Tauranga-based social enterprise Volunteer Build is motivated to change the perspective of poverty. Diana Judge, the former brand manager for Shell Oil, and founder Diana Judge discusses why she started the business and helping the world's poorest communities.

What does your business do?

Volunteer Build is a social enterprise that builds homes, school classrooms and toilets for communities that need them. Most of the people we help are living on less than $1.25 per day to meet all their needs, and so we takes groups of Kiwis and Australians to places such as Mexico, Peru, Fiji, Vanuatu, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam to build infrastructure. I started the business in January 2008.

What was the motivation for starting the business?


It all started with a "Slum Dog Millionaire" movie moment while I was in India in 2002. An 8 year-old girl, clinging to a baby, cried "help me, help me" at my car window while I was paused at traffic lights. I cried all the way back to Australia where I was living at the time. I decided it was time to give back and do something to help the 90 per cent of the world's population who are living in poverty.

Another big motivation was to change people's view about poverty. A lot of people don't understand developing world poverty until they're there and working alongside the community. What you see in your resort in Fiji is not reality. It's a different kind of poverty to New Zealand - there's no social security safety net, or EQC to help bail you out after a natural disaster, and I wanted to help change that.

How big is your team and where are you based?

Just me – based in Papamoa Beach, but I have a volunteer team of New Zealand builders for our Pacific projects and local partners on the ground overseas. I could definitely get bigger if I wanted to, with staff, but I prefer having a more hands on boutique approach and I like being overseas running our teams and projects first-hand rather than being stuck in an office.

As a former Shell Oil executive, how did you find the transition from corporate life to running a small business?

I was a former global brand manager for Shell Oil based in Houston, Texas, as well as their north American marketing director for industrial lubricants.

I loved it, and Shell was a great company to work for. I returned to New Zealand after that to complete a short term project for Shell New Zealand then ended up working for a rock band in the US for a year called Newsboys setting up their aid organisation Global Tribe. That was the result of a random 10-minute phone call with the founder of Global Tribe.

The transition from corporate to small business was made easy for me by that year on the road with Newsboys – 40 cities, 10 weeks all over America kept me really busy, and was so different to what I had been doing. It was a lot of fun. I still draw on all the same skills from my corporate career, but just apply them on a small scale, without the budget or resources to draw on, so you have to be creative and prioritise well. Originally I thought I would be out of corporate life for a year, but it's been 11 years now with no regrets.

Volunteer Build founder Diana Judge. Photo / Supplied
Volunteer Build founder Diana Judge. Photo / Supplied

What projects are you currently working on with Volunteer Build?

This year we'll be working on three builds in Vanuatu at a school that were destroyed in Cyclone Pam, a house build in Nepal, two house builds in Mexico and eight homes in Cambodia. Over the past 10 years we've built 63 homes, three school classrooms, eight toilets and prepared 6,200 meals for the homeless and refugees in Fiji, Vanuatu, Mexico, Peru, Uganda, Russia, Romania, Cambodia and Vietnam. I often get asked 'why don't you just send money and employ locals instead of taking teams?' I question whether people would have given us $640,000 over the last 10 years to achieve what we have.

What's the biggest challenge running Volunteer Build?

Often plans A, B, C and D can go to the pack in developing countries and you need to solve problems creatively and on the spot. You need a MacGyver mind-set. Like bringing a generator in our checked-in luggage so we have power after cyclones, or calling the CEOs of concrete and ready-mix companies for help when the cement plant broke down in Fiji four weeks out from a build. People generally want to help others out so lateral thinking and a good dose of courage is key.

I still draw on all the same skills from my corporate career but just apply them on a small scale, without the budget or resources to draw on.

What do you most enjoy about running this business?

Handing the keys over once a new house has been completed to families who have been living in tiny shacks with dirt floors is immensely satisfying, and humbling. Seeing our team members mature and change their world view about poverty, and go on to be world changers in their own right, is also incredible. In this line of business you never run out of work.

Do you face much competition doing what you do?

I don't view other organisations as competition, there's enough work to go around. Some organisations specialise in the welfare of children, some in affordable housing, our speciality is building for the poorest of the poor, doing cyclone and earthquake rebuilds in the Pacific and Nepal.

What advice do you give to others thinking of stating their own business?

Once you have your idea, test it, research the market, have a good business plan, change it if something's not working, have resilience and a plan to survive the first two years - which are always the toughest, and view everything as an opportunity.