience and my capabilities. Being very kind to yourself about what you can do and what you can’t do is key.
A lot of the factors that drive great businesses are not within your control. You have to learn to accept that and to let it not overwhelm you. I was also quite a bit older when I became an entrepreneur. I think that also helped. I was not overwhelmed with family at the same time or with other pressures that a younger woman might experience.
The whole community of early-stage investors is a lot more attuned to this problem and a lot more watchful. They are more willing to be supportive and empathetic than was the case in the past.
While a man might tough it out, and if he does not succeed as an entrepreneur, learn and move on, a woman is likely to take everything much more personally.
As an investor, what do you look at most closely—the product or service, the entrepreneur or the team?
I am entirely driven by the entrepreneur. I do think a great entrepreneur will build a great business. It may not be the first business; it may be a subsequent business. The product is important, but the tendency these days is to pivot a lot. You need to innovate to deliver something that is more in line with what the customers want.
If you are fixated on the product, I have found, that approach may not get you very far. You might soon find the organization needs to pivot to a different product or even a different market.
Returning to personal transitions within your life: how do you deal with transitions or know when to make your next career move? Do you have tools you find helpful?
I would point to personal qualities such as my unreasonable optimism. Also a genuine interest in change—I’m a very, very change-oriented person. I think these traits have been helpful. Optimism sometimes leads you off the track, but many, many times it helps you build resilience for whatever might come. I read a lot of Buddhist texts and think a lot about life from that point of view, which is also very helpful.
Can you cite a Buddhist text that stayed with you?
One of the things that really, really stuck with me is about the light and the dark. Life is full of light and dark. You cannot fixate on good times, because you need to be able to accept the darkness and bad times equally. They are part of the same equation.
Do not excessively rejoice, because you will be excessively let down. It is about equanimity. You love the great things that happen, but there is also as much interest and challenge and learning in the bad times.
Keeping everything in perspective is important, especially in the world we live in, where you can get so drawn down and overwhelmed by what looks like complete craziness and chaos. You have to remind yourself that everything is a part of life. There is a season; everything hasits own cycle.
That does not mean you approach everything passively, but it does mean you do not allow yourself to be fixated on one side of the coin more than on the other.
You mention change. Second order change is really hard, right? A lot of things feel like change, but in the end result in little improvement. . What are some of the ingredients for genuine change, for truly breaking cycles like poverty, for example?
If I look back at my career, we had a lot of success with social issues, but we left many messes. In the end, impactful change requires persistence and commitment.
Among my generation, we thought we changed an enormous amount in the way of women’s rights. Then look what happens! Or we thought we were responsible stewards of the climate. It is challenging.
Talking about responsible investment again, if we were able to mobilize the world’s capital behind responsible investments, it would change the world. For example, what if we only funded environmentally and socially responsible projects? Capital is a very, very important part of this equation. Capital is something we have come to understand relatively recently. It’s a growing movement—a long, long way to go right? But it’s really exciting.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I am working on a lot of small businesses and helping young entrepreneurs, women mostly. I have a few governance roles, which I love. I am privileged to have a very diverse career.
One of my favorite roles is helping Fonterra, the big dairy company in New Zealand. I am on their sustainability panel for the board, which is working on how to make that business sustainable. Consumers change and as climate requirements change in dairying, there are a lot of challenges. How do you help a well-meaning, committed organization get to the level of change required to survive in today’s market?
There is a similar discussion in the Netherlands. Part of the government is saying we need to cut down half of the cows in the country to reduce CO2 levels, to combat climate change. Cutting half of all the dairy farmers’ livestock created an uproar. How do you do that in a balanced way and not disseminate farmers and their livelihood? But on the other hand, we have to make sure the planet sustains us long into the future.
Exactly. Dairy products, from a nutritional point of view, are very important. I am a plant and milk consumer also. For large portions of the population, dairy proteins in the form of milk, cheese, butter, is very important. Getting rid of cows does not make any sense, because we need great proteins.
In New Zealand the cows are grass-fed and their impact on the environment is quite different. The farmers here are working very hard to use technology to minimize methane gas emissions and to minimize the impact of cows on the environment such as waterways.
There is a lot of very, very hard work going on, especially on the technology side in order to stay ahead of societal demands.
Meet Women of Impact New Zealand in Auckland, November 8th, 2019.
impactmania’s Women of Impact program has been awarded with the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant. The grant supports 12 interviews with women in New Zealand who drive cultural, social, and economic impact. The Program also includes a week-long visit to New Zealand to connect and collaborate with those interviewed by impactmania.
For more information: [email protected].