MoZaic October 2022: Share Your Story | Constructing Change

Nicole Rosie was appointed as the CE of Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (Waka Kotahi) in 2020.  It was a pleasure to speak with Nicole to learn more about the plans Waka Kotahi has for transforming road safety performance in Aotearoa New Zealand.  But first, more about Nicole herself! 

She has degrees from Harvard and the Universities of Auckland and Otago in Law Arts and Public Health.  Nicole has extensive senior executive experience in transport and commercial sectors, for companies including Toll NZ, KiwiRail, Fonterra and most recently WorkSafe NZ. Her wide-ranging background has led Nicole to her role with Waka Kotahi.  

“I’m a rural New Zealand woman from Gisborne, Tairawhiti, and I’ve always had a passion for people and economic success for our country.  The combination of economic success and social outcomes can lift people out of difficult situations by finding jobs and ultimately success.  My mother was a teacher; she set up the milk in schools programme and the health camp in Gisborne. My father owned a clothing store in the main street.  They both advocated for young New Zealanders to be successful. I got my Masters Degree in Law (Auckland) then my Masters in Public Health as a Fulbright Scholar (Harvard) to study outcomes and to work in positions that navigate between public and private sectors.  I’ve looked for bigger areas where I can make an impact.”  

Transforming New Zealand’s road safety performance is critical to reducing harm to our people and to sustaining and accelerating New Zealand’s economic success.  Please guide us through this concept. 

“Waka Kotahi has a 10-year-target to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads, cycleways and footpaths by 40 percent. New Zealand has one of the highest harm rates in the developed world.  We have a pervasive cultural paradigm that links speed with productivity and economic success, and its wrong.  Heavy vehicles are a good example.  When they slow down, they tend to save money because there is less wear and tear on the vehicles, and they are less likely to be involved in a serious or fatal crash. Through our regular vehicles we can look to improve climate outcomes by reducing speed limits from 100kph to 80kph, which also has a dramatic effect on reducing harm.  A child who is hit at 30kph will live, at 50kph, they die.  We have to understand that by slowing down and saving lives, we’re saving fuel too.  We all want to make a difference to the climate; this is one way we can do it.  80kph for many of our rural roads makes sense!  If we slow down for two minutes of our lives, we will kill harm less people on the roads and make a positive impact on our climate emissions. Most New Zealanders want this!  The concept is clear; we’re just reframing it. Safety = climate change!”   

You are recognized for driving infrastructure and regulatory changes. What are your plans for Waka Kotahi in regard to engagement with Māori? 

“Māori think in 50-100-year cycles.  They are forward-thinkers and preserve continuity for future generations through their iwi and hapu.  We have a profound opportunity by engaging Māori in what we’re doing.  If we build light rail for the next generations, we all benefit, just as we did from the roads that were built for us.  We need to think multi-generationally and beyond if we are going to sustain an economic future through ‘here and now’ engagement with Māori.  We will signal a maturing of our culture through embracing our partnership with Māori.  We must have good intent rather than right and wrong answers, therefore we’re all learning how to partner differently.  Māori have a special relationship with the land. If you put together economic success, the land transport system and  Māori outcomes, you will see that Māori are disproportionately negatively affected – they are less likely to have a drivers license and other important permits that are critical for work, have poorer access to transport choices and are more likely to be harmed on our roads.  While Māori are at the heart of our transport system, they are also the most negatively affected and unable to advance.  This must change.” 

Waka Kotahi means ‘one vessel or travelling together.’  What changes can we expect to see on our roads and transport systems through your leadership? 

 “We’re not in the business of roads at Waka Kotahi.  We are in the business of connected communities through land transport networks for New Zealand.  We plan integrated transport networks, then build and maintain all forms, from a mass transit network for light rail, to walking and cycling.  All cities have these networks they that enable people to have a transport choice.  It’s a step change in the way we think about transport.  Climate change has made us think differently, so we are supporting NZ to create great communities where people don’t have to use their cars.  We need to think as a nation about what our future cities should look like; design for our kids so they can walk to school; design cities that enable us to get to facilities easily.  An urban-shaping solution is light rail providing Onehunga with a transport hub to enable people to travel everywhere so they can live, work and move along the same route.  This provides social, economic and community benefit and uplift.   

