Former MP, Former Minister of Finance
Business and Law, 1972
Leader. Mentor. Boundary Breaker.
Whether bringing down walls in New Zealand politics, leading some of our most innovative businesses or mentoring emerging talent, Ruth Richardson has always remained clear about her motivations and goals. “I have three great causes in life. Nation building – which is why I went into politics. Business building – because the size and shape of a country's economy depends on the performance of its businesses. And family – because that's the thing on which everything else is built.”
You’ve had a long and successful career – how did it all begin?
I was born into a quintessentially Kiwi farming family. There are two things about being in a farming family. You're very free enterprise, because that's what farming is. And you tend to be feminist, because women have forever been instrumental in what makes the farming business tick. I was encouraged by my parents to aim for the sky. When I was 15 I decided I wanted to be a politician.
What drew you to politics?
I have activist DNA. My Great Grandfather was a Member of Parliament, and my grandmother and father were both activists. At the time there was a lot about New Zealand society that was completely out of sync with what a driven, ambitious young woman would want to do. I also saw that New Zealand wasn’t set up to be competitive internationally. So there were economic settings and social norms that I wanted to change.
And you chose to pursue that path through UC?
My decision to come to Canterbury was very strategic. I chose to do a law degree in order to equip myself for political life. Canterbury had an extremely good reputation and, being from the Wellington area, I thought it would be good to come on a South Island adventure.
What was it like entering politics as a young woman in the early 80’s?
There were a lot of walls to bring down! But breaking boundaries is my natural temperament. While it was tough to enter the domain at age 29 when there was only one other woman in the caucus, once you got there, you were noticed. I was very clear about the causes that drove me and the changes I wanted to make.
How do you think things have changed for aspiring politicians today?
Everything is on the table now – we’ve broken every boundary. I just wish the media would focus on what an individual politician brings to the table, rather than asking about the female angle. To me, that's yesterday's issue. That particular water is under the bridge. There's been a huge shift in people's expectations and liberalisation of norms. I was happy to be someone who was breaking down prejudices that were tilted against women.
Tell us about going into business, post-politics.
Business building is very important to me. I have three great causes in life. Nation building – which is why I went into politics. Business building – because the size and shape of a country's economy depends on the performance of its businesses. And family – because that's the base on which everything else is built. So it was natural that when I had run my course in politics that I would seek to be active in business life.
What drives you in your governance roles?
I’ve only ever been interested in companies that are innovative in their DNA. I chair a number of start-ups, including a few that have been born out of UC. I also work with companies like Synlait and New Zealand Merino which champion a transformational approach to our precious agricultural assets. New Zealand has to have an edge to stay ahead of the game. Governance is key, because the tone at the top sets the expectation for everyone in the business. You are there to guide and inspire.
What else keeps you busy?
I put substantial energy into mentoring. It gives me a lot of pleasure to see other people succeed. I'm currently mentoring a very talented young executive as part of a year-long programme run by Global Women. It's been great seeing the change in her. When she started, she was focused on her role and responsibilities. Now she has the confidence to talk about her passions and her projects. I enjoy coaching people, businesses and countries to help them leverage their talent.
Looking back, what are you proudest of achieving in your professional life?
Politically, I’m proudest of having been part of a fundamental transformation of New Zealand's economic prospects and the creation of new fiscal responsibility rules. Businesswise, I'm proudest of being involved from the outset in companies like Synlait and New Zealand Merino, who are at the leading edge of taking New Zealand's precious resources and turning them into premium products.
And in your personal life?
Personally, I'm proudest of the choice I made in my husband. He has been absolutely crucial in my ability to lead an activist life. And what flows from that is the achievements of my children, which I'm very proud of as well.