We will not surrender

They say we buy gifts for others that we covet for ourselves – and that is indeed true of this painting.

Serendipity has a lot to do with it. When we found Keith and Tallulah, our wonderful housesitters, to look after Koki while we visited new grandbaby Alfred and his parents in London this year, little did we know that our diningroom would be transformed into an artist’s studio!

Tallulah calls this painting “I Surrender”, and I loved it from the very first photo she posted of the work in progress. As it developed, I knew I must have it.. So here it is, soon to be hung on our wall, with a message and a poem that I wrote to Peter for Christmas.

2021 - a poem for Peter from Debra

A year when the world surrendered to a pandemic. 

We surrendered our freedoms, our free will,  
our rights to the very things that make us human. 

The hugs, the shared laughter, 
the celebrations and the mournings. 

This surreal surrender emerges from the shadows, 
from the forest of fear they have built around our lives. 

We emerge not whole;  
as hollow beings with arms held high, 
searching to recover our loss. 

Emerging with determination, 
a resolve to live in the moment, 
ingesting the beauty to fill our transparent soul. 

We will not surrender. 
We will emerge, and be whole again. 

A Christmas gift from Debra to Peter,  
with love and eternal thanks for being at my side through this, the most difficult of years. 

Is it ever okay to be the “best woman”?

This is a bit like that question which asks – “is it ever okay to love two women”. Defensively, the average attached man will so no, until you remind him of his two daughters! And so it is with the question of women’s awards – they sound okay, until you think about it.

If you’re a golfer, a swimmer, a weightlifter, tennis or rugby player, perhaps even a lawn bowler (though personally I think that’s questionable) – the answer is undoubtedly yes. Being the best woman in your field is the pinnacle of sporting success.

For in sport, we find many endeavours where women cannot compete with men on an equal footing – and that’s okay.

No question that it’s appropriate to have a Women’s Rugby World Champion Team, a women’s trophy at the French Open Tennis. Yet even in the sporting world, there are some sports where this is not true. Men and women compete equally in equestrian sports, for example – though this is one of very few examples I could summon!

The natural inference of all this is that having separate men’s and women’s competitions is an inherent admission of inequalities (generally, in terms of strength when it comes to sports).

So why then do we think it’s okay to have women’s awards in business, in entrepreneurship, in life in general. And why then are there no equivalent men’s awards?

Every time I hear that there’s a women’s award, I cringe – well, actually, I die a little inside, knowing that there is still a huge hill to climb before equality is no longer a goal, but simply IS. Being the best woman scientist, the best woman in tech, businesswoman of the year is not an award, it’s an insult – a veiled message that you’re good, but not good enough for the main stage. That you’re the supporting act, one of the sub-categories.

This may sound harsh – and I don’t mean to undermine the obvious achievement of the ‘women’s award’ winners – but think about it. The only place we routinely have a best man is at a wedding – and even there, he’s not there to be celebrated! Why then do we celebrate the best woman?

Ladies – it’s time to take a stand. No more women’s awards – except, of course, where you accept that men and women are inherently unable to compete with each other!

My husband has never bought me a bra…

Almost 40 years married, that’s over 100 gifting occasions, and no lingerie in sight!

BUT he did buy me shares in bra company, which is like having the key to the cookie jar.  It’s a great excuse to buy new bras – after all, as an owner, I need to test-drive the product.

Seriously though, the evidence shows that I am not alone;  that most women would love their partner to buy them lingerie, yet few ever do.  My Rose & Thorne “Bra Census” – this year digging into women’s bra stories in both Australia and New Zealand – confirmed yet again that husbands, partners, lovers are missing a trick in the gifting stakes.  Just 14% report that their partners buy them lingerie (albeit with mixed success), compared to a whopping 60% who would love it if they did!

partner lingerie buyins

So I’m sending a message to the MEN out there – this is a bra story for you!
(I’m assuming that if your partner is a woman, she already knows to buy you bras)

Sure, there are some who women who reject the idea of lingerie as a gift – but hey, that’s probably because they don’t think there’s much chance getting it right – after all most women are wearing the wrong size anyway, and that’s based on what they choose for themselves!

