Rachel Taulelei & Kerensa Johnston

Rachel Taulelei & Kerensa Johnston
Rachel Taulelei & Kerensa Johnston

By Sadie Beckman



Work-life balance is a hot topic, and an equilibrium many people feel they struggle to achieve.

This can be especially so for women. True equality in the workplace still doesn’t exist in many cases, and societal pressure compels women to fulfil multiple roles, both personally and professionally.

Imagine, though, a situation where the concepts of work and life blend into one, and mix seamlessly with other concepts such as family, integrity and passion.

This is the case for two women who are not only achieving at the top of their game, but have taken that game and completely redefined it.


Kerensa Johnston is the chief executive of Wakatū Incorporation, an international organisation based in Nelson with about 4000 shareholders, all of whom descend from the original Māori landowners of the Nelson, Tasman and Golden Bay regions.

Wakatū has three divisions: Kono, its food and beverage arm; Whenua, the property division; and Manaaki, which focuses on people, including via scholarship and development programmes.

Kerensa is a lawyer who has worked in the private sector and as a legal academic at Auckland University’s law faculty, where she specialised in Māori legal development, public law and land law. She has also worked as a barrister.

A graduate of Victoria University, where she was awarded a BA in History and a LLB, Kerensa holds a Masters in Laws in International Law with First Class Honours from the University of Auckland, and is a member of the International Association of Corporate Counsel, Corporate Lawyers New Zealand and Te Hunga Roia. Kerensa, who is of Ngāti Tama, Ngāruahine and Ngāti Whāwhakia descent, certainly holds some impressive credentials.

The academic powerhouse joined Wakatū in 2012 as incorporation secretary and a general counsel, a position she still holds. She also now oversees the whole organisation as chief executive.

However, despite Kerensa’s formidable academic and managerial talents, she feels that one of the most important things she brings to her role is a strong sense of whānau, or family.

Wakatū is valued at more than $300 million, so it is undoubtedly a large corporate, yet Kerensa says management, staff and shareholders alike still think of it as simply a Māori family business. It is this approach, she says, that removes the need to think of work and life as two separate things.

“It’s about creating a workplace where people are actually happy and fulfilled, and feel like their whole self is recognised, rather than just the part of them that they bring to work,” she says.

Every new employee arrives at the organisation to a traditional welcome, and Kerensa says they are encouraged to bring their families and friends along.

“We don’t see ourselves as just hiring the individual. When we bring a person into the organisation, we’re actually bringing in everyone they care about and love. If you don’t understand all of that, you’re not dealing with people as people – they’re just employees.

“Here, we’re just a big family.” And in fact, she says, one of the group’s core values, manaakitanga, encapsulates care and respect for people and relationships.

Inspired in her leadership style by people she has come across on her own journey, Kerensa believes in the strength of mentoring. Kaumātua and other members of the Wakatū group have all guided her, as well as some ‘really smart and forward-thinking’ judges she worked for during a spell as a clerk in Wellington.

“If you’re exposed to those sorts of people, it has a positive effect.”

Another huge source of positive influence comes from her family, particularly the women.

“In my family we’ve got really strong women,” she says. “My mum and my grandmother, in particular, probably had the strongest influence on me. They were very proactive and committed to our communities.”

The presence of such women may have helped to shape Kerensa’s views on the gender bias that many experience both in the workplace and out of it. While Wakatū has a supportive and diverse environment for both men and women, she says, that’s not always the case in society at large.

“I think it’s a much bigger question, and undoubtedly we’ve got a situation in our world where women are still physically at risk as we move about in the world,” she says.

“It’s not really a question of gender bias. There are some fundamental issues with how we’ve evolved as a society in the last couple of hundred years that impact adversely on women. I don’t think any of us are immune to that myriad of things that happen on a daily basis to women, and that’s the case for every woman, including me.”

As chief executive, Kerensa says she tries to create environments that promote diversity and difference, and to encourage staff to see things from all kinds of perspectives.

“Generally, people underestimate women and our ability, and that can be compounded if you’re also Māori, or some other category that’s perceived to be less in some way. Part of my philosophy is to make sure the environment is about diversity and doesn’t have those limitations.”


Rachel Taulelei is also someone who challenges perceived limitations, and lives the values she promotes in her leadership role.

She is the CEO of Kono NZ, which focuses on high-quality beverages and foodstuffs, including Tohu and Aronui wine, Tutū cider, Annies fruit bars, seafood products, pipfruit and hops.

Rachel met Kerensa two decades ago when they studied law together at Victoria University. The pair have forged an enduring and successful professional relationship and a friendship to boot.

