Life and career rich in diversity

Desiree Williams is the winner of this year’s Otago Southland branch of the Institute of...
Desiree Williams is the winner of this year’s Otago Southland branch of the Institute of Directors’ Emerging Director Award. Photo: Linda Robertson
Sally Rae talks to Desiree Williams, the winner of this year’s Otago Southland branch of the Institute of Directors’ Emerging Director Award, and finds she has a remarkable story to tell.

Diversity is important to Desiree Williams.

Being proudly Maori and a female meant she could help add diversity in governance that would ensure good decision-making in the future, she explained.

But she also brought to the table a life rich with experiences, which was also particularly useful in her role as chief executive of youth development trust Malcam Charitable Trust.

Those experiences had  given her more empathy for young people.

"I think that it’s easier to relate when you’ve been there and done that," she said.

Refreshingly straight-up and engaging, the winner of this year’s Otago Southland branch of the Institute of Directors’ Emerging Director Award has a remarkable story.

From being kicked out of school and becoming a teenage mother, to double degrees in education and law, she is now making her mark in the governance world.

Mrs Williams (40), nee Mahy, has always worked in roles where she felt like she was making a contribution to society, or adding value to it. That was coupled with a suite of skills from her background, coming from a poor whanau.

A barrister and solicitor and qualified mediator, she is also chairwoman of Te Hou Ora Whanau Services and a trustee for the Four Trades Trust.

She has held earlier governance roles with Community Law Centres Aotearoa and with Te Whare Pounamu Women’s Refuge.

Her passion lay in championing the rights and responsibilities of people, particularly for sometimes overlooked communities such as the elderly, youth and Maori.

Born in Rotorua, the youngest of five children, her family moved to Dunedin when she was 14. She left home at 15, candidly acknowledging she did things "not quite the right way".

After she was kicked out of school, it was with the arrival of her daughter Irie when she was 18 that she realised it was time to "pull her head in".

School was something  she had always found relatively easy, but she had not found it engaging, which led to her being "off the pathway for a while".

She returned to Dunedin from Perth, with her daughter, and did her first degree in education. By the end, she had the top academic mark in the entire College of Education.

There was a very supportive tertiary environment and there was also a lot of family support to help her with Irie.

Her nephew’s mother had died from cancer and so she moved in with her brother Grant and the siblings raised their children together.

After graduating, Mrs Williams applied for 60 primary school jobs but did not even get an interview.

She enrolled in law — when she was 8 she told her grandmother she was going to be a lawyer — buoyed by the confidence she had gained in her academic ability.

It was not quite as easy as the education degree and she also had to make money, so she flagged some classes  — preferring to work instead — and borrowing her friends’ notes, she "winged it".

On graduating, she was asked to apply for a job doing Maori student support, which she did for 18 months, and she then became involved with the Ngai Tahu Law Centre. She became its full-time solicitor and was there for about 10 years.

When the job at the Malcam Charitable Trust came up, she had been thinking for a while about doing "something different".

Having done quite a lot of governance work, she thought maybe she could "give this management thing a go" and she has been in the role since February last year.

When it came to her leadership style, Mrs Williams said she was communicative and respectful  — "and I get amongst it, I’m not in a vacuum".

She was fairly direct and invited robust discussion while trying to empower and lift up her team.

She was also strengths-based, and liked working with young people trying to identify "what makes them rock".

There was a great team at Malcam with significant years of experience, and they were "in it for the right reasons".

Several people suggested she apply for the Emerging Director Award and, despite what she laughingly referred to as her "naive confidence" when she submitted her application, she was genuinely shocked when her name was read out.

She had met some great people at the awards and had just booked in for her first IoD breakfast event.

While quipping that she had previously rubbed shoulders with gang members and criminals, Mrs Williams said if she got nervous about anything, it was "that flash stuff" — such as a wine and cheese gathering.

In her role at Malcam, she had quite a lot to do with "corporate Dunedin", which she had not done previously, and she was very impressed with the level of support for places like Malcam.

It was a hard sector to be involved in, but making gains and seeing positive outcomes for young people was very rewarding.

Mrs Williams and her husband live in Port Chalmers, where they are slowly restoring an old villa.

The couple wed in a colourful ceremony in Port Chalmers in 2012, where the bride wore a voluminous dress, designed by her brother Grant Mahy, that featured 175m of purple tulle petticoat.

Her mother also created 21 cakes to make up a nine-tier cake inspired by Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding.

Mrs Williams wove her own flowers out of flax, often while attending conferences with her hands stained with purple flower dye.

She loved the lifestyle Otago afforded and was a "big fan" of Dunedin. There were amazing opportunities for young people because of the institutions the city boasted, she said.

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