Waka Kotahi is the integrated transport network planner; we deliver the infrastructure alongside councils, developers, and other partners.  We’re moving as one nation whilst respecting the needs and wants of different communities.   

We get plenty of pushback!  The country sees us as simply road builders, so while we are transitioning, we have core accountability. As we design the future we have to keep in the present.  We work for all New Zealanders and will not leave people behind because that creates polarisation and increases inequities.   

 We’re in the business of integration and providing choice and access.  New Zealand hasn’t heavily invested in light rail and other forms of transport choice (walking and cycling, rapid bus), so we are changing what we invest in and how we do things.  ‘What’s In It For Me?’ is a big thing in New Zealand, so Waka Kotahi has to help the country to see the benefits.  We have to align hearts and minds.” 

Let’s continue this discussion on climate change, road trauma and healthy towns and cities. What does all this mean for the country’s current infrastructure? 

“That combination has opportunity and risk, then add the economic impact of Covid!  Waka Kotahi is funded through petrol and road user taxes, and COVID and climate are significantly disrupting our funding model and investment choices.  For example, climate change encourages electric vehicles, and electric vehicles don’t pay road user charges or petrol taxes, while Covid has had a big effect on transport practices because more people are working from home.  And a great deal of our infrastructure was set up 50-80 years ago.  We’re in an asset-replacement phase after a number of years of using and “sweating the asset”.  

This creates a perfect storm for Waka Kotahi, for the changes required in the here and now.  We want to pivot towards a new future so how do we, as a nation, fund what we need to do now for future generations without bankrupting the current standard of living?  That’s our fundamental challenge, so that means New Zealand infrastructure has to use everything we have very effectively, and we need to be open and honest about tradeoffs.  We also need to grow up and be more sophisticated about our planning.  We have 72 councils, multiple water, housing and transport agencies, each with their own systems.  We need to pull it all together. Waka Kotahi is balancing this in roads, rail, light rail., coastal shipping, public transport, walking and cycling and digital investments like ticketing systems. We have a huge opportunity in the future to combine and prioritise.   

Nicole adds an observation:   

  “The future looks toward sectors working together because the problems and associated infrastructure solutions are too complex for any one party to solve alone.  Women have the types of skills -collaboration, seeing different perspectives, and leading through others that will be incredibly useful for the future. Sadly, we won’t see the measure for 30-40 years, however, it’s time for us as women to step up and step in.  It will be game-changing.  

As Global Women, we need to reposition ourselves and cut through to the next level.  There’s a huge risk that women will step out of the arena, because the CEO jobs are hard and the environment we all live in is becoming more complex. Unlike many men, we often have multiple important roles beyond our jobs.  I could walk out tomorrow because my family (of four children) is actually more important to me than my job.  Where do I put my effort?  Women have different options and different priorities that we will have to get our heads around. We need to think about how we as leaders accommodate and manage, otherwise we will lose capable women because they will step out of their current roles.  There’s a need to step in and maintain leadership for the future of Aotearoa New Zealand!” 

Sarah Lang is 18 months into her role as the Business Director – Government Advisory and Strategic Relationships, at Beca. Her appointment follows 10 years as Project Director at Infrastructure NZ where she founded WIN (Women’s Infrastructure Network) that now has seven chapters and over 2000 members nationwide. What does Sarah’s role at Beca mean to her? 

“This challenging role pulls together the various strands of my 30-year career that are the most rewarding; strategic relationships with government and key stakeholders, Te Ao Māori, social procurement, and diversity and inclusion.  Sometimes it feels like a world peace job, but I’m passionate about structural change for New Zealand, and determined to be an integral part of solutions for the future. Beca’s mission statement to ‘make every day better’ really resonates with me and I do want to leave a positive legacy for future generations.”  

Where were you born and raised and who were your biggest life and career influencers? 

“I was born in Wimbledon, England as the ‘OE’ (Overseas Experience) baby to Kiwi parents and consequently inherited the travel bug – so I’m forever on the go!  I grew up in Auckland and my grandmother had a huge influence on me.  Born in 1905 as the youngest of 11 children, she was ahead of her time in regard to women’s work. She wanted to be a lawyer, however the only career options available to women at the time were nursing or teaching, so she became a French teacher.  At our weekly breakfasts together before work, my grandmother encouraged me to take advantage of the opportunities I had, to reach higher and achieve more than she ever could due to the societal constraints of her era.  