After graduation, Rachel joined New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. She spent two years working in New Zealand before being posted to Los Angeles as a trade commissioner. Definitely a multi-tasker, she was simultaneously a regional food-and-beverage manager for North America, taking care of Kiwi companies looking for ways into the U.S. market – big responsibilities that she carried out successfully for eight years.

In 2006, Rachel decided to return home. She set up the seafood company Yellow Brick Road Ltd, working with the fishing industry and promoting responsible harvesting of this valuable resource.

She says the provenance of the seafood was vital, and having that extra level of care meant the restaurants and buyers knew the exact origins of the fresh fish they bought.

Synchronicity kicked in for Rachel. At the same time she stepped out of Yellow Brick Road and into the top job at Kono, the latter bought the former, meaning she could keep an eye on something she had created from scratch, and which embodied her own personal philosophies, particularly around quality and sustainability.

Rachel wasn’t a stranger to Wakatū though – she’s a shareholder. Her affiliation goes back many generations to her Ngāti Rārua great-great grandfather. She is one of the many owners of the organisation, and feels a strong sense of family within it.

Perhaps this has something to do with the importance she places on whānau, and if asked to name the biggest influences on her life so far, she says her parents would take the top spot.

“My parents were real enablers. They raised me with the belief that anything is possible, and I’ve taken that into everything I’ve done afterwards.”

Rachel reckons the example they set for her was crucial in her own success. Her parents have always owned businesses and been in what she terms ‘the entrepreneurial space’.

Other drivers to success, she says, have been her study of law, which ‘gives you great training of the mind and great ways to analyse and synthesise information’,  plus the people who have supported her – something she hopes to do for others.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have had a number of those who’ve championed me. They may have even put me in positions I was not wholly qualified for, but I think they knew what was possible.”

Believing in what you can achieve is particularly important for women in the corporate world, Rachel says. She hopes to set an example for younger women.

“You almost have a responsibility to remain visible so that young women who are coming into a corporate environment can see people they might identify with,” she explains.

“If there’s no one you can identify with, that’s pretty tough.”

This quiet visibility is possibly more important than people think, especially when you are ‘practically a unicorn’, she laughs. By this she means when she started out she was young, female and Māori – a trifecta of rarity in the male-dominated corporate world.

“There are far fewer women operating in the primary sector, and when you go into fishing that number diminishes again,” Rachel says of her past experiences. “But I think of it as ‘one of these things is not like the other’ because it can be an obstacle or it can be an opportunity to stand out, because you’re the thing that’s not like the other.

“You bring with you a new and diverse perspective and it’s incumbent on you to bring that to the table. Absolutely that is tough when you’re in a room full of men, and being Māori is different too.”

However, being ‘different’ in an environment doesn’t have to be a problem, and now Rachel works at making that environment more inclusive.

“You have to think about your inner strength, conviction and confidence to move forward,” she says. “I do think about it, in the role I have – the responsibility you have to create environments where differences actually aren’t a problem and you are as inclusive as is humanly possible.”

And that elusive work-life balance?

“I think it’s an urban myth really,” says Rachel. “It’s like water finding its level – it gets there and it’s different for everyone. I’m the kind of person who gets energy from energy, so there’s a lot of movement in my professional life, and yep, there are a number of roles in there that are additional to the CEO role, but they all contribute to it in different ways.

“You’ve got to make sure you know what your priorities are, and I think that’s what makes you know the balance is okay. I mean, I know that my priority is my family first and everything else thereafter.”

Rachel, who has a 12-year-old daughter, says the support of her husband is integral to her life.

“It’s very rare for people to be able to do the sort of jobs we do without mutual support. I’m really incredibly fortunate to have that.”

She makes sure she talks with her family about where she’s going and what she’s doing in her role, and if it feels like it’s mounting up too much, “we just stop”.

And Rachel says that’s exactly why she strives to create work environments where people feel comfortable to say if they need to go to their child’s recital, or if they’ve been away too much and want to spend a day reconnecting with their family.

“You need to know people well enough to know what they need to do their job well, and increasingly that’s not 9-to-5, five days a week, as rigorous as we do make it. There’s lots of versions of productivity that I like to see. It’s about kindness and excellence.”

Wakatū’s focus on the future

Wakatū Incorporation has, as one of its founding philosophies, the acknowledgement that its tūpuna, or ancestors, were ‘creative, astute and forward-thinking people’ who gifted their land, whakapapa and cultural identity.

“It is our responsibility to preserve and enhance this taonga, now and for future generations,” Kerensa says. “We will achieve this through the sustainable use and development of our land and resources and by creating a community that our people are proud of.”

With leaders at the helm such as Kerensa Johnston and Rachel Taulelei, these valuable characteristics look certain to be embodied in the organisation for generations to come.