Having been part of the economic boom in London in the mid-2000s before suffering the storm of the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis that followed, entrepreneur Janet MacFarlane has experienced the ultimate highs and lows in the tech business. Her latest online venture, however, one that’s closest to her heart, will appeal to like-minded people who want to stand up for social good.
As a youngster, Janet MacFarlane didn’t receive the same sort of birthday presents as her peers.
“When other girls were getting dolls or stuffed, furry animals, I remember one birthday my dad bought me an electronic set. On another he gave me a chemistry set and later a computer.,” she recalls.
“I’ve always been interested and curious about how things work. He obviously must have noticed.”
Another fond childhood memory is her first visit to Niue at age seven, where her mother Ta Leila grew up. From the village of Makefu, Ta Leila joined the mass migration from Niue to New Zealand in the mid-1970s. Niue’s population at the start of the 70s was more than 5000. Four decades later it’s 1600.
Her parents met in Auckland, then moved to Dunedin where Janet was born. The family moved from town to town across the country, mainly due to her father’s various roles in medicine. Her parents separated, and Janet returned to Otago University where she studied marketing and computer science before heading on her OE, which included two years living in China before heading to London to join the rapidly expanding tech industry.
Janet’s focus was primarily dealing with databases and architecture, which she says “may sound boring to some, but not for me”.
She returned home, studied a graduate diploma in information systems at the University of Auckland and secured her “first real job in New Zealand” with StayinFront, a multinational organisation providing Mobile CRM (Customer Relationship Management) and Sales Force Automation solutions for consumer goods (including pharmaceuticals).
Her experience at the company fuelled her desire to return to London, where she took on more tech roles, including one at Capital Group, an investment management company dealing with systems migration and data. She was gaining knowledge with the ultimate aim of starting her own business in New Zealand.
On returning to NZ, Janet partnered with a friend to set up a software company specialising in mortgage and risk assessments.
But the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 turned her dream into a nightmare. In one fell swoop 40% of their mortgage and risk brokers market had fallen away. Having invested heavily, Janet and her partner worked hard to try and retrieve the situation. But they ran out of money and energy.
“The GFC was devastating, but you have to keep working because the industry is always changing and you need to have your finger on the pulse.”
While continuing work, Janet was looking for organisations she could network with, and accepted an invitation to attend a Pacific Business Trust introductory event.
“I realised I needed to connect with more people and resources and a wider range of industries,” she says.
“Late last year I met Kim Tuaine, the new CEO of the Pacific Business Trust, and a number of business people from a range of businesses, which opened up new opportunities and broadened my outlook.”
Kim says Janet’s resilience, passion for innovation and her entrepreneurial drive made the decision to support her an easy one.
“The trust has been working closely with Janet to broaden the scope of commercial opportunities for her platform,” she says.
“We can do so by providing her access to strategic relationships and connections developed by us to really propel these Pacific businesses and enterprises forward.”
Attracting her attention is the tremendous work in the volunteer and NGO sectors.
“I’d often read about inspiring people in our communities, like the great work by Jo Noema from Generation Ignite in West Auckland. It made me think about how my skills and background could help connect these like-minded and passionate people.”
Janet set up Best By Peers, an online social discovery platform. While there are already countless individual online profile and social media platforms, Janet’s focus is on creating a credible and trustworthy digital presence, so that we can use social technology to influence more positive change.
“Establishing trust is the key. As our lives become increasingly digitalized, your online reputation will be your most valuable digital asset. I’m looking at using social technology to express and extend your physical self,” she says.
“Today’s corporate culture demands soft skills as much as technical, which will become increasingly important given the prediction that 40% of manual jobs will disappear over the next decade.”
Her industry, meanwhile, will continue to expand.
“Tech is such a rapidly changing environment, which possibly puts a lot of people off,” she says.
“But if you can have a general understanding of how the technology comes together, you’ll realise it’s not as scary as you thought. Tech is often just the medium to solve a non-tech problem.”
Of course, there’s a need to generate a worthwhile income, but Janet is confident that will come as the platform develops and grows.
Far from being scarred by ventures that didn’t deliver, Janet is excited by Best By Peers and the response so far, crediting her resilient nature to her Mum.
“I often wondered where I got my motivation from to take such risks, but I’ve come to realise that it’s from my Mum,” says Janet.
“She had a tough upbringing, couldn’t speak a word of English when she arrived from Niue and was a solo Mum since I was 10. It wasn’t until I went away to university and returned home that I realised how broken her English still was (she laughs). She doesn’t have a formal education, so she’s vulnerable when there are job cuts. But when she has been laid off, Mum will find another job within days.
“She’ll just say, ‘It’s got to be done’. And she just does it. Her courage and confidence inspires me.”
Kim Tuaine wants to see the spotlight on more Pacific innovators like Janet, “so that we can show that there is an impressive pool of highly skilled, talented, tech savvy Pacific women disrupting the tech space in New Zealand.”
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