Sisterhood, innovation and the entrepreneurial journey – Reflections on the Tahiti Women’s Forum 2017

The entrepreneurial journey can be a lonely one.

Working away in my home office day after day, with only my laptop and smartphone for company, it’s easy to let self doubt and fear take over, or worse, fall under the spell of those social media highlight reels. I’ve learned that it’s vital to make a regular habit of getting out of my yoga pants and into the real world, to meet other women walking a similar path and to exchange fresh ideas and perspectives.

Last week I got to do just that, as a guest presenter at the inaugural Tahiti Women’s Forum in Papeete, an interactive day of workshops and panel discussions exploring women’s leadership and innovation in French Polynesia and the Pacific.

I was incredibly excited to be there, but I really didn’t know what to expect. I’d never visited Tahiti before, but from the moment my husband and I landed at the airport – at midnight – to be by our wonderful host and Forum founder, Agnès Joubert, bearing frangipani leis, I was captivated. I adored the relaxed Pacific vibe, the spectacular scenery, the hei (flower crowns) worn everyday and everywhere (including on the evening news), the French influences and the warm and generous welcome we received everywhere we went.

We had arranged to arrive five days before the Forum so that we could take a short holiday in Mo’orea. The Forum sponsor Avis had generously provided us with a rental car, and before we’d even left the ferry we’d somehow ended up with a friendly local in the backseat and an invitation to go holopuni (outrigger) sailing. Yes, I got to channel my inner Moana and sail through the gap in the reef and into some pretty gnarly waves. That was before we went diving with sharks, paddle boarded alongside turtles or relaxed by the infinity pool, cocktail in hand, while the sun went down.

Me prepping for the Forum

Business travel? Have to say I kinda like it so far.

But it wasn’t all play my friends. The best part about arriving early was that it gave me time to acclimatise, practice my French and talk to some local women about doing business in Tahiti. We talked about the challenges of geographic isolation, about cultural perceptions of women and their visibility in the business landscape, about the challenges of balancing  work and kids, and – as I was there to co-lead a workshop on personal branding – about setting yourself apart in business.

The day of the Forum arrived and when I left the hotel at 6:30am, I still didn’t know what to expect. But as the opening sessions got underway, I knew I was in for something special when the MC, journalist Jeanne Peckett, stepped up to the mic with her baby on her hip.

It turned out that Jeanne’s childcare had unexpectedly fallen through that morning. Isn’t that how it always goes, my fellow working mums? You have a big interview, or a presentation or you’re leading a workshop, or travelling for work, and the babysitter gets sick or your child spikes a fever at the worst possible moment. What do you do?

I absolutely loved that Jeanne openly brought her little one along, that others in the room stepped up to take turns amusing the baby, and that nobody seemed to blink an eye.  As far as I could tell, the presence of the baby did not disrupt proceedings one little bit. I’ve dreamed of attending events that were as real and accepting of the realities of motherhood as this – bravo Tahiti Women’s Forum!

Presenters Hinatea Colombani, Elodie Lansun and me before the Forum

So on we rolled, into a day of fascinating round tables and panel discussions. We debated what it means to innovate and how to create a culture that fosters innovation. We talked about how innovation requires not just inspiration but a willingness to act, to risk failure and to see ideas through. We talked about the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone, of questioning without rejecting everything that has gone before, and of knowing how to listen to criticism with an open mind, to take what is useful  and let go of the rest.

Elodie Lansun, CEO of Avis Pacific, shared her story of how guiding her company through a triple-whammy of challenges (the GFC and consequent downturn in tourism, the retirement of a longstanding CEO, and a complete change in the company’s computer system) by shifting everyone’s focus towards offering an experience that makes the customer smile. She also introduced a coaching programme to help each employee discover their hidden potential and the unique contribution they had to offer – creating a happier, more connected workplace along the way.

Vanessa Eymard-Tiaipoi et moi

Throughout the day I felt a strong sense of sisterhood and women raising each other up.  Heuira Ita-Tetaa, Digital Communications Manager for the Chamber of Commerce talked about staying true to her guiding principle of “Je connais quelqu’un je peux aider” or  “I know someone I can help”. I met women turning their passions into innovative businesses celebrating local food and culture, and creating platforms and hubs for others to pursue their ambitions. The conversations were rich and the perspectives diverse, and I was impressed that attendees were not at all shy about stepping up to the mic to share ideas from the floor.

Before we even got to our workshop, there were overwhelming themes among panellists and participants of being true to yourself, of connecting with what is meaningful to you, letting go of the rules and finding your own way forward. These words and ideas are so aligned with the work of my heart, that I felt completely at home in the room where I barely knew a soul.

Then it was time to talk personal branding. I got to share the stage with the incredibly gracious Vanessa Eymard-Tiaiapoi, lecturer at the Tahiti School of Commerce, and the effervescent Hinatea Colombani, founder of the Arioi Cultural Centre and a woman on a mission to revitalise and celebrate Tahitian culture through workshops, performances and children’s classes. I shared my ideas about recognising and celebrating the power of your work, connecting with your why and finding that unique message that will set you apart and engage your tribe. Time went so fast and in a wide-ranging discussion, there were so many stories and concepts I simply did not have time to share.

The final round table was a fascinating discussion on leadership and the evolution of Pasifika cultures. After hearing New Zealand documentary filmmaker Raiha Paki share stories of her rich upbringing and her ability to recite her whakapapa 40 generations back to the shores of Mo’orea, it was sobering to hear that she often feels she has to travel outside Aotearoa to find a true appreciation for Maori culture.

As the Forum drew to a close, I had to duck out early to slip across to the studios of Tahiti Nui TV to give a live studio interview – in French – about the Forum. I was super nervous, but the presenter was so warm, helpful and kind – just like everyone we met in our Tahiti journey. You can watch the clip here. 

I left the day reminded once again of the importance of surrounding ourselves with inspiring women on this entrepreneurial journey. So much is to be gained by the sharing of fresh ideas and perspectives, in knowing that we are not alone in our fears and doubts and that there is always someone who has your back.

It’s also fair to say Tahiti is under my skin! I’m so grateful for this incredibly rich experience and I very much hope I will have the opportunity to go back.

Félicitations aux fondatrices Agnès Joubert et Aline Bessière – le Forum était une journée merveilleuse.

Merci beaucoup à toutes et Maru’ru roa.

 

Christine
[email protected]

Christine Sheehy will help you refine your core message, find your authentic voice and show up boldly online, so you can grow your tribe of loyal followers AND your business. She teaches women entrepreneurs how to consistently create engaging content and stand out in a noisy online world, through journalling challenges, messaging coaching, copywriting and intimate writing retreats. Christine writes, dreams (and persistently tries and fails to give up coffee) from a seaside village near Matakana, New Zealand.

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