Mahuki: where entrepreneurial spirit and culture collide.
Sulu Fiti, Outreach Manager for Mahuki, chats with us about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector.
On a sunny morning in January, we had the opportunity to chat with Sulu in Muhuki’s beautiful office space, located within New Zealand’s national Te Papa Museum. The first of its kind, Mahuki is Te Papa’s innovation accelerator focusing on entrepreneurship in the global cultural and heritage sector.
Sulu could not have been more welcoming. We chatted about Mahuki, growing up in Wellington, and his ideal day in the city.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m a born and bred Wellingtonian, and I’ve lived here for most of my life. I’ve also lived overseas during various semi-professional rugby playing stints - three seasons in Wales, two in Ireland, and one each in Ireland, and Australia. I’ve also lived in Samoa a couple of times. My parents are Samoan immigrants who came here in the 1960s. They met each other in New Zealand, and raised our family here in Wellington. They came from nothing, and were poor even by Samoan standards at the time. So my siblings and I are very fortunate that we were brought up wanting for nothing, in an incredibly supportive, and loving family. We had a fantastic upbringing in Wellington.
After spending time abroad, what has brought you back to Wellington?
It’s home. My family and friends are here. And because of Wellington’s relatively small size, there's a real sense of community here. I love that. It's amazing how many people you become connected with in this city. In particular, within the start-up community everyone seems to know one another. There is a great creative vibe in the city, and you can really see that in the vibrant startup scene.
Also, being the seat of government, there are a lot of government agencies, and while in the past that has given Wellington a rather staid image. It’s certainly not how you would describe Wellington now. At Mahuki we work with a lot of government agencies and educational institutions, and they are starting to embrace a lot of startup methodologies in the way that they operate. Government can be a big clunky machine, but they are really trying to implement some of the startup philosophies such as iterating quickly, and running design sprints. It's really refreshing to see that kind of thinking in that sort of environment.
What brought you to Mahuki?
I came through a business accelerator in 2017 - the Kiwibank Fintech Accelerator - where I fast failed my company which was looking to make it easier and cheaper to send money to the Pacific Islands using the blockchain. After some market validation in Samoa I decided that it wasn’t worth pursuing the business further. We didn’t have a big enough point of difference in the market to make the type of penetration that would have made us stand out from others in the space. I've worked in many different jobs - but most recently in startups.
I work as the Outreach Manager at Mahuki, and my remit is to find exceptional talent for the full Mahuki programme. I also work closely with educational institutions, government agencies, and other interested parties. I’m also heavily involved in the local startup scene. We run a pre-accelerator programme which involves delivering workshops around the country to those interested in the sector, with a particular focus on Maori and Pasifika.
That’s amazing! What makes Mahuki such a unique place?
It is a space where entrepreneurialism and culture collide to create innovative solutions that enrich galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM). It's the world’s first accelerator in this sector, and that speaks volumes about Te Papa's constant effort to be ahead of the curve.
We produce a four month bespoke innovation / entrepreneurial programme designed to help teams of between 2 to 6 members develop their idea and business to produce a commercially viable solution.
How did the program originally get started?
A few years ago Te Papa examined ways in which it could adapt and innovate in an increasingly digital world. They looked at a few different models, and the accelerator model is what they decided to go with. From day one Te Papa has always stood out from the crowd. It has a pioneering vision within its DNA, and that ‘out of the box’ thinking courses through Mahuki.
What are some examples of teams that have gone through the program?
We’ve had a really broad range of teams come through Mahuki. Just a snapshot of some of the teams include Curio, which is an online publishing platform that lets museums, galleries and libraries make their own digital interactions. We’ve had a social enterprise team who created an app for matching volunteers with organizations; another team, Excio, has created an app for enjoying works of art / photography on your mobile device. Breadcrumb deliver location-aware indoor positioning solutions, Vaka Interactiv, are a Pasifika team working on a portrait interactive - think Harry Potter - by using ethno-cultural empathy via two way communication. We’ve also had a team in the burgeoning V.R. space, a data analytics team, a bunch of gaming developers, and a team who are looking at using technology to learn, and preserve the languages of Oceania. I’m really looking forward to seeing who comes through the Mahuki programme this year. Bring it on!
What have been some of the biggest challenges for the program?
The biggest difficulty is not only finding talent who want to explore opportunities in this sector, but also in communicating just the broad scope of opportunities that are available for people. Typically when you think of museums, your first thought is front of house exhibitions - but there are opportunities for enterprise in areas such as ticketing, catering, and retail, just to name a few. We are being proactive in building and growing our own pipeline by extending our reach into the Maori and Pasifika communities, who aren’t greatly represented in the sector. We know that there is a rich vein of talent out there, and we aim to plant the seeds for that next wave of talent with some of our targeted workshops. A lot of the challenge is in communicating the challenges that face the sector, and whether people can come in and have a business or initiative that solves those challenges. We have a set of twelve challenges that guide what Te Papa and the industry are looking at, and we are currently in the process of revisiting these.
What make most you most excited to come to work each day at Mahuki?
What I'm big on - and this speaks to my cultural background - is promoting diversity. Last year we had three Pasifika teams come through the Mahuki programme, and also an all-female team of three young entrepreneurs. It’s a great start, but we need to be doing a lot more to tap into those communities. We’ve got a unique opportunity at Mahuki to take a lead, and make a significant difference in this area. Also, innovation is innovation - and being involved with startups in whatever industry, whether it be fintech, agritech, VR, or whatever - is just damned exciting.
Through Mahuki, we are pioneering and championing the concept of ‘culture tech’ – a fusion of emerging technology with a New Zealand worldview that embraces the deep storytelling, content and traditions of Maori and Pasifika culture in the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museum (GLAM) sector. Telling deep and genuine stories resonates with these cultures and we are heralding a new frontier where those gifts for storytelling can be fully realized.
One last question for our readers exploring the city. What’s your ideal day here in Wellington?
That’s easy! I'm a beach person, so I love going to the beach and being in the water. My favorite beach is Princess Bay. It's my fave because it's not as busy as the others in the city, but also because it gets the last drop of summer sun. So you get some amazing, dramatic sunsets there. It's beautiful just to sit there at 9pm in the evening and watch the sun go down. But shhhh. Keep it on the d-low, us locals like to keep Princess Bay a secret.
Another good / bad thing about Wellington - depending on your point of view - is our weather. Our winters can be pretty horrific. We have a really bad wind...apparently. I just call it a breeze. It puts a lot of people off, but I think it just invigorates us locals to be creative.