Alumni Q&A: Vanessa O'Brien

02 June 2022

Vanessa is the CEO and co-founder of OrbViz - a data visualisation programme helps businesses visualise their data and turn it into meaningful insights.

  • Vanessa O'Brien

Graduating with a BA in International Relations and a Graduate Diploma of Journalism, Vanessa kicked off her career in media right here in Christchurch. After several years in communications roles and working as a freelance journalist (with credits at The International Business Times, USA Today, Deutsche Welle and The New York Times), we caught up with Vanessa to hear what she's been up to in her current role as CEO and co-founder of OrbViz.

What drew you to study your BA and later your Graduate Diploma in Journalism here at UC?

I grew up in Christchurch and always felt like UC was a good choice for me. Not many in my family had gone down the uni path, so it was nerve-wracking at first! But I had always wanted to be a journalist, so I took the plunge. I loved studying international relations for my undergrad, and my Graduate Diploma certainly trained me to be industry-ready.

Can you tell us a bit about what you are doing with OrbViz? How did this role come about?

I spent much of my journalism career in Israel. Contrary to what you might see on the news, there isn’t always a great political story to report. So I started reporting on business, finance and technology. I completely, unexpectedly, fell in love with the incredible speed and advancement in the start-up nation, and this feeling that anything you can imagine is possible in tech.
When I moved back to Christchurch, I started working with start-up company Orbica, and a year ago we spun out our first Software as a Service product, OrbViz, as its own company. I took on the role of CEO and co-founder. OrbViz resonates deeply with me because in a nutshell, we are trying to help the world communicate better. Like journalists write for a common reading age to ensure anyone can understand, we help governments and corporates to take their complex data, information and reports and turn them into an engaging and interactive digital experience that anyone can understand and navigate quickly.

You’re also part of the international community, ShEO – how did you get involved as an Activator and why?

New Zealand Trade & Enterprise supported a bunch of female founders to join the ShEO community as activators about a year ago, and I was lucky enough to be selected. It’s a great way to network internationally and support other female founders.

What would be your career highlight to date?

That’s a tough one. I absolutely love what I’m doing now and I don’t want to detract from that. But in terms of stand-out moments, I’d have to say when a colleague and I were covering the Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian war. We were in the north of Jordan when Syrian refugees started to cross the border under heavy shelling and we managed to get the first major story out of Jordan. It was published in the International Herald Tribune, which was the international edition of the New York Times. There is much more to the story than space allows, but I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

What is it that motivates or inspires you?

That’s an easy one: the people that I work with inspire me the most. We are all big thinkers who challenge each other to do big things in the world. My motivation is to create a better world – a world where we break down systemic communication barriers and put the power into the hands of people to influence the future for good.

Looking back at your time at UC, what memories or experiences have stayed with you?

I loved the culture of learning. It’s my goal one day to get my PHD and teach a new generation of world-changers.

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