Hamish Fletcher

Business reporter for the NZ Herald

New Year Honours: Dame Wendy Pye

Publisher sees business as more than a money earner; it's a way to fight global poverty.

Dame Wendy Pye's publishing business has helped to teach English to children in many countries.  Photo / Richard Robinson
Dame Wendy Pye's publishing business has helped to teach English to children in many countries. Photo / Richard Robinson

Dame Wendy Pye will turn 70 next year but is still getting up at 4.30am to field international calls, travelling across the world to expand her publishing business and "beating the drum" for children's literacy.

"Why would I retire?" asked Pye, today named Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business and education.

"I have so much energy and there are so many opportunities opening up in the world," the Whitford resident said. "2013 will probably be the most exciting year in my life."

A former journalist at the now-defunct Auckland Star newspaper, Pye started a publishing business in 1985 after meeting a group of adolescent boys who could not read.

Since then Wendy Pye Publishing, which now earns 80 per cent of its revenue out of New Zealand, has helped teach English to children in countries such as the United States, Singapore, India, Malaysia, China and Japan and African nations.

"I really am an active exporter, I live in the export market," she said.

The enterprise has been hugely profitable - Pye was this year estimated to be worth about $100 million.

As well as being passionate about lifting literacy, Pye does say she "dreams about the great returns" business growth brings.

"I pay a royalty to my authors and, how fabulous, all of my authors are in New Zealand ... it's supporting a lot of people in the community."

And while digital advances have undermined some publishers, Pye has been a pioneer in using technology to teach English, allowing her to expand into huge overseas markets.

The company has worked with Korea Telecom to build a digital English-teaching application which works over mobile phones.

In a deal just signed with the Vietnamese Government, Wendy Pye Publishing will also be providing the content for a pilot reading programme in that country.

Pye said she had met with representatives of major telcos across the world about the reading app being developed.

"They're open to it, they think I'm slightly mad, but that's okay. They're really open minded ... they are usually guys about 22 years of age but they put up with me. I think they think I'm their grandmother coming along," she said.

Over the next year, Pye will explore creating a website in Arabic and dreams of helping millions of young girls in developing countries to learn how to read.

Pye sees boosting literacy as more than just a a way to make money. She is convinced it is a sort of panacea for poverty - although admits she is probably "a bit one-eyed".

"The only way to break the cycle of poverty is to create children who can read. If everyone read, they could at least do something and apply for jobs and be more positive in life and have more self-esteem."

"This does make a difference ... we know that if a child has not learned those [literacy] skills by the age of 10, we've almost lost them. Our prisons are full of people who can't read."

Despite being seemingly devoted to her work, she does take time out for her other passion - racehorses.

Pye and husband Don have about 50 horses, eight of which are currently in racing. "I hope this award brings lots of winners for me."

- NZ Herald

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