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Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home

Derek Handley in Auckland in 2018. Photo/Simon Young

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien. 

“Whatever you think you have, or are good at, or can offer, give some of it away freely and often” was one of the key messages of entrepreneur and philanthropist Derek Handley’s 2013 autobiography, Heart to Start.

Now, at 40, Handley is about to return to New Zealand after 15 years away, mostly in the US, and he wants to influence Aucklanders into taking community leadership roles and to strengthen the sense of community in New Zealand’s biggest city.

He and Auckland community development organisation Splice are partnering in running weekend leadership courses, based on a UK model, for Aucklanders of all ages and backgrounds. A study commissioned by Handley’s Aera Foundation shows that only 3% of Aucklanders feel they have very strong connections with their community and that two-thirds of Aucklanders wish those connections were stronger: among people aged 18-24, the figure is almost 80%.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Half of Aucklanders (two-thirds of the younger group) believe they could be living a fuller life.

Handley says “active citizenship” can play a large part in fulfilling this desire for more meaning and contribution to society, and the courses he and Splice are offering are a start in this process.

He has a track record in start-ups. Even before the iPhone went on sale in 2007, Handley had noted the success of Apple’s iPod and anticipated the widespread adoption of mobile digital technology. In Heart to Start, he recounts how he and his brother Geoff travelled to the US to pitch an idea for mobile phone advertising to Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts. The flip chart they prepared for that meeting included a girl with a device in her back jeans pocket that they presciently labelled iPhone.

Their agency The Hyperfactory went on to land contracts with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Toyota, Johnson & Johnson and Motorola. They sold the company in 2009 to Meredith Corporation – Handley has never disclosed the sale price but told Idealog magazine in 2010 that it was “a lot more than” $10 million. In 2011, Handley was named in the Silicon Alley 100 most influential technology people in New York.

Derek Handley with Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University, 2015. Photo/Derek Handley collection

After the sale of The Hyperfactory, he and Sir Richard Branson co-founded The B Team, a non-profit organisation of global leaders advancing better ways of doing business for people and the planet.

So even though he’s walked the Kiwi talk on the world stage, it was only on the last day of February, at the Auckland Town Hall, that Handley affirmed allegiance to the Queen and became a New Zealand citizen.

He was born in Hong Kong in 1978. His father, John, is a Scotsman; his mother, Latifa, is of Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnicity, but after China’s crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the family decided to move to New Zealand before the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Chinese control.

One of three boys, Derek ran small money-making (and money-losing) ventures from an early age. He did well at school and at university and had co-founded The Hyperfactory by his early twenties.

He travelled the world from home bases in both New Zealand and the US on a British passport, thanks to his father’s citizenship, and he had permanent residence here; his Kiwi wife, Maya, and their now five-year-old son, Finn, were both New Zealand citizens. Finn, born in the US, also holds US citizenship.

Handley with his son Finn.

About four years ago, Handley was shocked to find he had spent too many days outside New Zealand and had lost his permanent residence status and with it the chance to become a citizen. Handley’s attempts to regain eligibility for citizenship languished in the system until January when his citizenship application was approved.

How does a savvy businessman get into this sort of bind?

When I was living here all the time and had permanent-resident status, it didn’t occur to me. I thought it was a technicality. But somewhere along the line, going overseas to build up my businesses, I lost the right to become a citizen. I spent years trying to figure out how to get my permanent residency back so I could become a citizen. It’s important to me that I am a New Zealander. I am here for 100-plus days a year and I have never really been away from New Zealand for more than three months at a time, but that didn’t play into the maths required to regain that citizenship qualification. When I applied, it went round and round in circles.

Do you think this is tied to the controversial decision to fast-track citizenship to US billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, even though he had never lived in New Zealand and had visited for only 12 days?

Definitely. It became dynamite, but then the government changed and in its first month, this was done. My last resort would have been to wait for five years after I came back to apply. I am super happy and so is my son. He said, “Dad, you are going to be just like us”, because in our family we have two black [NZ] passports and one red [British] one.