But look at the odds – chances are that most of us are in the majority, women secretly hankering after that thoughtful bundle of silky softness and support.

And seriously, given that we’re the ones usually buying our men their socks and underwear, wouldn’t it be awesome if they returned the favour occasionally?

Tomorrow is my birthday….  just saying!


A storm in a shotglass

I was a little bemused this week by the (small) furore –  a storm in a shotglass really – that arose when an angel investor apparently told a startup founder that she’d have a better chance of raising investment funds if she was single.

“If I invest in <company> and its CEO @named – it’s because she’s awesome and not ‘cos of the douchebag investor misogny she’s faced” raged one well meaning supporter on the soapbox that is Twitter.

Around the traps where women gathered, the incident was universally proclaimed as shocking, yet another reflection of the added hurdles faced by women entrepreneurs – and this in the same week as International Women’s Day.  And I don’t mean to belittle the efforts of well meaning armies of women, professing to support each other.

My initial reaction was “oh shit, was that douchebag me?”  It sounds like something I would have said (more on that later).

And then, on confirming that the offending investor was indeed male, I wondered – was there subtext?  Was Mr Angel actually hitting on her,  wishing she was single?  It happens….

But no, apparently not.  His sole crime was to share with her one of the many truths – like it or not – about how angel investors choose where to place their bets.

The thing about single founders – men and women – is that investors (right or wrong) see them as less encumbered.   Building a startup is hard.  Long long hours, stress, travel perhaps, unreasonable demands on your time and your energy.  If you have a wife and kids, a mortgage perhaps – it’s harder.  Of course,  a husband willing to support you and the family while you grow your dream is a plus… and the main reason why this “single people preferred” rule is actually more disadvantageous to male founders.

It may sound like prejudice – indeed it is prejudice – but I can tell you that I know first hand the guilt I feel as an investor director every time I think about my married founders’ families living on a fraction of what they might earn out there in the workforce, in search of the dream of a bigger pot at the end of the rainbow.

Yeah I’m soft.  Maybe not your average angel investor, I know.  But more than anything, this little storm firmed my resolve to continue pushing the angel community to be more honest with founders.

We are doing them no favours when we invite them into our ‘pipeline’ on the promise of a fair, unprejudiced process.  Angels are looking for deal flow, and suffer from FOMO much much more than the average millennial!  The more deals we see, the more chance there is of finding the one we like.  It’s a beauty pageant – only without a consistent set of judging criteria.  Founders beware – we appear to encourage and support, we may actually put in time and effort sharing our expertise and our networks with you, but when it comes to deciding whether or not to write the check, a whole different set of criteria come into play.

In fact when I looked at the pitch deck of our supposed victim of misogyny,  another common angel dealbreaker came to mind.  Alongside the “single people preferred” rule is the “no married couples” rule.  More than half the hundreds of angel investors I’ve surveyed over the years have told me they never, ever invest in husband and wife teams.  They won’t even assess the company on its merits – a husband and wife founder team is a dealbreaker for them.

We need to be honest about these things – each angel is making an individual decision,  based on his experiences,  beliefs, and frankly, what else he has in his portfolio.   When he rejects you, it may not be about you at all – but chances are he probably won’t tell you the full reasons why.  Why would he when doing so opens him up to being pilloried for his honesty?

I don’t know who the angel in question is,  but I do know he’s part of a pool of people donating their time to support young companies – for free.  Rejecting his honest opinion as misogyny simply places this founder slap bang in yet another of our difficult to back buckets – the “uncoachable founder”.  I recently had the experience of having a private comment passed on to a founder team, resulting in a difficult conversation in which they wanted to know WHY I said they are uncoachable – who wants that?

The real message is that every rejection is simply one investor deciding that that founder and his / her business doesn’t meet their personal criteria for writing a cheque.  It’s not a rejection of your worth, it’s not a rejection of your idea – it’s simply a message that this is not the right investor for you.  And actually, it would do well to bear in mind that if I’d invested every dollar of my angel portfolio into Auckland property over the past five years – a much less emotionally and time-draining exercise – I would have already more than doubled my money, and been able to realise those gains in real dollars.  Investors have the right to decide where to invest – what you should not let them do is make you feel inadequate, but ultimately that’s your choice.

