Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive success: Young achiever plays matchmaker

Entrepreneur's scheme helps younger people into governance
Nuwanthie Samarakone founded ICE Proffessionals five years ago. Photo / Getty
Nuwanthie Samarakone founded ICE Proffessionals five years ago. Photo / Getty

You've either got it or you haven't - the entrepreneurial knack, that is.

While it's possible to teach components of entrepreneurship, says Nuwanthie Samarakone, you've got to be wired differently to push "go" on a start-up.

"I actually find high performing athletes generally make for really good entrepreneurs because they've got the discipline, says Samarakone.

"It comes down to discipline and attitude."

"Some of the grads that have seen successful high growth companies like Uber and Airbnb say 'ooh, we want to set up the next thing' and I always say 'go for it, but just know it isn't as glossy and sexy as it sounds from day one because there's a lot of stuff there that you've got to deal with'."

At 30, Samarakone has five years under her belt running a start-up servicing 22 markets and operating in four languages.

ICE Professionals - the ICE stands for introduce, connect, evolve - matches graduates with corporates and helps those businesses with strategies to manage their newly minted staff members.

And she's just weeks away from launching her latest venture, Get On Board, an organisation co-founded with professional director Henri Elliot, with support from Hewlett Packard managing director Keith Watson and Institute of Directors chief executive Simon Arcus.

Get on Board will be linking mid-career professionals who have governance aspirations, with internship positions on advisory boards.

"For the last five years it's been a crazy journey," says Samarakone. "If you'd asked me if I'd be doing this five or six years ago the answer would be 'heck no'. I was quite happy in corporate."

Graduating with a health science degree just before the global financial crisis, Samarakone hit a job market where work was scarce and many of her contemporaries were finding it hard to gain a career toehold on returning from their OE.

She took a graduate role giving her exposure to both the public and private health sectors, before settling into a job with Southern Cross Hospitals - but not before telling the chief executive she had an eye on his job.

For several years she was taken under the wing of some great managers, including the CEO, and completed a range of projects, but there came a time where she wanted to stretch herself outside the organisation, with the option of coming back when she was done.

Just because you're big does not mean you have all the right systems and processes to support early talent.

Samarakone spent time in a range of organisations from Whangarei to Christchurch, but was consistently hearing that attracting and developing young potential talent in these businesses was challenging.

Samarakone says she was left wondering why it was so hard.

"But I quickly realised the expectations of the organisations are very different to the graduates coming through and I looked at myself and thought: well, actually, I was one of those grads who put my hand up and said 'I'm not going to sit here doing this job forever; give me stuff to get my hands into and a I'll get it done and if I need help I'll ask you'.

"I had great managers who gave me that level of responsibility but at the same time you need that coaching and that mentoring, because you don't know what you don't know as a grad, but you don't think about that when you're coming out of uni."

After quizzing companies about graduate recruitment programmes and talent strategies, Samarakone felt she had the beginnings of a business, and gave herself seven months to get her ideas off the page.

How do we bring in the next generation of potential board directors, from start-ups to high-growth?

By month five, Samarakone knew she was onto a winner.

Working mostly with regional operations of multinationals, she is now supporting graduate recruitment and development with a localised strategy.

"Just because you're big does not mean you have all the right systems and processes to support early talent."

With many of her clients operating in multiple markets, Samarakone quickly realised it was crucial to open opening offices in the locations where decisions were being made. Sydney was first, followed by Singapore and more recently Hong Kong.

Some of the back office work is taken care of in Sri Lanka, Samarakone's country of birth, although her globetrotting parents raised her in Scotland before settling in New Zealand.

It took a couple of years before she created a board governance structure within the business, saying it was really hard to let go of always doing things her way. Now, she wouldn't have it any other way.

It also got her thinking about timing her own progression into governance. Samarakone realised she didn't want to wait until her 50s and 60s, preferring to pass on her experience now, but not finding a mechanism that linked the theory of governance with mentoring from experienced directors.

"Get On Board was formed because I've had so many conversations with clients and partners asking: how do we bring in the next generation of potential board directors, from start-ups to high-growth?"

With six slots available in the first intake, Samarakone has grabbed one for herself. "That way no one can say it's really crap because I'll know if it's really crap."

Get On Board launches mid-October.

- NZ Herald

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