Dan Walker

Māori Business Leader

With a pakeha father and a fiercely independent Māori mother, Dan Walker recalls being not “white” enough for the white kids and not quite “brown” enough for the Māori or Samoan kids. As a result, feelings of inadequacy plagued him during his early years.

“I became ashamed of being Māori – it was not something to be proud of. At the time Māori were on the news for all the wrong reasons. I never admitted my heritage to anyone in an effort to try and dodge the judgement. I ended up convincing myself I was just a slightly browner Pākehā. I stayed away from my culture as much as possible.”

Leaving school without any qualifications and realising he had a strong disconnection from who he really was, Dan says he struggled to see a positive future for himself.

Searching inwards for answers and encouraged by his whanau to begin focusing on his taha Māori (connection), Dan began a journey of self-discovery which to this point he had carefully avoided.

Discovering a 600-year-old whakataukī from his direct ancestor Turi would provide a catalyst for taking those first steps towards a new future for himself.

“E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea – I will never be lost in this world, for I am a seed cast forth from Rangātea.”

“Turi was a gardener and he planted seeds wherever he went. In present day I can follow his journey through Aotearoa based on some of the trees that he planted. I realised that he planted seeds for trees with the expectation that he would not benefit from the fruits. They were for his descendants to follow - people like me. It made me realise the intentions of my ancestors that were intergenerational and I needed to think more like that.”

Eventually coming to the realisation his destiny was to do mahi (work) that focused on serving the lives of Māori in Aotearoa and around the world was a turning point, cementing a destiny that had previously been missing from his life.

Marrying his long-term girlfriend (Michelle) at 22 - having been boyfriend and girlfriend since their first year at high school - a new-found confidence coupled with a dedicated work-ethic gifted from his parents began to take hold.

Dan joined electronics chain Dick Smith starting at the very bottom, but rose through the ranks rapidly, quickly gaining an appointment as National Commercial Manager. He soon found he was hiring staff with university degrees and began to consider that maybe academia wasn’t something to be feared after all.

By this time he’d left Christchurch and made Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) his new home. Deciding to “take the plunge” and enrol in a Diploma in Business he was instead encouraged to consider the Executive MBA programme which required a B+ average over a two-year period as well as submitting a research thesis at the end. It would be demanding, both personally and financially, but was he up for it?

“Going from no academic education to a master’s seemed like absolute madness. Apparently the cost was ‘only’ $47k! I had no idea how I was going to pay for the course considering we were barely affording our rent at the time.”

Dan told his wife he had decided not to proceed. Eventually though he came around to the idea and a few months later he found himself sitting in a class of people.  He soon realised he was one of the few students in the class without an undergraduate degree.

“All those feelings of not being smart enough, not being good enough, not being academic enough hit me hard in those first few months. I remember thinking why the hell am I here? I couldn’t even pass high school so I definitely can’t do this. I am the biggest imposter in this class.”

Getting his results back from his first two modules ‘Managing Organisations’ and ‘Quantitative Analysis for Business’ Dan can still recall the feeling of utter disbelief as he stared at his marks. He had scored an A for both assignments. After confirming there hadn’t been a mistake in the marking he says his wife simply shrugged when he shared the news as though it was nothing unusual.

The MBA wasn’t always smooth sailing and Dan says there were those moments when he seriously considered quitting. However, he pushed through the “pain barrier” and graduated with his Executive MBA in 2011.

“The year after my MBA I was chosen to participate in the Leadership NZ programme (LNZ), a life changing opportunity that allowed me to understand leadership across community, education, business and government. I have also been appointed to various board roles including becoming an independent director for NZ Māori Tourism and four charities.”

Reflecting on his time at university, Dan says the experience was pivotal in changing his mindset.

“The confidence that my time at the University of Auckland gave me is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. I failed so many times during my early years and that is okay – I am glad I failed because it has given me more drive and motivation than the average person. It helped me get through my MBA when all of my previous academic experience said I couldn’t. I know now that your past doesn’t need to define your future. My goal is for my children to (safely) fail as much as possible.”

Ko tāku tūmanako kia pakari i ō tātou pākahi hapori. Kia hāpai i ngā tāngata hei painga mō tatou. Nō reira, e āku nui, a āku rangatira – tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou kātoa.

“Ko ngā pae tawhiti whāia kia tata, ko ngā pae tata whakamāua kia tina”

“The potential for tomorrow exists in what we do today”