So dear founders, know this.  Finding your perfect angel is hard hard work – but when you do,  they can truly make you fly.  Along the way, you will kiss dozens, maybe hundreds of frogs, but each of those frogs has a lesson for you that will make you stronger,  more resilient and ultimately more investible by the right investors for you (assuming of course, that your idea is not actually a dog!)


Will you still speak up?

It’s so easy to express outrage:  outrage at the abomination that is the “executive orders” emanating from the new president of that place that we previously respected as the “leader of the free world”.

So many of my friends, and many of their friends, are filling my social media feeds with protest, with disgust, with a clear rejection of the politics of fear and hate that sadly has marked the start of this new year.  I am with you.  I too celebrate the scientists, who have rejected their muzzling orders with a giant F’U;  the lawyers who have flocked to airports to support and represent those locked out despite their green cards, their student visas, their established family life as legal American residents.

But perhaps unlike you, I reflect on what comes next, and wonder:  will you still speak up when the stakes are raised?

Will you still speak up, when doing so causes your friends and family legally in the US to appear on FBI watchlists;  when you are denied entry to the US yourself because of something you’ve said on Facebook;  when your children are denied that job or promised place at the university of their dreams because of your anti-Trump tirade.

For this is how it starts – and I have lived in this type of society.  A society where even within the bosom of one’s close family, politics was never spoken for fear that the security police would come in the night and simply ‘disappear’ you.  “That will never happen in America”, I hear you say, and wow, I hope you’re right.  But the reality is that fear and disenfranchisement breeds tyrants, and that is what we are witnessing right now, right there in Washington, DC.  How far are we truly from a “presidential guard” that enforces with those ever present guns that right of the president to rule by decree rather than by due process?

Somehow, we in the West seem to be inured to tyrants when they appear in societies that are not like us.  We look on Mugabe, on Zuma, and on the many other Asian, African and Eastern European tyrants of the past (and present) with a removed, analytical interest, never for a moment thinking this could happen closer to home.  But Trump and the US is not that other type of society – these are “our kind of people”, or at least, we thought that they were.  We are witnessing the rise of a tyrant within our very midst, within the heart of the free world…  and it is truly frightening.

So I ask you again.  Will you still speak out, when the stakes are raised, when it is no longer “safe” to do so, when there are repercussions not necessarily directly for you, for others whom you hold dear?

For that is the true test of who we are.  Tonight I watched with dismay as our our own NZ Prime Minister side-stepped the issue, simply saying that this – the cruel and ignorant rejection of Muslims en masse – is “not something NZ would do”.  Well, I should hope not – but honestly, I expect my government to go further than that.

While the people at large, the public, the “common man”, are trying to hold Trump to account, I expect that my government will do the same – and frankly, bugger the consequence!

Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up

A recent satirical heading in The New Yorker  “Earth endangered by new strain of fact resistant humans” reminded me of my oft stated contention that the problem with democracy is that we give everyone the vote.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not suggesting that only people who think like me, who support the same candidates I support, or the same party, should be allowed to vote.  Democracy is all about not just tolerating but embracing a diversity of ideas.

But what I am suggesting is that the complete lack of evidence-based decisionmaking in the democratic process means that it truly is broken, that there is indeed a strain – I prefer to call it a herd – of fact-resistant voters, who simply shortcut the decision making process by picking the candidate who shouts the loudest, has the most familiar name or just looks like a really good man.  (No accident that the stats show the tallest candidate often wins – that’s what leadership looks like to the herd).  It is these – the ignorant, the uninformed, the can’t be bothered – who are responsible for our broken democracy.

My frustration is magnified today as the voting papers go out for our local body elections.  A postal vote in itself belying the importance of this decision in Auckland, a city which is home to fully one third of our country’s population, with its infrastructure groaning under the load of rampant growth, and its ratepayers under serious financial stress as property prices and rental levels skyrocket.

Faced with a certainty that we will elect a new leader – for that is what the mayor is, a leader who ‘rules’ by influence rather than decree – we must choose between a career politician (retired from a lifetime career as a Member of Parliament) and a range of business people and others, none with anywhere near the public profile of the man from the Beehive (what we call our parliament buildings), Phil Goff.

