City first stop for academic leading NZ entrepreneurship course

Sian Christie, director of business and management studies at St Olaf College in Minnesota. PHOTO...
Sian Christie, director of business and management studies at St Olaf College in Minnesota. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
Sian Christie likes to joke to her students that if they ever emigrate, they should do it at the beginning of a millennium.

That way, like her, they could always remember what year it was and no maths was required. The Dunedin-born academic moved to the United States in 2000.

The move was driven by her then partner, who went for postdoctoral study, and the pair ended up at Dartmouth College, a member of the Ivy League.

"I remember saying, ‘so what’s an Ivy? I didn’t realise how prestigious it was until we got there, a couple of New Zealand hicks setting up shop," she said, laughing.

In January, Ms Christie will return to her hometown, leading a study-abroad programme she instigated in 2017, which involves bringing 24 students to New Zealand for the month, with Dunedin the first stop on the itinerary.

The topic of the course was innovation in New Zealand and the students would explore the innovation ecosystems that had developed to support entrepreneurship and economic development in the country, she said.

Ms Christie, who has an MBA from Massey University and a diploma in management and certificate in business studies from Otago Polytechnic, did not initially have an academic career; she was general manager of retail chain United Video for more than a decade.

On arriving in the US, she worked at Dartmouth in the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network, which made collaborations across the various Dartmouth colleges, including the likes of medicine, engineering, business and undergraduate, to build businesses or start-ups.

In 2004, she joined St Olaf College in Minnesota, where she began teaching fulltime. She teaches management studies; marketing, entrepreneurship, organisational storytelling and management policy and strategy.

While many of her friends wondered why she wanted to live in the US, particularly from a political perspective — "obviously it’s been crazy in the last 10 years — and most New Zealanders "think we’re all a bunch of Trumpers up here", that could not be further from the truth, she said.

"The majority of US citizens are not as crazy as we think," she said.

The main benefits from living in the US included the opportunities to explore along with job opportunities, particularly for academics. New Zealand’s small population was not conducive to a successful academic career, she said.

She missed "lots and lots" about her home country and was fortunate to get home every two years as part of her job. In particular, she missed the relaxed culture.

"New Zealanders are fun ... just a lot less uptight".

She lived 45 minutes from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul and the cultural offerings were "world class", along with the accessibility to music.

Her first trip study abroad trip was in 2017 and the plan was to hold it every two years, although Covid-19 had derailed it, meaning the last tour was in 2019.

Asked what she enjoyed about it, Ms Christie said being from New Zealand meant she was a good host. The group was also leaving the US winter behind for a New Zealand summer.

A Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report in 2005 stated New Zealand was one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world. She attributed that to the country’s oft-lauded No 8 wire approach and thinking differently about solving problems.

It was also fun to return to New Zealand with a fresh perspective and travel throughout the country visiting business incubators and entrepreneurial people. She likened it to an onion, and peeling off the layers, as increasingly opportunities came along as the tour unfolded.

The feedback from students was impressive, one political science major describing the experience as transformative. "Going to New Zealand and studying innovation there, I learned as much in that class as I did in the Stanford incubator and even some of my graduate level courses at NYU. It really prepared me to be an entrepreneur," he said.

The aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings showed that decisions and change could be made quickly if a country was young and nimble and that gave the students hope, she said.

Plus the students also discovered there was a lot more to New Zealand than they realised, and they loved New Zealanders.

"They just think we’re the bee’s knees."

She was also hanging out for a "good old meat pie" — "you can never have too many’.