Fonteyn Moses-Te Kani

From a mostly-Māori rural community to the centre of one of the country’s biggest banks: in the latest episode of The Good Citizen, Fonteyn Moses-Te Kani tells Jeremy Hansen how we can do diversity better.

Fonteyn Moses-Te Kani didn’t grow up thinking about diversity. She didn’t have to: the small community in rural Tairāwhiti where she lived was almost entirely Māori; pākehā kids were a rarity at school. One day, her father hired an Australian pākehā man with seven children to work on their farm. Fonteyn wondered why. “He was a drunk, he was Australian, and he hadn’t worked on a farm. So I said ‘Dad, why did you hire this man?’” Her father explained that the job would help the man provide for his children, and that those children were the future workforce for the farm. The families became great friends: the man was an amazing mechanic and all his kids worked on the farm, some progressing to being managers, entrepreneurs, and teachers. “What my Dad did was push me past my bias and look to know the person before I judge them,” Moses-Te Kani says.

It’s a bit of a big step, though, from pushing through your own bias to encouraging thousands of staff members – many of whom you may never meet one-on-one – to do the same. Moses-Te Kani is the head of Māori, Iwi, Inclusion and Diversity at Westpac, a place she’s worked for seven years. In her role, she’s not just trying to improve baseline numbers of, for example, women in senior positions, but achieve the much larger goal of making employees feel that they’re part of an organisation that cares for them. “Sometimes diversity doesn’t go into the depth of what people bring,” Moses-Te Kani says. “All it does is call out the facts. [But in a] community you know you’re starting to make a difference when you go from ‘you people’ and ‘those people’ to ‘well, I was with Sam and Ani and this is what they talked about and this is what matters to them’.”

At the heart of Moses-Te Kani’s mission is a sense of service, something that was instilled in her by her father’s dedication to his local community and her mother Jacqui Te Kani’s role as president and then general manager of the Māori Women’s Welfare League. Despite their dedication to serving others, Moses-Te Kani’s parents had different political leanings, which gave their daughter a sense of the necessity of finding a middle ground. “Dad leaned more towards the blue-ish side, Mum towards the red-ish side,” she says. “There was this great tension between social justice versus economic sustainability. Between them both they saw that they had a role and a responsibility to support our community and whānau in a different way. My mum saw that this was through supporting women as they managed the household and looked after their children, and for my dad, [it was through] looking after the men so that they could be great providers.”

Occupying the middle ground can sound like a cop-out, but nobody could ever accuse Moses-Te Kani of being meek. She relishes a courageous conversation and has a disarming ability to quickly get people to see things her way. She bridles at the idea of diversity as a box-ticking exercise, particularly because she’s faced so many blatant attempts at co-opting her in exactly this manner. The fact that she’s Māori, just turned 50, and is married to a woman (with whom she shares five children and three grandchildren) makes her catnip to anxious folk trying to assemble representative talk panels. Someone once made the mistake of telling her they were inviting her to speak on a panel because she ticked so many diversity boxes that they could stuff the rest of the seats with white guys. (Moses-Te Kani smiles as she tells the story of turning this particular invitation down.) She resists lazy definitions, and asks that, in their search for diversity, organisations do the same.

Working for a big bank can carry a certain stigma in some quarters, as Moses-Te Kani found when she consulted her whānau about the bank’s job offer to her a bit over seven years ago. She took three months to persuade them that taking the job was not a sellout, but a logical extension of her desire to serve. Westpac’s ambition to be the world’s best service company can sound trite, but Moses-Te Kani says that ambition is underpinned by a serious commitment to environmental and economic sustainability that she finds highly motivating. She’s been leading initiatives to make finance easier to access for whānau businesses, and pushing the bank and other large corporates to diversify their supply chains so smaller companies can get the chance to grow.

To create economic sustainability, of course, a bank needs to be empathetic to the communities it serves. Empathy can’t exist without a genuine human connection, the type Moses-Te Kani excels at creating. She remembers another lesson from her father. “Not liking someone when you’re in a small community is a privilege we don’t have,” he told her. “When you are in a flood and you are drowning, that’s the hand that’s going to save you.” As Moses-Te Kani says now: “You may not like everyone you meet, but at least know why you don’t like them as a person rather than as a type.”

It’s true, though, that in our distressingly unequal society, we’ve got a long way to go before minority groups feel like they’re being genuinely included. There’s so much to do that I asked how Moses-Te Kani retains her optimism. Her kids help, she says. “They have given me this interesting and richer story around what diversity and inclusion should be. They go to the playground to look for people to play with; they don’t look at anyone and say, ‘are you Muslim or Christian?’ They look for people who can push them on a swing, play tag, or climb. My kids go to schools that are culturally diverse, where students have different backgrounds, and are economically different… my daughter knows how to pronounce their names properly, what they are allowed to eat, what they are allergic to. She cares about the people that are in her life and knows the differences in the cultures. My hope is that everyone is that understanding and gracious and loving. For my kids, it’s: be that change, because we care.”