Researching the candidates, one stands out for me.  A business leader, who resigned her job as CEO of one of New Zealand’s biggest and fastest growing companies, a company which Forbes named last year as the world’s most innovative growth company, a company with an enterprise value of over $2billion.   Vic Crone left her no-doubt high paying corporate gig to fight the good fight, based on her plan for making Auckland great, talking the fiscal-responsibility talk.  Having seen the economic impact of having a successful businessman running the country, I’m personally attracted the opportunity to elect a successful businesswoman to lead our biggest city.

To my frustration, the election debates that I have had have mostly been completely free of any critical assessment of the candidates’ respective abilities to get the job done, nor even clarity on what that job actually is.  Phil’s credentials for Mayor are all about who he has been – an Aucklander born and bred, a long time MP, a political party leader (who was never actually elected to run the country).  Those are facts.  But when asked what he has achieved, what evidence there is of a direct influence on outcomes, his supporters simply say that he is a good man.  I cannot argue with any of that.  How does one debate what one man has been and is, with what one woman has done, managed, led and achieved?

Personally, I prefer to put the fate of my city in the hands of someone who has actually run a major enterprise, with real money and real accountability to shareholders.  I’m voting Vic because she understands that you can’t spend what you don’t earn, that the ability to tax the ratepayer does not present a bottomless pit of funding for pet projects, and that to spend where it is needed, the money needs to be saved elsewhere.  Victoria Crone has done the sums, herself.

As I see it, Auckland’s biggest problem, and its biggest opportunity, is growth.  The growth is happening.  Who better to lead up through it than the woman who until very recently was the leader of the world’s most innovative growth company?

I’m not asking you to vote with me – I’m simply asking you to think, to read to consider the evidence – before you vote for whoever you believe, based on the evidence, will be best for Auckland.  Don’t join the herd of fact-resistant humans whose motto may well be that telling statement, apparently going back to Plato “don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up”.

Governance at the coalface of the future

I always knew that when I retired from my day job, I wanted to be a company director.  I never imagined how hard that would be – after all, if governance is at least in part about strategy, and I’d made a very good living shaping strategy for my many corporate and public sector clients, why would I not be highly desirable in the governance pool?

Well, it turns out that the drive for diversity in governance doesn’t actually extend to recognising the value of people who have started and grown their own businesses.  In the traditional governance pool of potential, I am labelled by what I am not:  not a corporate C-suite executive (past or present), not a partner (current or ex-) in a major law or accounting firm, not a high profile academic, not a has-been politician.   (Note that I do not say “not a man”, because I remain convinced that my female-ness is not the actual barrier.  It never has been – but that’s the topic of another rant yet to come.)

But undeterred by my obvious disadvantages – the things that I am not – I embarked on a concerted ‘networking’ effort.  The director community was, I have to say, extremely generous in giving me advice and encouragement – but in reality, I am reminded of our exhortation to angel investors to just be honest with founders and say “no”, quickly and firmly.

Nevertheless, in the absence of a clear ‘not in a million years’ message, I persevered.  Alongside building up my interests in young companies through mentoring and investment, I discovered that the easiest directorships to get are on those early stage company boards – positions of low prestige, massive challenge, and massive opportunity to ‘make a difference’.

This appealed to my values. In  my business, in place of our company vision and values, there was a simple statement on the wall:  “I am not just here to make a living.  I am here to make a difference.”  For me, helping entrepreneurial, high growth start ups succeed, is the one thing I can do to ensure that New Zealand does not become just another Pacific Island – a place where old people live, and young people visit to holiday or see their whanau.  I’m here to make a difference.

And so it is that I have developed a bit of a following as ‘a font of knowledge’ – note, I do not say “the font of all knowledge” – on the topic of governance for start up companies in New Zealand.

With  8 ‘early stage governance’ workshops under my belt, attended by over 100 aspiring early stage directors, I guess I can lay claim to at least being in touch with the issues of governance for the early stage companies that I and my fellow “angel investors” support with what we like to call “smart money” – investment dollars that bring with them time and involvement to help the business grow faster, and spread further, and hopefully make us, and the founders, richer!

