Lesieli Oliver

Lesieli Oliver is the founder of Lālanga, an organisation dedicated to empowering Māori and Pacific students through culturally relevant learning resources, technology and mentoring programmes.

2020 was a year of change and upheaval for everyone around the world, but for Lesieli Oliver it was the year that decades of hard work, learning and determination came to fruition. In August she launched Lālanga, a locally based organisation dedicated to empowering Māori and Pacific students. Since then, she has reached over 3,500 students in 15 low-decile schools around Tāmaki Makaurau with her groundbreaking Lālanga Toolbox and mentoring programme.

Drawing from her own cultural heritage as a proud Tongan woman, Lesieli believes in “the power of collective support from the village” to uplift and empower young people in Aotearoa to reach their full potential in both learning and leadership. “I believe education is the key that unlocks doors to transformation,” she says. “Success, to me, isn't just about personal achievements, but about making a positive impact and creating opportunities for others to flourish.”

Lesieli migrated with her family from Tonga to Aotearoa at a young age, and says that her parents have been hugely influential in shaping her own drive to support the next generation of Māori and Pacific students. “They took a significant risk by making the decision to move to New Zealand, despite not knowing the language,” she says. “Their primary motivation for this move was to provide their children with better educational opportunities.”

In terms of her own education journey, Lesieli says it was in her second year at the University of Auckland where everything “fell into place” for her. She had started a commerce degree, but wasn’t feeling inspired by a career in accountancy. It was only after picking up political studies and experiencing student politics as the AUSA president that she found her true sense of purpose and direction. “The desire to become a politician and use my position to create positive change ignited a fire within me,” she says.

It was also in the last year of her studies that Lesieli met her future husband, who had recently completed his engineering degree at the University of Auckland, and they would soon start a family of their own. “Balancing the demands of establishing a political career and being there for my loved ones proved to be a tough challenge,” she recalls. “I realised that dedicating myself solely to politics would mean sacrificing the time and attention I wanted to give to my family.”

For the next eight years, Lesieli joined her husband in building their small business, an IT company. “It was an exciting time of exploring new technologies and contributing to our business' growth,” she says. “But there was still something missing.” Combining her experience working in digital technologies with her passion for education and leadership, Lesieli launched Lālanga in 2020 with enormous success.

“What I find truly rewarding about what I do is witnessing the transformation in young people's lives,” she says. “Seeing them develop a love for education, embracing the joy of learning, and having the opportunity to dream about their future brings me immense fulfilment.” While her career did not follow the expected political path, “it taught me the importance of finding work that aligns with my values and allows me to make a positive difference”.

That work continues with the expansion of the Lālanga ToolBox, which provides creative and culturally relevant learning content to the educators of Māori and Pacific students, into 100 schools by 2025. Lesieli has just completed her Masters of Technological Futures and is also interested in how new technologies like AI could personalise learning for Māori and Pacific students.

“There is still so much more to do,” she says. “But I feel a sense of excitement to continue making a positive difference.”