Shake That Tree

Queenstown-based Olivia Wensley is one of New Zealand’s loudest voices for female empowerment. Julia Strelou catches up with her about her latest projects.

A catalyst of the #metoo movement in the legal industry, and the CEO of Startup Queenstown Lakes Olivia Wensley is now looking to add “mayor” to her roles.

If successful, she will be the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) second only female mayor, and also its youngest.

When working as a lawyer, Olivia noticed what she described as a “consistent theme of brilliant woman being overlooked and treated badly”.

Eventually, it became so bad that she felt she could no longer continue in the profession. “I just could not imagine having a family, and making partner, and being treated in a fair way,” she explains.

After leaving the profession, Olivia realised that she was in a position to speak out, and she did. “I was afraid for my personal safety, but I think that if you don’t speak up, when you see wrongdoing, then you’re just enabling it.” She took to LinkedIn to share her own experiences. On that digital platform, her open letter “We need to talk about law’s dirty little secret” went viral.

“And then I kept being called brave over and over again. I found that quite disconcerting because it implies that there’s something to be afraid of. Right?” Olivia’s letter ultimately led to the reform of Lawyer’s Conduct Rules to better protect practitioners against sexual assault and harassment. “The legal profession has a long way to go until it’s modernised, but this was a start,” she says.

Driving female empowerment

As CEO of Startup Queenstown Lakes, a charitable trust which supports and educates entrepreneurs, Olivia Wensley continues to channel her passion for female empowerment.

“I like to shake the tree and get real disruption in a positive way,” she laughs.

Olivia has been focused on raising the region’s female-led startup quota. In 2020, tech startup founders in the Central-Lakes startup ecosystem were 100 percent male. In the past 24 months, Olivia has focused on “tipping the scales” and driving the participation of women in founder programmes to 55-75 percent.

“We’ve amazing innovation popping up throughout our country. I was in Christchurch just recently for a woman founders’ event called Electrify Aotearoa, New Zealand’s first female incubator for women founders.”

In May, Olivia announced she’s running for the QLDC mayoral seat. “I want to bring a diversity of thinking into local politics,”
she explains.

Since launching her campaign, she has noticed the focus is always on one thing, her age. “I find it really interesting that I’m being called young all the time for this role. Because I’m not young.

“I’m exactly the age of the average Kiwi.”

She explains that this is problematic as it stems from a local government, where there’s very little diversity. “We need to diversify our thinking. If we always get people that are a similar age, similar gender, and similar background, this won’t happen.”

Olivia believes that people are focusing on her age because she “looks different to your typical mayor”. “I think the average age for a mayor in New Zealand is 65. And it’s [the role] overwhelmingly dominated by men.”

She hopes that her campaign will inspire other young women to step up and become leaders.

“I hope to get younger people thinking, hey, that could be me, that could be me running for council, that could be me running for leadership positions.”

Whatever her own outcome, Olivia believes that it will be worth it if she motivates other young leaders to come forward.

“If it gets a new generation engaged in local democracy, then that is exactly what we all need.

“If you want to see the change, you have to be the change,” she explains.

For Olivia, “shaking of the tree” is not limited to her career. In November 2021, she helped a 22-year-old woman who was born in the Gloriavale cult, escape. She and her family housed and assisted the woman and her mother to safely integrate into society.

When asked about the future, Olivia says she would like to see brilliant women putting themselves forward for leadership roles and not feeling as though they have to talk themselves out of it. “I have a daughter, and I’m trying to lead the path for her.”

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