New Zealand is the ultimate ‘upstart’ nation:  at the top (or close to the top) of the World Bank’s list of the easiest places to start a business, to do business.  My fellow ‘angels’ and I invest in some 120 start-ups a year, and with the investment comes the requirement to establish a governance board, a board of directors to guide the company to the future.

This is where I have cut my governance teeth – in an environment where directors are donkey deep in the doing, where ‘noses in, fingers out’ has no meaning at all, where the primary concerns are ‘runway’ and ‘burn-rate’, and we, the directors, are standing shoulder to shoulder with the entrepreneur;  believing, risking and literally sprinting from one milestone to the next.

The war stories are legendary, the battle scars raw…  early stage boards are not for the faint-hearted.   But as I observe the dialogues in the traditional governance community, I can’t help but reflect on the palpable lack of enterprise;  the investment in the established status quo;  and, honestly, the lack of support for what is, in effect, the ‘sub-culture’ of directors getting down and dirty to help grow NZ Inc.

While established companies generously offer internships to ‘future directors’; while the Institute of Directors offers ‘mentoring for diversity’;  there is a large pool of governance talent cutting its teeth in the most challenging of environments, in companies that will ultimately make a real difference to New Zealand’s future. With minimal resources, minimal access to advice, little but their intelligence and native smarts to guide alarmingly frequent decisions based on limited information, these early stage company directors are making decisions that will ultimately shape our economic future.  If we’re going to build another 10 Fonterras (and I truly hesitate to hold them up as an example of anything), start-up land is where that begins.

“What about the risk?”, I hear you ask.  The reality is that risk management is not about minimising risk.  It is about understanding the level of risk you’re willing to take to maximise your opportunities, and nowhere is that more clearly understood than in the startup sector.

Perhaps we on these start-up boards should be offering internships to more traditional, experienced directors, to experience the reality of governance life at the coalface of the future.

But meanwhile, how ironic is it that the easiest entree into governance is in companies which have the biggest challenges, the least resources, little or no access to professional advice, and the least ability to pay their directors what they are worth.  Nevertheless, I and my fellow start-up directors persevere, not just to keep a beady eye on our investments, but to make a difference for these companies that we believe will ultimately make a difference to New Zealand.




A fundamentalist walked into my church

Today, the ugly face of Christian fundamentalism showed itself in my church, and it was not good.

Fundamentally, I know that the Bible says that those who do not accept Jesus cannot be saved.  But in an alarming and particularly poorly timed sermon, our guest preacher (a student from the local theological college) propounded his view that those who are not with us are against us – enemies of Christ, in his words.

On this day of all days, when we should have been standing arm in arm with our brothers and sisters of every creed, whatever they believe in.  At a time when I want to rush up to the Muslim woman walking down my street and tell her that I know Isis does not represent her, nor the majority of her fellow believers; at a time when I want, irrationally, to beg my son in London to come home… instead I sat seething, arguing in my head with the narrow-mindedness I was witnessing before me.

Fundamentally, of course, he is right… and that is why we call that view “fundamentalism”.  No amount of “I’m sorry if this offends you” or “I’m happy to debate this with you” will change the fact that it is this very view, technically “correct” but in no way “right”, that has been at the heart of every religious war in the history of mankind.  This is why the crusades were fought, why we endured the “troubles” in Northern Ireland – the list goes on and on.

Indeed, man’s inhumanity to man is so often justified by religious belief, the belief that we are the chosen people, and you are not, that this on its own turns many away from religion of any sort.

Now of course our young(ish) soon-to-be-minister was not suggesting we go out and slaughter the infidel!   No, we need to hold them close, love them and use our best efforts to save them – but never forgetting that they are the enemy.

I wanted to stand up right there and rail against his narrow view of what I consider to be my religion, my beliefs.  I wanted to remind him, and the gathered congregation, that Chistian fundamentalists are no better than fundamentalists of other cloths and creeds.  And that having the ear of believers is a privilege, a privilege that gives your words power to do good and evil, more so perhaps than guns.

I realise that my beliefs are not his beliefs, and that 2 minutes into any debate I would have revealed myself as what he might consider a faux-Christian at best, at worst even an imposter.

