Agribusiness leader and company director Traci Houpapa was recently listed as one of the world’s most inspirational and influential women by the BBC. The chairwoman of Land Corp and the Federation of Maori Authorities starts each day at 3am.

1. What was your childhood like?

I had an idyllic childhood on a sheep and beef farm in the King Country. Mum's German Yugoslav and Dad was Maori; Waikato, Maniapoto, Taranaki and Tuwharetoa. I'm one of four kids. We grew up going to Maori land meetings. Dad was instrumental in bringing Lands and Survey-operated properties back into Maori management in the 80s. I remember our teacher telling us when our Taumarunui incorporation was returned in 1981, "This is part of history" but when you're a teenager you don't realise the significance.

2. What did you want to be growing up?

A policeman, bee keeper or lighthouse keeper. A couple of people in my early life were important in setting me on my path. Anihera Henry gave me my first job helping her set up Kohanga Reo around the central North Island. My guidance counsellor Pete Wikaira encouraged me to gain broad experience before making a career call so I was a tour guide on the Whanganui River, a rousey in a shearing gang, a lab technician and a social worker. Then I came home to work for our Maori Trust Board as ops manager and chief executive.


3. Did you have any qualifications for these roles?

No, I just learnt on the job. I had people who were generous with their time and helped me. It wasn't until I started consulting that I decided it was time to get an MBA.

4. How did you become a board director?

My first appointment was to Te Uranga B2, the Maori authority my Dad bought back. From there I was asked to sit on the board of Strada, a construction company owned by the Waikato District Council where I learnt how politics affects business and the importance of stakeholder communication. I was soon asked to sit on other boards and my career in governance sprung from there.

5. You currently sit on 11 different boards of corporations, councils, authorities and foundations. How do you fit everything in?

I couldn't do the hours and the travel I do if I wasn't fit and healthy. I get up at 3am every day, check my emails and go for a 5km run. I'd be on the road three or four days a week but I'm home most nights and in bed by 9pm.

6. You served on the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic netball board and now manage the Hamilton Marist women's rugby team. Are you a sporty person?

I'm terrible at team sports and cooking. But I love the way sports give people the ability to test and stretch themselves. I bumped into one of our Marist women the other day. When I first met her at the pre-season muster a couple of years ago she was the shy girl in the corner now she's playing for the Black Ferns 7s.

7. What was it like taking on your first board chairmanship at the Federation of Maori Authorities six years ago?

Dynamic and interesting. Some people said, "It really should be chaired by a man" but I was able to gain the support of the members and have been re-elected every year. My approach is to make sure we've got the strategy right and that all the stakeholders can sign up to that. In the end people do business with people, not organisations. So how do you gather people's hopes and dreams and fashion them into a shared strategy to effect change? My job is to create space for that to happen.

8. Did you think of yourself as a feminist?

Proudly so. I grew up with strong nannies and kuia - fierce women who were deeply compassionate and committed to their communities. They taught me that men and women have different roles and if we both do those well then we'd have a platform to move forward on. As a female board member I've always thought of myself as adding value. I just figure everyone has a different contribution to make. If you do your job and I do my job - the job gets done.

9. What strengths do you bring to the boardroom table?

I'm a pragmatist which helps when conversations become overthought and unnecessarily detailed. I always think about strategy, that's how I'm wired. I don't get caught up in personal politics, it's all about the purpose. Sometimes you have to have those adult conversations in order to set things aside and get on with the job. As chair, I make sure everyone has an opportunity to contribute and the chief executive has the support and space to do their job. Sometimes with this focus on separating governance and management I think we lose the opportunity for chief executives to draw on the board's skill and experience. You're more likely to see that co-design, co-development thinking with women.

10. You chair the National Advisory Council for the Employment of Women. Have we made enough gains in equal pay for women?

There's more to be done. Some of this is as simple as people deciding to stand up. Where people can influence change we should and where difficult conversations need to be had we should stay at the table.

11. You've been appointed to the Waikato River Authority to restore the health of the river. Does that clash with your role as an agribusiness leader?

When we're talking about dirty dairying, yes some dairy farmers aren't great but in my experience there are a big bunch of operators who are trying their hardest to improve the way they farm in terms of environmental sustainability. Landcorp has done things like remove palm kernel from our farming systems. Maori authorities are doing similar things. We're starting to see that if we continue down the commodity track we won't achieve higher value. Consumers expect us to operate farms with high standards in environmental sustainability and animal welfare. But the switch to value over volume is a big transformational leap and when you've got shareholders expecting a dividend each year that takes time. Maori tend take a longer-term view that your mokopuna's mokopuna should inherit the land in a better state than when you got it. For us, the land is a place to go home to and stand. In fact, my dad was born in one of our paddocks. Land for my family is like a historic archive.

12. Are you religious?

No but I've always prayed every morning and thanked the gods for another day. I'm hugely grateful for my life. I want to do my part to make sure that the world's a better place. The thing I'm most proud of is making a bit of space for other women in boardrooms and workplaces across Aotearoa NZ.