Meet the woman who shows you don’t need to be a rich, Pākehā man to rise to the top of the agriculture industry. Trailblazer, MZNM recipient and Ruralco chair Jessie Chan talks with Cath Bennett about the challenges she has conquered to become a leader.
Very little fazes Jessie Chan. She was made dux of her school while working to put food on the table, swapped corporate Wellington for a 420-hectare Canterbury farm, and regularly juggles running board meetings with toddler tantrums.
But when she was recently asked to perform a ritual familiar to children nationwide, the pragmatic farmer faltered.
Despite being immersed in Māoridom through her role on the board at the mātauranga Māori-focused Bioprotection Aotearoa and her extensive work with Ngāi Tahu iwi, Jessie battles with a concept central to tangata whenua culture.
“I actually really struggle with my pepeha,” admits the 43-year-old, as she recalls the awkward moment she was asked to share her heritage at a Ngāi Tahu Farming board meeting.
“My mum was an orphan and my dad’s family were pretty rogue, so I’ve never been that connected to my whakapapa. I have a really deep connection with my parents, my sisters and my brother, but I think I’ve struggled most of my life with a sense of where I belong.”
It’s a refreshingly frank admission from the newly crowned Most Inspiring Leader at the Women in Governance Awards, a figure who, thanks to a CV bulging with qualifications, high-powered roles and accolades, could be quite intimidating.
But matter-of-factly sharing her extraordinary path to becoming co-manager of a thriving farm and chair of Ruralco agricultural cooperative, it’s clear that like every other challenge she has encountered, the mum-of-two has not only faced it head on, but turned it to her advantage.
“We’re all a product of our experiences,” says the former Dairy Woman of the Year, who is chatting while perched on a stool in front of a child’s desk, as a result of a recent house move. “The strengths my journey has given me are my strengths as a leader; understanding people, their why and where they come from, helps it all make sense.”
Belonging. It’s a simple enough concept, but as she talks, it’s one that’s clearly front of mind for Jessie.
As a child growing up in Milson, Palmerston North, she often felt out of step with her classmates; as she wryly admits, “being half-Chinese was not cool when I was a kid.” Her voice catches slightly as she recalls being taunted for her skin colour and her mother’s race – “I still remember it and it really, really hurt.”
Her sense of disconnect wasn’t just about ethnicity; it was also due to lifestyle.
“My mum had mental health issues and left when I was 10, and dad took custody of the four of us,” explains Jessie, who also has Danish heritage. “It was hard going, we didn’t have much, everything was a hand-me-down or second hand.”
Consequently, while she watched other kids fussing over outfits for the school disco and their places in the netball team, she was more concerned with feeding her family.“My sister and I ran the household; we’d do the shopping, cook the meals and remember to light the coal range when we got in from school,” she says, adding they grew veges, kept chickens, and even grazed and slaughtered some old ewes her father was gifted. “We grew up on mutton, but it was nutritious. We learned to appreciate the value of a dollar and the small things in life.”
As she matured into a young adult, it was Jessie’s youth that set her apart. As a 17-year-old she was offered a laboratory role at Fonterra normally reserved for PHD students, by her 20s she was in a general manager’s role leading a policy team and by her mid-30s she was joining boards normally populated by those double her age.
And then there is her gender.From taking the helm of the male-dominated Wellington Young Farmer’s Club to running Ruralco rural supplies company and thereby becoming the first woman to chair a major agricultural cooperative, Jessie has almost made an art of smashing glass ceilings.But while enjoying the success, she’s focused on ensuring that in the future, it’s less about who and more about what.
“It’s lovely that people think having a female chair at Ruralco is cool, but it would be nice if it was normal,” enthuses Jessie, whose first act in the role was to stop board meetings being held during the school holidays. “That’s when we know we’ve got equality. I’m just a person doing something; not a woman and not half-Chinese.”
There’s little doubt that hard work has been central to Jessie’s ascension to one of the brightest figures in New Zealand farming, but ask her to pinpoint the key to her success, and it comes back to her much-loved dad, Victor Sorenson.
Whether she’s talking about her background, her career, even her decision to include a self-contained annex in her newly built house, Jessie can’t help but mention her father.When she was a victimised and friendless schoolkid, “he told me to hold my head high, there’s nothing wrong with who I am, where I come from and what colour my skin is.”
If you ask how she has coped with sexism in a male-dominated industry, her response is, “I never felt I encountered it; maybe because I was raised by a man, we were taught we were people, not men or women, so because of my mindset I didn’t pick up on it.
”Even her proudest moment: “I think one thing dad drilled into us is it’s never about you; he saw pride as a bad thing, humility is really important.”
And while she might have struggled with where she belonged in the outside world, Jessie has never had any doubt of her place in her family’s hearts.
“We had a massive sense of belonging to each other because dad was a great leader,” Jessie says of the mechanic who last month sadly passed away aged 75. “He knew how to show us every day how much we were loved.”
As her father’s daughter, a focus for Jessie is that on some level, she could help others with belonging.
“The number one problem in society is that people feel like they don’t belong,” Jessie says passionately. “And that’s why they join gangs and end up with addictions; because they don’t feel loved and wanted. This is the stuff that motivates me to do what I do.”
As well as believing farming can ensure the whole country is more prosperous, she’s also conscious she can make a difference through her governance experience; although she is discerning in her choice of organisation.
“It’s values driven,” explains the Massey University graduate, who is on the board of Meat the Need, which distributes farmer-donated meat to food banks. “I have to think; does it align with my values and am I going to contribute something different?”
Her wish to make a difference has come more sharply into focus since she became a mum.
Having battled with endometriosis and polycystic ovaries, she was delighted to conceive Adam, now eight, who was eventually followed by two-year-old Noah. She gave both boys the middle name of Chan – the surname she took from her mother.
Jessie might come across as something of a super-mum, but she freely admits, “I have my days when the wheels fall off! The reality is, you never get past the mum guilt.” She adds: “But I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t mentally stimulated, and I think I’m a better mum because I’m fulfilled in my career. When I do spend time with my kids, it’s good quality time.”
Parenting has become more of a challenge since her split from the boys’ dad 18 months ago, a situation made even more difficult by the pandemic.
But just now the trio are delighting in their new house in Rakaia, Canterbury, where the kids have no concerns about where they belong. Their father lives up the road, they have strong connections to their aunts and uncles, and they feel pride hearing about their late grandfather.
And Jessie rates that above all the awards and career success in the world.
“So long as they feel loved and belong and contribute to society, that’s what’s important.”