Instead I was saved by the bell…  actually by the arrival of the children from Sunday school, with a particularly rowdy grandson giving me the excuse I needed to leave the service to play outside in the tree, to reflect on why I was there at all.   I come most Sundays, bringing my mother and grand-daughter, each of whom cares more about the church than I do – I come because I care for them, and because just occasionally a precious gem emerges from a sermon that resonates, supports or simply comforts me.

Am I the only one in those pews each week who does not believe that Noah actually took the animals two by two into the ark?   Literally?  Who knows? Who cares?

But this I do know.  I could not stand by and say nothing in the face of such fundamentalism.

And no, I am not sorry if my views offend you.

Investment, foreign aid or just 21st century colonialism

Is colonialism dead, or is it in fact alive and well in Africa (again)?  And when is “progress” just progress, and when is foreign “investment” to be welcomed, with no strings attached?

Like a woman with low self-esteem who keeps being attracted to unsuitable partners, it might appear that some African countries are! just maybe, succumbing yet again to the “blankets and guns” enticements preferred by foreign explorers, using “development” as a rationale for establishing and securing a supply chain.

For wasn’t that what the Dutch were doing when they settled in the Cape of Good Hope… establishing and securing a supply chain for precious spices from the east?  In this case, the precious cargo is minerals, the supply chain is roads, lots of roads, and the colonisers are from the east.    

Most visibly on this trip, in Swakopmund, which is booming thanks to a large influx of Chinese workers.  The Chinese, we were told, have bought a 40% share in Rossing uranium mine, and are building a new wholly owned mine just down the road at Huseb due to open in January, which will be the largest opencast uranium mine in the world.  The locals have a small grumble about failure to employ “enough” local workers, but are otherwise pleased to embrace the progress and foreign investment.

Elsewhere in Africa, it’s roads that appear to be the focus (maybe not required here in Namibia where the mines are literally a stone’s throw from the rapidly expanding port at Walvis Bay).  In Rwanda last year, I blogged about the amazing roadworks, literally from one end of the country to the other – overseen and funded by Chinese expertise and money, but employing local villagers for each stretch, leading to a patchwork of stretches of road in varying levels of completeness.  When done, that road will take all the heavy traffic between Burundi and the port at Dar Es Salaam away from the sensitive wildlife areas.  A good thing, surely…or just more of the supply chain.

And our fellow travellers, Anne and Willy, who have just driven down from Malawi though Mozambique, report simlarly significant, similarly funded, roadworks underway.  

One cannot help but be reminded of the long ago ambition of that great colonial, Cecil John Rhodes, whose ambition it was to build a railway line from Cape Town to Cairo.  Seems his ambition may yet be realised, only not quite as he envisaged, with the romance of rail replaced by the efficient practicality of winding black tarmac – all in the name of progress.  

I recall a old man in Zanzibar telling me some 10 years ago that Eastern investment in his country was preferable to Western investment, which inevitably came with strings attached.  Expectations of democracy, and western “standards” of law and order, for example.    And hence my question – is it still colonialism when the deal done is simply investment in return for resources, with no intention to “civilise” or indeed, to colonise in any major way.

But I am no historian, no sociological scholar…  And as my dear old dad would have said, I am probably talking about things I know nothing about!

My Scandinavian Daughters

The contention that “blood is thicker than water”, originally proposed in an ancient German proverb, may well be true, in a rational, physical sense. But reality is that shared familial experiences can create and expand family ties and bonds well beyond those dictated simply by an accident of genetics.

A few years ago, my daughter Pip changed us all by inviting a succession of young women into our lives, and our family.  Initially ‘sold’ as a childcare solution, the au pair system allows kiwi parents to ’employ’ a young visitor from abroad, providing board and lodging, and a relatively modest fee in exchange for 40 hours a week of not just childcare, but love, discipline, entertainment and mind expanding learning experiences for their children.

The au pairs – generally young women aged 19-22, and a few young men – invest their own savings in what they no doubt hope will be a grand adventure.  The system should provide them with not just a small wages to fund their New Zealand adventure, but a loving, caring safe “home base”, from which they can venture out to explore the best of our wonderful country, while at the same time experiencing the reality of being part of a “real” kiwi family.

