Pasifika Women Thrive at Harvard Leadership Forum

Pasifika Futures Chief Executive Officer Debbie Sorensen, Pasifika Futures Director of Performance and Evaluation Seini Jensen, Pasifika Futures Director, Dr. Siniva Sinclair Phylesha Brown-Acton, LGBTQI Whanau Ora Manager for Pacific Homecare and founder of F’INE Pasifika Aotearoa – Family, Identity, Navigate & Equality, were selected to attend the Harvard Business School’s Women’s Leadership Forum in June.

The following is an excerpt from an article featured in Issue 12 of Pacific Peoples Health magazine.

HWLP 001

Dr Siniva Sinclair, Debbie Sorensen, Seini Jensen

Each woman continued their full time work while completing the 12 hours plus each day of the forum, including navigating the 16-hour time difference between the east coast of the US and New Zealand.

 Mrs. Jensen recalls is as “particularly busy and challenging”. 

“It was particularly busy and challenging. Harvard courses are very demanding, and you’re taking business calls in the middle of the night,” says Mrs Jensen.

Mrs. Sorensen: “Because New Zealand opens for business in the US at three or four in the afternoon US time, then continues until 2 or 3 in the morning, you work all night.”

They each speak about their days-into-night time in Boston: “No phones, no laptops” … “You have to be present and you have to be engaged in discussions”

“And homework every night.”

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Phylesha Brown-Acton, Dr Siniva Sinclair, Professor Amy Cuddy (Harvard), Debbie Sorensen, Seini Jensen

Their classmates came from sectors as diverse as aviation, entertainment and cosmetics. Debbie’s board of advisors included Sarah McGeehan, Director of Business and Innovation, Telstra; Elaine Murphy, Global Director of Workforce Enablement Electronic Arts, and Osaretin Demuren, Chairman of Guaranty Trust Bank Nigeria.

They provided fantastic support and mentoring.

“It’s this idea of tacit knowledge – that you learn and it’s not necessarily explicit,” says Dr. Sinclair.

“You know you can’t get it from a book. You get some of ideas from a book, but there are things that are more complex. Leadership falls into that category clearly. You learn it more by apprenticeship or modelling what you know, and having that modelled for us as well. The inquiring and questioning from different angles. That was valuable.

“It’s not just ‘here’s an article’ and that’s the last word on something. Each of us have a perspective,” she says. 

“For me, it’s part of a journey. It’s a sense of being less hesitant and more confident to speak out … realising I have a particular contribution to make that’s of value and I that shouldn’t shy away from that. I shouldn’t always defer always to others.”

 Dr Sinclair believes it’s partly gender and culturally-driven and partly her personality, too.

“It’s being able to step into that space where I’m more confident to share and put forward my ideas … even if they’re different. In fact, that’s the value of them. You need to have different ideas around the table and it doesn’t help anyone if you hold those back.”

Harvard Womens Leadership Programme 2017

 Mrs. Jensen is modelling the Harvard approach at Pasifika Futures.

“I’m using what I learned there to support all of our team. Getting them to read what we read and bringing other people with you to connect to the learning and knowledge. There’s a lot of articles and you can learn about all these different approaches. Getting access to the Harvard Business Review is fantastic.

“We send out weekly readings to the team for discussion. The confidence it gives you is invaluable. I get excited about what I read and have learnt … and want to get people to discuss it as well.”

Mrs Sorensen sees several aspects to progress.

“There’s the technical knowledge of what you’re learning and the personal growth and development,” she says.

“I also think there’s also a third aspect, which is around adding to our reputation. People who are biased may tend to think that Pacific people aren’t as smart as anyone else; not as good at business, not as good at anything. That’s the kind of inherent casual racism that goes on. For Pacific women, even more so. 

“It’s very interesting to hear people say, “You went to Harvard?”

“That’s how people say it … with a question mark. There’s a clear inference first of all when they ask, “What are you doing at Harvard?” and “How did you get to be there?”

But secondly there’s “Oh, so you went to Harvard?” which is the other question around “Well, you must be pretty good.”

“There are some unintended, more subtle benefits which add to our reputation, certainly as an organisation, but also as a group of women. It’s absolutely clear we are a very smart, very competent
group of women. You don’t get these opportunities unless that’s who you are. That’s an important thing for us to remember. Sitting in the room at Harvard, it struck me that having grown up in South
Auckland, from a Tongan family, I was with my Pacific sister in the best university in the world. I felt so proud and privileged to have this as part of my journey.”


The full story is available in Issue 12 of Pacific Peoples Health Magazine or online here.