Holly Bennett

Holly Bennett (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Pikiao) is the founder of Awhi, a kaupapa Māori government relations firm. She also founded Engage, New Zealand’s first government relations education organisation, has written columns for both the National Business Review and Newsroom, and launched the Quite Simply Politics podcast.

Holly Bennett launched her kaupapa Māori government relations firm with a $300 self-investment. It was post-2017 election, and after four years working in the Beehive she was living in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton), helping organisations better understand the ins and outs of political engagement. It took a conversation with her Pāpā, Mark, who suggested it might make a good business idea, to spark the flame that would eventually become Awhi.

Six years later, Holly says that she couldn’t have anticipated running and growing her own firm in her wildest dreams at just 33 years old. In that time she has also founded Engage, New Zealand’s only government relations education organisation, while also writing regular columns for the National Business Review with a focus on te ōhanga Māori (the Māori economy). She’s also won multiple business awards, launched the Quite Simply Politics podcast, and led the call for reforms to our lobbying industry.

“The immediate focus for me is improving transparency within lobbying,” she says. “While I am proud to work in this sector, I believe it does a disservice to our democracy by not being clear about what it is that we do, who we do it for, and why we do it.” This is where Awhi comes in, helping a diverse range of kaupapa to effectively engage with political leaders. “The majority of New Zealanders do not even know lobbying services exist,” she explains. “This is not exactly fair to our democracy.” 

She didn’t imagine this as her career path when she was finishing her law degree at the University of Auckland in 2012. “I wasn’t in line for any of the glossy law firm internships. In fact, I was still working at the University of Auckland Recreation Centre as a fitness trainer,” she says. A determination to work in criminal litigation saw her land a role as a court registrar at the Manukau District Court, giving her a front-row seat to the work of some of the most experienced judicial minds in the country.

After a policy secondment in Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington), she crossed over to politics and went to work in the Beehive in 2014. “It was there that I discovered the existence of the lobbying industry and saw first-hand how influential these people can be,” she explains. “Safe to say, my interest in helping people understand the ins and outs of effective political engagement surpassed my desire to be a criminal litigator.” From there, with encouragement from her parents, Awhi was born.

Holly says the most rewarding part of her role is being able to do this work while staying steadfast to her values. And while there have been challenges and complexities along the way, she has found that creating an inspiring and supportive workplace is critical. “You get the most out of people when they can be themselves: Awhi in name and awhi in nature,” she says. “We embrace our kaimahi, encouraging them to bring their true, authentic self to mahi.” 

Holly feels she will not have achieved true success until hapū and iwi across the motu have their own pipeline of confident, competent lobbyists. “Success will be when I can deliver government relations and lobbying services – as well as train future lobbyists – in both te reo Māori and te reo Pākehā.”

Looking ahead, she intends to move some of her focus away from her pakihi toward building greater proficiency in te reo Māori. “That is the kind of accessibility to this sector the nation deserves,” she says.