Mum Latifa helps cut the third birthday cake. Photo/Handley collection

Has Donald Trump’s presidency entered your thinking about returning to New Zealand for good?

Yes, it is one of the nails in the coffin leading to us coming home. It’s not just Trump: there are lots of problems there, guns being just one of them. Racism is still a huge issue and the healthcare system makes no sense. These problems would exist whether Trump was there or not.

Where do you live in the US?

We live in a hamlet called Halcottsville in upstate New York. It has about 100 people and that has taught me a lot about community. There are people from several generations who have always lived there, and whatever grooves or grudges they have remain. Some are accepting of new people; some are not. We moved there from Brooklyn in July. We wanted to spend more time at our house there before moving home to New Zealand next year.

Do you have any reservations about returning to New Zealand?

I land at Auckland Airport and cry – with happiness. Increasingly, we have all felt like that and so we are coming home. We can always be a bit bolder about how we shape New Zealand for ourselves and put New Zealand on the world stage.

With Finn and wife Maya. Photo/Handley collection

What will you be doing?

Whatever I do long term, it will have a heavy component of service. Not necessarily public service but working for some sort of entity that is working on society and the issues we face. I am already involved via my foundation and the collaboration with Splice and through supporting social enterprises such as Eat My Lunch.

You’re booked on Richard Branson’s commercial flights into space some time in the future. What’s the attraction?

Since childhood, I have wanted to go into space. When you watch a movie such as Hidden Figures, which I saw recently, it makes you think not just that it’s a great movie, but about how hard space is, the magnitude of it all and, yes, the danger. After the crash [in 2014, an experimental vehicle crashed on a test flight, killing the co-pilot; an investigation blamed human error], they no longer set tentative dates for launching passenger flights and I don’t think about it often. There isn’t an age limit, so as long as I am fit, I should be fine. How interesting to think that within our lifetime someone might go to Mars, although they might not come back.

What are you reading?

I have a long reading list. I go to bookstores and Amazon also makes it so easy to accumulate books. I also read on a Kindle and I am into audiobooks. I’ve been listening to The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, by Barack Obama and read by him. The Penguin History of New Zealand, by Michael King, read by Rosemary Ronald. God: A Human History, by Reza Aslan. There is also a podcast I listen to called On Being, hosted by Krista Tippett. She features everyone from a civil-rights activist one day to a Jesuit priest another day talking about the core of their being and what it means to be human.

With cousin Shareen, 1981. Photo/Handley

And in actual book form?

I am obsessed with books where there is insight that helps teach you about yourself. I have read Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, many times. It is easy to read and anyone would get something out of it. A more contemporary version of it would be Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which is more mystical, but has a similar takeout. When you take those two with Joseph Campbell’s Reflections on the Art of Living, that is what I am interested in.

What else?

On Death and Dying, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who wrote about her experiences with dying patients, what it meant to die, how they died. Thinking about dying gives perspective. There is an old ritual called memento mori, thinking about your death once a day for a few minutes to give you perspective on how fortunate you are to be alive. I want to write more, so I am reading The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard.

Given your business background, any in that field?

Principles, by Ray Dalio, possibly the most successful hedge-fund manager of our time; he made about US$15 billion through his hedge fund Bridgewater in Connecticut. He has recorded in great detail the principles by which he lives and that he has incorporated into his business practice. Some people attack Bridgewater for being like a cult or a machine, taking people in, then spitting them out. It has a mixed reputation. But the book is fascinating. I like some of his principles, not others, but admire that he has thought so methodically about it.

You’ve just turned 40. Do you have any thoughts on that milestone?

I know myself now better than when I wrote Heart to Start. A lot of things were in gestation with The B Team, of which I was founding CEO, developing at that time. There is a sense of ego in the book that I have moved on from. I really feel I have evolved, and now when I do something, I know it is with 100% integrity.

This article was first published in the March 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.