HUMANS OF THE ISLANDS - TOVIA VA'AELUA
COUNTRY MANAGER, RHIPE NZ (THE CLOUD CHANNEL COMPANY & CHAIRPERSON OF PASIFIKA IN IT
I was born in Sagafili, Samoa and had four siblings but moved with only three of them to NZ because immigration laws back then limited migrant families to no more than four children. We lived in Grey Lynn like most but then moved to Avondale to be closer to dad’s work – hence all the schools we attended were there. My mum is from Falelatai which explains why I have the titles I do and dad came from Lalomalava. Our family has always been in law enforcement and I was preparing to enter but was told by my father and brother that I wasn’t allowed because it would “change” me. And I had already graduated with a Major in Education and realized I wasn’t inspiring enough to be a teacher, so I shifted to technology.
What were the pathways that led you to what you're doing now?
This crazy palagi woman (whom I still love dearly to this day – e.g. she came to my wedding) who in the space of 18months promoted me from being a front line rep to manage the entire operation of 120 staff. Add to that an unrelenting sense of “I’m-so-far-behind” which then saw me pulling 36hr shifts to stay ahead of everyone else. Pretty dumb move but I was young, 10 feet tall and bulletproof. I still do it sometimes today but need to set a better example for those around me – so I do my long hours in secret. HAHA.
You've recently returned to New Zealand and head up rhipe New Zealand – Microsoft’s largest Cloud-only distributor. Can you explain to us non-tech people what that is :)
So, I had worked at Microsoft for 15 years in NZ and in Asia but due to unforeseen personal events, I needed to come home. I had worked myself into a senior level in the company which meant timing would be critical in order to land back in the country and stay in the company. But timing was off and although I had (still have) a great relationship with the Regional President for Microsoft (another palagi lady – she’s crazy amazing), the senior roles they had were for every other country except NZ. So, the last four years, I had been watching a great friend and mentor of mine who left Microsoft leadership and moved to this company called rhipe who were doing some disruptive things in the market – and I wanted in. Like I said, timing is everything and they were offered me the NZ GM role and so I joined.
What do they do? They were appointed as Microsoft’s newest Cloud distribution partner three months before I joined and so we help to make the supply chain for cloud services faster and more available for businesses and customers across the country. I’ve been there 8months and 14 days. Not that I’m counting.
How important is it to bring a Pasifika perspective to what you do?
Pasifika perspective is super important in the Technology Industry because you need to have a depth of humility to willingly say “I don’t know” and then get going to find out. Furthermore, your family life is critical and that isn’t the typical Western family construct but the broader “community” family – yes the people outside of your immediate family you love dearly but hate when they stay longer than the two hours you scheduled them in for. But we do community well, and as a people leader, it’s important to make sure you create the right environment for people to do their best work. But the biggest part I love about having a Pasifika perspective is that this sense of belonging reminds us that we’re not alone and therefore one should never be so silly to think that everything they had achieved was from their own efforts. That would be a dumb move.
What have been your biggest successes as well as your biggest challenges?
Biggest success – watching my four kids form their own organization (called HaTCH – stands for Hana, Teuila, Canaan and Hazel) – aged four to 12. They got together to fundraise enough money (on their own) to build a home for a family that lost everything in a Super Typhoon in the North of the Philippines. The Mayor sent down his city administrator to shoot a quick video they could send to the family who would take ownership of the house the next day. And my kids gather around the camera, decide their eldest sister should be the spokesperson and then our 12 year old starts off by saying “thank you for letting us be part of your family”. The future of humanity looked brighter for me all of a sudden and I was so proud of my ¾ Samoan kids who helped a Filipino family who they never met before. But apparently – that’s how we roll.
Biggest challenge – I got my negotiation wrong on my salary package when the company moved us out of New Zealand. And despite being on a very high six figure salary, we were the first family that had ever been moved to the Philippines and so there were so many things that were unaccounted for. It got so bad that in one month we were down to 20cents after we paid everything. Toughest 18months of our time away and lots of tears and self-doubt during that time. But it also made me realize how amazing my parents were to move our family (without the large salary) to a country they knew nothing about. All worked out in the end – I got a 100%+ pay rise and learned a set of skills which I pass on to everyone that’s willing to listen about how to negotiate your new salary with conviction. Because you’re worth it and Pasifika people (like Filipino’s) suck when it comes to that (e.g. oh thank you for paying me at 40% of the average salary for the same role in the market – I’m just grateful I have job thanks to you). Don’t get me started.
What do you love about being an islander today?
As an Islander, I can help my Pasifika people understand that technology must be woven into everything that we do – education, community and culture. That doesn’t mean compromise who we are, but we need to adjust in order to survive these coming changes. That’s why I recently agreed to serve as the chairperson for the Pasifika in I.T. trust. This team is made up of amazing Pasifika IT Professionals and is tasked with driving a higher percentage of Pasifika into the tech industry. Why? Because we are like hens teeth and I feel that we have an obligation to bring colour and crazy (not too much crazy) to an industry that has been one dimensional for a very long time. The pool to choose from is so small and those of us who were fortunate enough to be “the only” in this industry – ended up here despite not studying any of this in school. But we’re in a rush because we only have 15 year time horizon to impact this change and there’s so much work to do. In fact, last night in GRIDAKL, we launched our first fully funded initiative (after only 3 months in existence) that will match up Pasifika IT Industry Professionals with Pasifika children from South Auckland primary schools. And all of this built on a platform of community and a sense of commitment to the future of our people and this country. If you want more info, you can read here https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/pasi-program-cultural-context-tovia-va-aelua/ or here http://mpp.govt.nz/news-and-stories/running-out-of-time-to-jump-on-tech-wagon/?fbclid=IwAR3s21TePQ7kT4FTbbnj-vzSErP1yzhQFT_B8jKfUrwRf5Hf0fW_I9sz7nU