Desperately needed a bottle of milk during lockdown? Maybe you were on the hunt for some overlooked baking powder? Whatever it was, the local dairy was there for you. These small local businesses were essential services during lockdown and they often meant the difference between a well-planned out, few hour-long trip to the supermarket, complete with 100m queues, or a simple five minute excursion.

Te Aho Tāmaka Leader Vanisa Dhiru knows first-hand how important these, often family run businesses are to a community. When Vanisa grew up in Palmerston North, her parents owned and ran two grocery stores and she, in part, credits the sense of community that went with working in the family dairy for the direction she has taken in life and her passion for equality, youth development and cultural relations.

Here Vanisa shares her recent experiences in lockdown and how growing up in Palmerston North set her on the road to global success.

Vanisa, you’re living in Wellington now, was there a local ‘essential service’ that you relied on during lockdown?

Given that I grew up in a family business, I’m always wanting to support local! I have to say, I tried as much as I could to skip the queues at the supermarket if I needed a few items and preferred to run down Lambton Quay to buy fresh bread if I could.

My parents still live in Palmerston North, and for a couple of weeks, I was really wanting to help them but was frustrated like many that I couldn’t get up to visit or drop off treats. I ordered a veggie box for them for one week – that was great, it gave me a sense of helping them out, and helping support local business.

How was lockdown for you? The highs and the lows?

I had a very busy experience during lockdown. My partner and I live very centrally in Wellington, and while he was out during the day, I worked from home for InternetNZ in my day-job as Community Manager. The internet was very much an essential service, so we had a lot of work on. Since most of my work was through online platforms, I was able to connect more freely at a national level with other colleagues that work in the same industry.

I thought I was more productive and effective working from home on most days, but there was the odd day or moment when my energy slumped. Those moments of tuning into the news briefings and standing in line for the supermarket felt strange. To combat that feeling, I made sure I shopped at weird times (not many people probably went shopping at 9pm) and watched the news only once a day.

COVID-19 has certainly opened everyone’s eyes as to who our ‘essential workers’ are, and who put themselves at risk every day to keep the country running. What are your reflections on this?

We are a brave country with strong leadership to implement the precautions as Aotearoa did, and we’re today seeing some of the strengths of that approach. What held us up were all the essential workers, and the rest of the country supporting them.

The “essential workers” were tireless, compassionate and generous. My reflection is that they need to all be valued by society. These people were risking their lives and their families as well – and the idea of making sure they all, at least, are on the living wage is a no-brainer.

Tell me more about growing up in Palmerston North and what makes you proud to say you are from Manawatū?

Growing up in Manawatū for me was about knowing people. Knowing who people in our region were, who we could ask for support, and who we could give back to. We are a well-connected bunch, and if you want to meet someone, it’s an easy place to find a connection or link and get that introduction. And we have such a diversity of people that those connections can reach right across the globe.

Today, I love coming home and seeing the change in our region – from the open spaces that support creativity; to the growth in the education sector and people who come to the region for that; to the start-up business scene; and the love for our environment.

The region’s connections and growth in leaders for Aotearoa are also aspects I’m particularly proud of.

Why do you now want to ‘give back’ to Manawatū through Te Aho Tāmaka

Well, why not? When you have the opportunity to give, and the privilege to be enabled to help and serve, you should.

This is the region where I grew up, who supported my family in business, who helped and celebrated my brother’s academic achievements. It was home for me for nearly half of my life!

While I don’t live in Manawatū today, there is of course no place like home, and home is something you should cherish if it meant something to you.

Vanisa has achieved a lot in a short time, from being the only kiwi in the BMW Foundation Responsible Leaders Global Network and, until recently the president of the National Council of Women of New Zealand to now having the role of the Commissioner – Communications & Information for the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

Find out more about Vanisa.

Find out more about Vanisa Dhiru

Vanisa-Dhiru