Tech maverick Vaughan Fergusson starts the new year with a new venture and a new name.
More on his name change shortly. But first, the entrepreneur formerly known as Vaughan Rowsell has bought Karioi Lodge, an outdoor education centre on a 100-acre block of land at Raglan, which he'll run with partner Zoe Timbrell.
As a lifestyle departure, the Auckland hipster refers to it as the couple's "We Bought a Zoo" moment - a reference to the 2011 Matt Damon-Scarlett Johansson movie about a family that moves to the countryside and tries to renovate a zoo.
The sprawling property, which features four accommodation blocks that can house 75 people, all with stunning clifftop views of Tasman. Established by the Huntly Teachers Trust in the 1970s, it's been used as everything from a conference and wedding venue to a surfing school over the years.
Fergusson doesn't want to say what he bought the property for, citing the seller's privacy, but says he'll spend $4-$5 million developing the property by adding classrooms and other infrastructure as the "Institute for Awesome" takes shape.
He's no stranger to founding new ventures or - having being raised by a paraplegic, wheelchair-using solo mother - what it takes to overcome the odds. Fergusson was chief technology officer at startup Travelbug ("We were Airbnb before there was Airbnb"), which was bought out by Trade Me in 2008.
He went on to found Vend, then build the maker of cloud-based point-of-sale up to a private equity valuation of more than $100 million as investors including Peter Thiel, Lance Wiggs and Sam Morgan piled in.
Fergusson remains a director of Vend, and a major shareholder, but these days he's pulled back from the day-to-day running of the firm to focus on his charity, The Pam Fergusson Trust (named for his mother).
So far, the trust has been best known for its OMGTech! education programmes, which encourage kids into stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
This year, working with the Ministry of Education, "We are launching our professional development for teachers to learn STEM, so that they can take then teach it in every classroom in New Zealand," Fergusson says.
"Secondly, we are launching a new venture called Voluntari.ly which matches corporate volunteer time to classrooms to help teachers teach technology. This could be to help in class, or to prepare a lesson plan, or just to explain concepts to a teacher, kind of like a phone-a-friend."
There's an army of skilled volunteers out there in every New Zealand business who know technology and design and can help educators learn and teach it too, he says. "Voluntari.ly will facilitate that."
And then there's the new Raglan project.
Fergusson says Karioi Lodge will be turned into "an enviro-tech camp to host schools, businesses, teachers and well anyone who wants to learn technology in a slightly different context - to get away from the keyboard and learn how technology can be used in the world around us and in particular the environment."
"There's plenty of space and I'm looking forward to hosting many visitors coming to pick up a soldering iron, a hammer, a keyboard or a spade. It's 100 acres of coastal bush so there is always something to do," he says.
He's passionate about technology, but he also wants kids to get out from behind the keyboard and learn and experiment with tech in the environment.
"There isn't a technology sector in NZ as such anymore, we all use technology in work and life. In the future it will become even more pervasive. On the farm, in the bush, on the highway, in the classroom and at home. So we want to evolve the outdoor education camp model to let schools explore and pioneer new approaches to keeping the environment pest-free, generate power, track birdlife, clean water, grow food and care for the environment all using technology along with traditional methods," he says.
He sees students wiring up surfboards to measure the power of the ocean, and wearing VR rigs that let them see the history of the land.
"We'll get kids to learn technology while they experience the outdoors, and kayak and fall off logs. It's not one or the other, being inside on a keyboard or outside climbing a tree," he says.
"It's both. Get kids to build sensors that put up trees to measure birdsong in the bush."
He adds, "I want to help New Zealand become the most innovative nation on the planet where the rest of the world comes to us to get help turning ideas into reality. We can be the best in the world at this but to do that we need to make some bold changes in how we teach the next generation, retrain the current, and inspire people to invent and create."
Helping to close the poverty gap
Fergusson says closing the poverty gap is the issue he would most like to see the government champion this year.
"The poverty gap is not getting smaller. At the charitable trust, we are working with kids from all over the country and can see communities really struggling - especially rural communities," he says.
"To help change this I would focus on bridging the digital divide and bring back creativity into our schools. Arts have been downgraded to optional extracurricular activities in our education system, but this is where creativity starts and creativity begets innovation, and innovation leads to new jobs.
"And creativity and new innovation can happen everywhere in every community, it's not restricted to Auckland and Wellington and big cities anymore. To give our people the brightest future I would embrace creativity and instil it in every kid from day one. It
may take 10 years but there's that tree analogy again."
That name change
So why change his name from Vaughan Rowsell to Vaughan Fergusson?
"Rowsell actually came from my ex-wife Mel. She has always been Mel Rowsell, and when we married I decided to take her name because her dad was the last bloke in his line of Rowsells and had three daughters," he says.
After the pair amicably split, Fergusson - who was called Vaughan Knaggs growing up then changed his name at varsity to Douglas Knaggs after discovering his real first name on his birth certificate when he enrolled - decided to adopt his mother's maiden name.
"Fergusson is my Mum's name, whom I named the charity after, and it seemed appropriate to finally take her name as my surname too," he says.
"Most of what I do in life is due to her and how she inspired others."