 In the early days of my career, I had a great boss who, when I had my daughter, let me come back to work for one morning a week, giving me flexibility – and providing stretch opportunities at the right time. Now, I pay it forward when I mentor young women, knowing that without my ‘career fairy godmother’ I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

Are women increasing in numbers in the infrastructure sector? 

 “The infrastructure and construction sector is often seen as a male-dominated, ‘blokey industry’. However, ensuring it becomes a welcoming industry, attractive to top talent that is diverse and inclusive is key to its future success.  Fortunately, there are a number of initiatives run by Infrastructure NZ (Women’s Infrastructure Network – WIN), and the Diversity Accord led by Engineering NZ (Te ao Rangahau) and Architects NZ (Te Kãhui Whaihanga) that embrace diversity in all its forms and are challenging the status quo.   

 Specifically, at Beca, we are very focused on how we can be more inclusive; we have gender targets, we have recently achieved the Rainbow Tick* and we are very focused on how to bring more Māori and Pasifika into leadership roles.” 

(*New Zealand will have the most welcoming and inclusive workplaces for Rainbow communities in the world.) 

Tell us about how and why you founded WIN (Women’s Infrastructure Network)?  

“In 2015, through Infrastructure NZ, I led a delegation of 25 NZ infrastructure leaders (only two were women) to Canada to learn about infrastructure planning, funding and delivery. In Canada we met many women CEOs and industry leaders which was quite a surprise to me, as at this time in NZ there were very few women in leadership roles in the sector.  

Whilst in Canada I was introduced to the Canadian WIN network, which was part of a global network operating in the USA, UK, and Australia whose purpose was to increase the number of women in leadership roles, grow the visibility of women and provide a networking and support group for women in the infrastructure sector. On returning home, I thought that New Zealand needed our own WIN network, so I set about establishing an Advisory Board and the first Chapters in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.    

Today, thanks to the enthusiasm of local volunteers, there are more than 2100 members spread across 7 chapters, and I can honestly say the number of women in leadership roles in the infrastructure sector is increasing in some part due to WIN. The diversity of infrastructure boards has significantly increased, women are gaining visibility in the sector, and we have a ‘women’s mafia’ to step in – if a woman doesn’t put herself forward for a role, another woman will give her a nudge and shoulder tap her!”  

So, is there a role for Global Women?   

“There are few women in GW from the construction and infrastructure sectors and I would like to see this grow.  Infrastructure is nation-building and having more women involved in future decision-making for the country is vital.  Most people think it’s just about building roads and bridges, however, infrastructure supports the wellbeing and connection of people; it’s power is in what it enables for our communities.  

Perhaps we could host an event to demystify the infrastructure sector and profile some leading women – there are a number of impressive GW women I can think of for a provocative panel discussion!” 

Tell us more about the Emerging Talent Network, and what that means for the future of Aotearoa NZ? 

“At Infrastructure NZ, after we’d established WIN, we realized that we needed to cultivate our young leaders – young men and women under 35. The purpose of the Infrastructure Collective (TIC – formerly Emerging Talent Network that was rebranded to TIC in 2021) is to develop future leaders by giving them access to current leaders and help them to build networks and visibility and ultimately take the reins of the sector as they become leaders of the future.   

“These savvy, principled young people leave us in the dust. They lead social entities, are passionate about sustainability and equity, and give me great hope for tomorrow.” 

Sarah’s closing comments: 

“I would love to see Global Women and Champions of Change partner with the Diversity Accord and amplify our work to collaboratively enhance gender equality.   

There used to be a feeling that GW was elitist, but this is changing. I love that GW is becoming more diverse.  We need to bring more young leaders into the tent.  Senior women in leadership roles have enabled us to get to the table; we now have to wedge open the door, and let the next generation come through.  We must have their voices at the table and harness their ability now, rather than later.” 

It’s no surprise that Sarah received the Woman of Influence Diversity Award in 2018, received an International Visiting Leadership Program Scholarship from the US Embassy and was nominated as New Zealander of the Year in 2019, and won the inaugural Association Influencer of the Year award in 2021!   

All interviews and stories written by our Editor in Residence,

Jenni Prisk, Global Women Member