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Entrepreneurs emerge from Chch quake

Friday 31 May 2013 1:57 p.m.

Deon Swiggs is one of the innovate new entrepreneurs born out of the quake (supplied)

Deon Swiggs is one of the innovate new entrepreneurs born out of the quake (supplied)

 

Canterbury has produced several revolutionary and iconic leaders in recent years.

You know the names – Sam Johnson, Bob Parker – but with $40 billion dollars to exchange hands during the region's recovery, and a blank slate to re-imagine in the city centre, the scene is set for Christchurch to produce many more.

As the localised economic boom of the rebuild begins, one of the city's most high-profile consultants says Christchurch is changing permanently, with a tide of entrepreneurial activity searing a brand new personality on the region.

Sacha McMeeking is one of the four founders of the Ministry of Awesome, or MOA, an organisation that exists to help post-quake entrepreneurs turn their ideas into reality. 

Formerly a top consultant working with Ngāi Tahu, Ms McMeeking says the quake has pushed a young and vibrant group of people into opportunities that didn't exist before. 

"The earthquake has created the connectivity that enables people to be entrepreneurial," she says. 

"There's a greater openness across the city to do new and different things and that means younger people's ideas have greater resonance." 

In a word, the co-founder describes the future of Christchurch as "fantastic", saying she's seeing partnerships and projects come into play that will permanently change the way the city works and thinks. 

"I think Christchurch is going to have a really strong dynamism to it that's going to last," she says. 

"Christchurch was in many ways, before the earthquake, quite a traditional city and I think that the earthquake has created the opportunity for a great diversity of people and ideas." 

 

Big business – Will McLellan's EPIC project

Chief amongst these new trend-setters is Wil McLellan, a business director who started a revolutionary project a few months after the quake. 

The 39-year-old is one of two founders behind Epic, a Google-style social office campus that opened in central Christchurch late last year. 

The serial entrepreneur stumbled on the idea after earthquake closure forced his staff to move into a cramped temporary office with five other businesses. 

"We noticed that it was really efficient to share space," he says. "You don’t need to own your boardroom and you don't need to own your kitchens. 

"It was actually nice, we were surrounded by other people in similar industries and it was very conducive to innovation." 

A year down the track the project became a reality, and it is now home to 19 businesses and around 250 staff. 

But Mr McLellan says the journey there nearly broke the team, creating a "horrendous" workload that caused them to nearly give up several times. 

"It was exhausting and I think a number of us quit a number of times," he says. "It was only because there was a strong team that there was something to come back to. 

"It was liberating, it was terrifying, stepping into the unknown and it was validating in many respects. 

"That's a powerful word because it proves – and this is an Einstein quote – that imagination is more important than knowledge. You can gain knowledge from those around you, but it has to start with imagination." 

The Epic team now have their eyes set on "stage two", a new campus that could hold up to 100 companies.

But Mr McLellan stresses that the project is still only hypothetical, as Epic is in the early stages of working with landowners and prospective tenants to see how to make the dream a viable reality.

 

Social entrepreneurialism - Rebuilding with Deon Swiggs

Leading the charge is Deon Swiggs, a former student who created a hugely popular community service during a whirlwind of post-quake activity. 

The 26-year-old was partway through a management degree when the first quake struck in September 2010, and he hit upon an idea that would consume his life for the next few years. 

"I'd been out digging some silt with some friends and when I got home, I put a couple of articles on my own blog website," he says. 

"I saw that I was getting a lot of questions and I thought, 'Why don't I create something that answers these directly?' 

"There was a genuine need, people asking questions and wanting to know what was going on." 

Creating www.rebuildchristchurch.co.nz on a whim, Mr Swiggs started building an information service to answer locals' questions about the recovery. It grew steadily for a few months, before a second event blew things out of proportion. 

"The February earthquake happened and it blew up," he says. "I mean, it absolutely went mental.  

"People had a whole lot of ideas and a whole lot of concerns but they had no vehicle to drive it, so I offered Rebuild Christchurch as that vehicle. From that date, the Rebuild Christchurch Foundation began." 

Under this more formal identity, Mr Swiggs built a team of volunteers and started responding directly to the need in the community. 

Building teams were sent to repair schools, hundreds of volunteers were organised to dig silt, a temporary soccer pitch was donated by Nike and installed in the city centre and elderly residents were helped with their insurance claims. 

The outpouring of both need and support sent more than 300,000 visitors to Rebuild's website every month and the young entrepreneur went into absolute overdrive. 

"I was doing 120 hours-plus a week and that was all of last year, no questions asked," he says. 

"It was a hard slog but it was exciting, it was so fun, it was hard work. You feel shattered at the end of the week but it's worth it." 

Still working in the community, Mr Swiggs is a firm believer in Christchurch's revolution as a city. 

"I find that in normal situations, people are protective of their patch, protective of the way that the system works," he says. 

"In the earthquake, that normal proving yourself and going through the ranks didn’t happen. 

"If you had enough momentum, if you had enough passion and instilled that in other people and led then you had a real chance." 

The only thing holding the rest of the city's entrepreneurs back is the ever-present fear of failure, he says. 

"If there's anyone out there that has an idea, just get on and do it, you've got to take to take that risk. 

"If you look like a muppet, then you look like a muppet. Just take the risk and reach out." 

3 News

 

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