Of course, there is really no such thing.  The parenting styles that parents will no doubt exhibit when their own kids reach their late teenage years are quickly revealed when they find themselves “in charge” of young au pair, and often unprepared for the reality of having a young adult not just caring for their kids, but living in their home.

Sadly, over the past few years, our wonderful young women have brought home newfound friends, and tales of others, who are being treated as little more than servants, being subjected to crazy ‘rules’ and, the thing perhaps that upsets me most, not being given the family experience for which they saved so hard and paid so much.

The organisations that facilitate the matching are naturally predisposed to take the parents’ side in any conflict – after all, the parents represent “repeat business” paying a placement fee every 6-12 months for their new au pair, while the au pairs pay once, for a one-off experience, be it good, bad or downright ugly.

We’ve seen girls refused permission to entertain their friends at home, fired because they didn’t wash the windows well enough, forced to walk the children to school and kindy and after school activities in foul weather, despite having a drivers licence and there being a perfectly good and very ordinary car sitting idle in the garage!  We’ve transported girls denied the use of the spare car outside their working hours, seen one left at home with the baby for a week while the rest of the family go on holiday, another denied the option to take her leave in blocks of more than a few days at a time.  All of this, I put down simply to lack of employer experience on the part of the host parents, and a failure of the au pair organisation to fully brief them on their responsibilities as well as their rights.  These are not bad people.

But to paraphrase an old nursery rhyme, when it’s good, it’s very very good, and so it has been with us – at least from our side of the story.  Our first, the lovely Alexandra from Denmark, was embraced as a friend , a younger sister, a surrogate daughter, so much so that years on, she is currently back in our home, as a six-month-boarder for the summer, seeing a bit of the NZ that she missed the first time around.  Alex brought sanity to my daughter’s household, a competent nanny for baby Matthew and consistent guide for Isabel.

Next came Sarah from Sweden – completely different, but somehow just what the children needed at the time.  Quieter and more circumspect, she controlled Matthew’s impulses, providing Isabel with encouragement to venture out into the wider world.

Carly was Pip’s next choice, unusually from the USA, and a bundle of positive energy.  Sadly a medical condition intervened, giving us only a few short weeks to get to know her before she had to cut short her New Zealand adventure.  We continue to follow her quests to use her life to make a difference, with love and admiration… And treasure the brief moments during which we were all part of that.

Nina had a different approach to the experience; her mission was to experience New Zealand to the full, and that she did.  Her calming influence and firm hand with Matthew came at just the right time, and we loved having her here – of all our girls so far, she was the one who left most sure of her place in the world, most convinced that her homeland is where she truly belongs.  My sense (and my hope) is that being with us made her more certain of herself.

And so I get to Tea, the lovely Tea from Sweden (though as we keep reminding her, a part of Sweden that has more often been part of Denmark than of Sweden).  Seeing her and Alex converse in what we have come to call Dwedish surely confirms this to be so.  Tea has truly “been here, done that” packing more into her experience than any other.  She has gathered friends – not just other au pairs, but young kiwis, including nieces and nephews and their groups of friends.

Both Tea and Alex, I think, are testing out the idea that one day they too could be “kiwis by choice”.  They have embraced not just the immediate host family, Pip, Howard and the kids, but become part of our wider rambling and enormous whanau, comfortably navigating the grandparents and great grandparents, the aunties, uncles and cousins, with all the vagaries, quirks and family weirdness.

For more than any, Alex and Tea have become my Scandanadian daughters, the younger sisters that Pip hasn’t had till now.  Recent visits from both their mothers have cemented our relationships even more – every mother wants to know that her daughter has a mothering influence in her life, when she cannot be there in person.

And so we build our family – and so we build a private, personal diaspora of international family; a world wide net of more-than-friends for Matthew and Isabel to visit, and to enjoy one day when they head out into the wider world.

Wouldn’t it be great if Izzy could one day have her own au pair adventure, caring for the children of one of our Scandinavian daughters?  Meanwhile, I take joy, and pride, in the way these young women, all of them, have become part of our family, and allowed us to become part of their present and hopefully future lives.