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Dame Wendy Pye: ‘It’s a world first for villages with no internet’

Dame Wendy Pye. Photo/Simon Young

The woman who created an international publishing empire is now spearheading a digital programme to teach reading to millions of children in remote places. 

Dame Wendy Pye punctuates a conversation about her passion for literacy and publishing with occasional references to her other loves: emeralds, pearls, champagne and racehorses. Having made a fortune from her New Zealand educational publishing company, she’s able to indulge herself in ways she never imagined during her modest upbringing on an isolated dairy farm in Western Australia.

But now, at nearly 73, she is still working to achieve more: she has set her sights on spreading literacy to children in remote areas and also to hundreds of thousands of refugee children.

Growing up in the small settlement of Cookernup, south of Perth, Pye was one of four girls of farming parents and was driving a tractor by the age of 10. But farm life was never going to be enough for her, and after a short stint at a Perth radio station, she left Western Australia at 17 for the bright lights of Sydney. Almost on a whim, she jumped on a ship headed for New Zealand and set about work in the publishing world. But when she lost her high-flying job at a magazine publisher, she had to start over. Today, she owns one of the world’s most successful educational publishing empires, Sunshine Books, with more than 2000 titles, an online reading programme and a digital arm. Her literacy programmes and books are used by children in more than 20 countries.

Growing up in Western Australia and with her three older sisters. Photo/Pye family collection

Your family wasn’t well off, but were there books around?

Yes, and the world existed in the sense of the imagination from stories you read or that were read to you. My mother was well educated before she came to the farm. She loved books and reading to us. She talked to us about literature and her life as a child, which I never appreciated until I was older.

When you left the farm, you initially worked in radio in Perth. What was that like?

My boss, Leslie Styles, who was also an author, took me under her wing at the new pop radio station 6KYNA. Leslie was a slightly raving lunatic, when I think about it, but good fun: she had a writing studio near her house and she didn’t like visitors. So she had no door, but a hole cut in the roof, and she would descend into it with a ladder, and then take the ladder down. When I was a teenager, that was incredible.

Radio is amazing. Everyone predicted it would die, but it hasn’t. It played an important part in our lives. I used to listen to Night Beat, a radio drama serial set in Chicago and featuring a reporter called Randy Stone. Weekly radio serials were a big thing, and that was influential. I used to imagine going to New York and now I have an apartment in New York and I have dinner there with the who’s who of New York, people who could buy and sell half of New Zealand. Such different backgrounds, though. Most of the people I know and work with internationally come from well-off families. They wouldn’t even begin to understand my background.

Photo/Pye family collection

Are young people getting the chances and the mentoring you enjoyed?

I am quite concerned about the 90-day employment rule. I think if young people turn up for their first jobs and they work well, it is our responsibility to take them to the next stage if they are willing to try to step up to it. But I think our middle managers in New Zealand are mostly useless. It’s a strong statement, but most of them do not stack up and need to do better. We have to look at directors, too: there are piles of women who could go on boards, but men are afraid of us, probably. And how can we build an economy without accountability? If journalists want to do an in-depth story about a particular company here, they are either blacklisted or never invited to a function again. We are very small.

What other issues grab your attention?

I hear a lot of people talk about what they are going to do about housing, but they talk and aren’t doing things. I do social housing in a quiet way. I have houses in South Auckland that I have had for a long time. I rent them at reasonable rates to families. I care about those tenants. I would never let a house that I would not be happy to live in myself.

Photo/Pye family collection

Tell me about the digital product you’ve developed.

It is a preloaded tablet with 300 books and 1000 activities. You’re the first person outside the company to see it … It’s a world first. No one has ever taken a tablet into villages where they don’t have the internet. This is going to be done first in Malaysia, in the mountains as a trial, and then when we get the results, we are going to assess it. The tablet and programme are sold on a time-payment system: you make a deposit and then a monthly payment. This is how books are sold in places where there are no libraries, no schools, nothing. On the tablet is a complete reading programme. It has a parent programme, so they can assess how their child is doing. It is the same programme that goes into New Zealand schools – a complete reading programme. All you need is 15 minutes a day.

What’s the next step in its development?

The next version will be what I call “solar on a stick”. I have a manufacturer in America with a little solar panel. Imagine what we could do in Africa with that. You put the stick in the ground and point it to the sun. We can develop a programme without electricity. Imagine what we could do in refugee camps with this.

You’re already working with a German partner to see what can be done to help the Syrian refugees.

I talk to teachers in Germany and it’s terrible. They are not used to having thousands of refugee kids who have not been to school in five years. What do you do when a 12-year-old boy comes to school with no ability to read? If they don’t integrate that population, that is what causes people to become almost like Isis; if you don’t feel part of a community, you think, “Bugger them. I will join something that makes me feel like I belong.” So that will be our programme, but teaching them to read German.

With her Wellington Cup-winning horse Cyclades in 2002. Photo/Getty Images

 

You’re already in places as diverse as Singapore, China and Russia – what’s going on with the Chinese market?

The Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press is the largest foreign language publisher in China – it has taken 108 of our titles and it is going to take another 136. It is developing a whole package to launch in January for the teaching of English in China. The big thing about their launch is that they have this marketing plan for a nationwide launch. It is exciting. We are taking literacy to Chinese villages and townships. They have invited me to go in a year’s time to the places way up in the mountains out of Beijing to see our product in action, a product that was developed in New Zealand by New Zealand writers. They are taking some of the best ideas we have in New Zealand to teach creative thinking and critical thinking.

How do you measure your success?

What is success? Is it driving a leased Maserati? I don’t think so. Is it helping people? I think so. We all have a measure of success. We made a lot of money in America. I did all the things you do when you make a lot of money – apartments; I bought emeralds, I love them. Mine are good but not as good as the Kremlin’s – theirs are better than the Crown jewels. I nearly died when I saw theirs. Pearls and emeralds are my thing. But more seriously, if I step out tonight and am run over by a truck and die, I will die happy. I have been repaid more than anyone could want, with everything.

With Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae in 2013 after being invested as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

 

Assuming you get home safely, what are you likely to pick up to read?

I read a lot about Angela Merkel. I am very interested in her. I read a fabulous book about her and the European Union and how she achieved her position. I like political biographies and autobiographies. I am interested in books about businesspeople and leaders and their viewpoints.

You could live anywhere, so what keeps you in this part of the world?

Racehorses. I have 60 or so horses. It is the ultimate challenge to breed a champion and race against the best in the world and beat them.

I also enjoy cooking, and preserving my fruit from our orchard on the farm at Whitford. I am quite domesticated.

Some of the deals you are doing are world firsts, such as getting into China’s villages. Do you bask in the glory or just move onto the next deal?

Well, that is an amazing experiment and they are using one of our products – it is so exciting. I am just sitting there thinking this is such a responsibility. After we did the deal, I went back to my hotel and thought, “I have to go sit in the spa for a while, with a glass of wine – this is all too much!” One of the things about doing this on your own [is] you sit there and think, “Is this real?” Not bad for a kid from Cookernup School.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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