Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Indigenous touch for technology

IT system from West Auckland aims for overseas growth.
Stephen Keung heads health software company Whanau Tahi.Picture / Jason Oxenham
Stephen Keung heads health software company Whanau Tahi.Picture / Jason Oxenham

As a kid growing up, Stephen Keung's Dad told him to become a doctor.

Keung trained as an accountant instead, but today he is helping improve the wellbeing of communities most at risk of poor health.

The 59-year-old chief executive of the Waipareira Trust's Whanau Tahi health software company says that for his father, who was out digging drains every day, a lack of role models meant becoming a doctor was the only aspirational career he knew.

"That said, I don't think that we felt we couldn't do something, it's just that we never saw it." Mangere-raised Keung skipped the University of Auckland in favour of study in the United States, staying on to work as an accountant at one of the big global firms in San Francisco.

Those connections are proving invaluable as Whanau Tahi expands into the US market.

Begun six years ago, Whanau Tahi aimed to provide the technology backbone to support the delivery of health and social services to the Waipareira community under the Government's Whanau Ora programme.

Waipareira Trust boss John Tamihere had looked for an off-the-shelf option, but after finding nothing suitable, brought in IT contractors to build it from scratch.

Tamihere gave Keung a call to help roll out Whanau Tahi.

The connection between the two goes back more than 25 years, when Waipareira was a client of Keung's at accounting firm PwC. Keung had recently returned from the United States, having decided to come home after the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the San Francisco area in 1989.

"That literally did shake me after working seven or eight years there in the Bay Area and I just thought 'what am I doing here?'."

The pair's career paths diverged later in the 1990s but the launch of Whanau Tahi brought them back together again. "So I'm not such a fresh face," says Keung.

His job at Whanau Tahi was to ensure the investment in organisational know-how and technology - now managed in-house - was scaled up and commercialised.

"There was a growing sense that something needed to be done, certainly in the Maori community, to get better outcomes.

"[Whanau Tahi] was built with a view that it would support Whanau Ora, but when you look at it from a broader perspective it was really a statement about where the world was going in this particular area where there needed to be a better, more effective way of delivering services to under-served and vulnerable communities.

"People cannot continue to be serviced in the same old way with funding coming on a siloed basis and essentially just kicking the can down the road."

The strategy was always to start indigenous, where there was an over-representation of those needing social and health support, but on a global scale, says Keung.

Whanau Tahi is used by government agencies and iwi organisations in New Zealand, but also has clients in Australia and Singapore.

As well, it is also chipping away at the United States market, where Whanau Tahi has begun working with Native American nations as well as beginning to break into African-American groups.

There are also plans to work with the Latino community, says Keung.

"It's a long haul up there; you're developing relationships.

"Some people don't even know where New Zealand is, let alone an IT company called Whanau Tahi out of West Auckland."

Whanau Tahi's work was recognised this month by its technology partner, Microsoft.

Whanau Tahi was short-listed in a field of global multinationals in the health category of Microsoft's Partner of the Year awards, which is believed to be the first time a New Zealand organisation has made the finals of this category.

"I think we've manage to punch above our weight," says Keung. "I think the recognition by Microsoft, for example, is a marker of how far we've come in the four to five years we've been developing that US market."

While he won't be drawn on exact numbers, Keung says there are bold goals to grow Whanau Tahi and feed profits back into the community.

Some people don't even know where New Zealand is, let alone an IT company called Whanau Tahi out of West Auckland.
Stephen Keung

"It's easy to think: can anything good come out of West Auckland?

"Can that compete with the likes of a solution from IBM or from Ireland or from Canada?"

Keung was recently at a health IT conference in the United States. Among the 100,000 delegates and big-name tech companies, he wasn't able to find anyone doing what Whanau Tahi was doing.

It was another validation of Whanau Tahi's point of difference.

Keung says the thing he has learned through overseas experience is that New Zealand, and Whanau Ora in particular, is ahead of the curve in the delivery of services to vulnerable communities.

"I don't think we give ourselves enough credit for that."

- NZ Herald

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