Vaka provides young Pacific a new pathway

Four young Pacific and Maori entrepreneurs are teaming up to grow a globally competitive high-tech business made in New Zealand that is also proudly Pacific.



Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington is a place where entrepreneurialism and culture collide to create innovative solutions to enrich galleries, libraries, archives and museums.


The Mahuki innovation hub brings together technology incubators to invest in and actively help commercialise complex technologies by building a business around the technology to take the concept to the next level. If successful, the result is growth of another globally competitive high-tech business made in New Zealand.


With the potential to be part of Mahuki, Vaka Interactiv is led by four young Pacific and Maori entrepreneurs from South and Central Auckland.


Studying business at Brigham Young University in the United States motivated South Auckland-raised Jesse Armstrong (Nga Puhi and Ngati Hine), from Papakura, to return home to New Zealand. He teamed up with Jordan Tupuola, a New Zealand-born Samoan (Leulumoega and Siumu), Kaveinga Lisati, a Mt Roskill raised Tuvaluan and proud Manurewa resident, Andrea Kapeteni (Afega and Sale’aula).


Jesse and Jordan have been friends since school and say they’re proud ‘Kura boys’. When Jesse revealed his dream of start up a high-tech business with his father, he was advised to contact Richard Taurima, Business Growth Manager at the Pacific Business Trust.


Richard says the Pacific Business Trust has designed a model tailored for Pacific people in relation to both technology and business skills. And he’s impressed with what he has seen from the trio so far.


“Jesse runs a very good team. They’re very product-driven, but they’re business driven as well, and getting the business structure right is just as crucial as the product,” says Richard.


Connecting People to Culture

The word vaka, the voyaging canoes of Polynesians that have sailed across the vast Pacific Ocean for thousands of years, connects Jesse, Kavenga, Andrea and Jordan.


Since Mahuki is about creating cool experiences for people to connect to their culture and discover more about others, Te Papa and the Auckland Museum were obvious places to visit. What the trio wanted to know was how visitors connected to the exhibits.


When Jordan and Jesse visited Auckland Museum, they were convinced more could be done to engage visitors.


“We saw a couple of people come in, take a couple of photos, then just leave,” recalls Jordan, who came up with the word Interactiv (another company had secured the name Vaka Interactive with the ‘e’ added).


“It got us thinking that there’s so much more in that space for them to learn about. Jesse had that experience because it was part of his culture, but we both thought some technological, interactive solutions would strengthen their experience.”


That was confirmed to Jesse when he asked a visiting couple from the United States for their experience.


“They said they enjoyed it, read cool stuff about the artefacts, but didn’t quite get enough to know who Pacific people really are. With what we’re developing, they’d be immersed in an interactive experience that connects exhibit visitors to culture by showing the essence of who we are interactively.”


Because of the rapidly growing and competitive nature of the industry, they’re naturally reluctant to go into too much detail, other than to reflect on the challenges of the journey so far.


“The documents we needed to set up, like shareholders’ agreements and legal matters, which aren’t our forte, initially seemed insane,” recalls Jesse.


“But it was a huge learning curve for us and we would have struggled to get through without the Pacific Business Trust’s support.”


Kaveinga recalls attending a meeting designed to come up with a mantra or mission statement that defines what Vaka Interactiv is about.


“We thought one short meeting was all we would need, but it took a lot longer than that. We went through business books, including Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki,” says Kavenga, referring to the marketing specialist, author, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and one of the Apple employees responsible for marketing the Macintosh computer in 1984.


“We came up with a mantra that ‘We connect culture to people’. I watched an interview with Ian Taylor (a prominent Maori businessman who founded Taylormade Productions, a multimedia production company with multinational contracts).


“He said a survey showed that Pacific and Maori are the third highest in terms of entrepreneurs per population. And when you think about it, what our ancestors had to encompass when crossing the Pacific, from figuring out what resources were needed and which direction to travel, are all basic traits of what it means to be an entrepreneur.”


For Pacific Business Trust CEO Kim Tuaine, providing genuine opportunities for the growing number of bright, young entrepreneurial people in the fastest growing, most innovative and rewarding sector, and is where the Trust is focused on making a difference.


“We’re giving our young people the opportunity to take control of their own culture … and even to disrupt,” she says.


“Because the idea of culture, particularly for Pacific communities in New Zealand, is that culture is a set of values and ideals held only by elders and is out of reach for most of your young people. These initiatives give young people the opportunity to engage and transform to make it meaningful and to give them something they can relate to.”


Vaka Interactiv is just one of the teams the Pacific Business Trust is supporting to ensure they have the best possible chance to succeed globally.


“Part of the Mahuki programme is that at the end of the incubation they can go out and take themselves to the glam sector in the US,” adds Kim.


“A lot already have overseas investment in their technology. We’re looking to invest in those that can follow that path.”


The Pacific Business Trust is expanding its reach by partnering with a number of fellow government and non-governmental organisations, with more innovative initiatives soon to be announced.


More information:


The Pacific Business Trust is a 'not for profit' Charitable Trust set up in 1985, providing economic development services for Pacific Businesses and Business People within New Zealand.