Wahine Toa: Rachel Taulelei

The latest Wahine Toa post by By Nancy Gilbert, wife of U.S. Ambassador Mark Gilbert.

The next Wahine Toa feature is Rachel Taulelei. Rachel’s Māori heritage and advocacy for young entrepreneurs, women in particular, are among her most passionate inspirations. Business savvy, and an innate gift for innovation have led to extraordinary success —first as an entrepreneur founding Yellow Brick Road (a wholesale seafood company), and most recently as the first female CEO of one of the country’s largest food and beverage exporters, Kono. Rachel shared her personal journey walking through Kono NZ’s orchards in Motueka.

Rachel Taulelei
Rachel Taulelei  

Rachel’s career has paved the way for bold leadership roles beyond business. During our walk Rachel explained “Kono is ranked amongst New Zealand’s top 100 food and beverage companies [by revenue].” Only five CEOs on this list are women and only one is Māori [Rachel herself]. “As a shareholder in Wakatu [Kono NZ’s owning entity] through my own whakapapa [genealogical links], the role of CEO comes with immense responsibility to ensure the resources with which I am entrusted are cared for, valued, and enhanced for future generations. I’m working for the family business now, and I love it” she says.

Of Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga, Ngāti Rarua and Ngāti Koata descent, Rachel was destined to be a leader. In her senior year as a spirited Head Girl at St Oran’s College, Rachel got her first taste of the high seas, being awarded a sailing experience on a tall ship from Boston, USA to Liverpool, England. The experience helped sow the seeds of a business venture that a decade later would establish itself a trade leader in sustainability and conservation.

Visiting Kono orchards
Checking in on baby kiwifruit  
 Checking in on baby kiwifruit
Visiting Kono orchards  

 

Though Rachel completed an LLB at Victoria University, the excitement and dynamism of business soon outweighed the prospect of a law career. “My parents have always been small business owners and Dad’s entrepreneurial spirit is infectious. Towards the end of my university studies I basically gate crashed so many New Zealand Trade and Enterprise [NZTE] conferences my father was invited to, that they gave up and offered me a job.” Her first foray into export was to lead a delegation of Māori artists and entrepreneurs to a First Nations business and cultural conference in Vancouver. “I recall we made an introduction to the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, where many of the artists still show today. It was the first time I’d really thought about indigenous principles naturally leading to strong business collaborations”, she says.

Rachel studied New Zealand’s budding fishing industry when she served as North American Trade Commissioner for NZTE. “I watched American chefs and heard first-hand what they needed in the seafood space – in fact across the board in food” she says. “We are the fourth largest fishing zone in the world and we are one of the only countries with strong and quota managed wild fish stocks — fishing and seafood are jewels in our country’s crown. But after spending time in the market it became fairly apparent that the primary sector, fishing included, was focused squarely on volume, not value.”

Rachel fillets a fish
Learning the tools of the trade

In 2006 Rachel called time on her US posting to create a start-up business to tell the story of New Zealand fisherman, placing great emphasis on telling the story of who caught people’s fish, when, where, and most importantly, how. One that would “agitate from the edges” by being one of the first players to considerably shorten the delivery time for seafood to be delivered into restaurants, with fish going almost directly from boat to kitchen. One night her husband Walter, pondering a name for the fledgling enterprise, arrived at it: “You should call the company Yellow Brick Road. Heart, brains, courage. That’s what you’ll need.”

View of grape vines
Sustainable vineyards used for Kono wines (Photo credit: Wakatu Inc)

Yellow Brick Road became a household name and is still going strong – it is now an award-winning seafood company in the NZ food industry. Kono has bought the business and Chef Martin Bosley now sits at the helm. Over the years, chefs, restaurants, and fishermen have sought Rachel’s lead to find balance in the nation’s fishing systems and ensure the sustainability of the fish and fishing practices.  “Trying to affect our seafood industry is like changing the course of a freight train, but it’s definitely much greater in consciousness now than it once was” she says.  But the experiment proved a long-term success, with Yellow Brick Road now acting on behalf of 20 fishing companies and offering a repertoire of advisory services; and several hundred socially and environmentally conscious chefs looking to partner with a company who lives authenticity and quality.

Her personal imprint in the business sector led to numerous awards including: a 2012 Sir Peter Blake Trust Leadership Award, 2015 Best Entrepreneur – Mana Magazine, and her latest accolade, a Queens Honors award – the MNZM, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to the Food and Hospitality Industry. She is deeply committed to New Zealand’s primary sector, sitting on the boards of companies such as Moana NZ (New Zealand’s largest iwi owned fishing company), Headwaters (lamb supply), and Yeastie Boys (craft beer).

Oysters and champagne
A taste of Kono food and beverage (Photo credit: Wakatu Inc)

When Rachel became the first female Chief Executive and first shareholder Chief Executive of Kono — a family-owned Māori enterprise that generates returns for a stable of 4000 shareholders – it changed the course of her life’s work. Rachel’s career change is culturally ambitious. “My goal is for Kono to be the best indigenous food company in the world,” she stated. Guided by kaitiakitanga – a holistic Māori approach of guardianship and caring for the environment and people – she leads a team of over 400 staff who cultivates and export wine, cider, fruit, natural fruit bars and seafood to over 25 countries.

mussel farm
One of the Kono mussel farms (Photo credit: Wakatu Inc)

Rachel’s position as an innovative and successful business woman has enabled her to give back to women and youth in multifaceted leadership roles. Rachel mentors aspiring youth and women through a number of organizations including the Young Enterprise Scheme, and the Sir Peter Blake Trust. These programs, which she finds personally rewarding, are focused on young people with a flair for and interest in business and the environment. Through Young Enterprise Rachel coaches young people on personal sustainability, finding their passion, and their potential as job creators. “Working with women and youth from all walks of life is truly one of the most rewarding activities of my life. Women are the key to making change. The trick is to support one another – and that extends to people in general, not just women. We have to behave in a way that our tupuna recognize and that our children would be proud of.  My own touchstones are whānau, service, and the ability to act with grace and courage.  A little hustle doesn’t go astray either. My message is always pretty consistent – dare to dream”.

Balance, patience, success, enjoyment of life, and giving back to the community – it should be obvious that there are hidden depths in this month’s catch, a true Wahine Toa.