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Theresa Gattung: The feminist capitalist who stole a march

Theresa Gattung. Illustration/Joseph Qiu

My Food Bag entrepreneur Theresa Gattung talks about how to be successful in business and the challenges for feminism in the age of Donald Trump.

Theresa Gattung is all spangles. She usually is. The former Tele­com chief executive-turned-entrepreneur and My Food Bag co-owner is wearing an elegant black dress, with sparkly bits, and bright-pink lipstick. She might have just come from a cocktail party. She always looks this way.

She is an enthusiastic giggler. I met her 13 years ago, when she was still head of Telecom, and she was a giggler then. She giggles in the gaps in her sentences, which are few, but she manages to get in a fair few giggles. She still talks at the speed of a bullet train. I think she thinks at the same speed. I imagine some people find her exhausting. She has endless energy.

We meet on an afternoon before Christmas at her house in Westmere, which is ultra-modern and in a street nobody would call an exclusive enclave. She has an enormous bright-red “nice and curvy” Matisse reading chair with a matching sphere for a footrest and a purple chaise longue. She says she had been on her knees scrubbing at the rug before I arrived: her cats had got into the fireplace and left sooty paw prints. She giggles and says: “I can’t live without cats. In fact, if you’re very good, I might let you have a peek at Ollie and Archie. Archie, the ginger one, tends to be okay about strangers, but Ollie runs away. So if you’re really a cat person, I’ll know.”

Her third cat, Palin, lives in her Wellington apartment and is cared for by her flatmate. She named him after Sarah Palin. Why did she name a cat after Sarah Palin? “He’s white. A gorgeous cat. But he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer!”

Women's march in Auckland in January 2017. Photo/Getty Images

“Alternative facts”

As it turned out, it was felicitous that we spent so much time talking about felines. Later, after Donald Trump’s inauguration, half the world, it seems (let us all embrace the concept of “alternative facts”), turned out to march wearing “pussy hats”.

She is not a natural protester, but I can see her in a fetching pussy hat (with pink spangles). “If I lived in the US, I certainly would have gone.” She contemplated flying there to take part in the Women’s March, but decided she needed “rest and restoration”. I had emailed her for her thoughts on the marches and feminism in the age of Trump. She has always described herself as a “feminist capitalist”.

“Absolutely. But that’s become cool now. Haven’t you noticed?” She has suddenly become cool. “No one’s more surprised than me.”

So, here is a feminist capitalist on Trump: “Many people, especially women, are ­worried that a Trump presidency heralds a new era of sexism and misogyny. Under the Democrats, many Americans believed feminism’s work was mostly finished. Trump’s election has banished that complacency.

Read more: Theresa Gattung's five secrets to success

“There was a new sort of ‘inconvenient truth’ in Washington – the Women’s March amassed greater participation than Trump’s inauguration. It was democracy in action – wide in age and deep in diversity.

“History is not linear. Gains can be lost if they are not claimed and reclaimed when under threat. It is a fight to protect the progress that women have made: in jobs, in reproductive freedoms, in public life.

“It is not just about women’s rights. About 450 organisations signed on as official partners to the march, embracing causes such as immigrants’ rights and climate protection. Matters of social justice and women’s rights go hand in hand. I believe it will turn out to be very powerful, particularly if it is followed up as intended by a 100-day action plan.”

Unlike her cat Palin, she may be one of the sharpest knives in the drawer. Since leaving Telecom in 2007, she has invested in various things, including gold, and then, of course, she got rid of the gold just at the right time. But her biggest thing is My Food Bag, the weekly meal ingredients and recipe delivery service, which she co-founded with chef Nadia Lim and Cecilia and James Robinson, and which has sold subscriptions like hot cakes. In October, it was reported that it had 50,000 customers, with revenue forecast to reach $135 million in the 2017 financial year. Its current estimated value is $80 million, and in October it was partially sold to private equity group Waterman Capital. The long-term plan is for a sharemarket listing. Gattung remains on the board with a 10% shareholding.

My Food Bag co-founders Nadia Lim, Theresa Gattung and Cecilia Robinson.

Pastry in the microwave

She gets a 50% discount on her My Food Bag deliveries and she uses it almost every night – unless she’s eating out or in Wellington. She was having a Christmas Food Bag delivered that she was whisking off to Waihi Beach where she has built her parents a home next to her holiday house. “The ham, the turkey, the salads, the desserts, all the ingredients and the recipes to cook them.” Why not just cook them? “Oh, because you get Christmas My Food Bag and you turn on your iPad and you look at YouTube showing you how to do it all. It’s perfect. But I won’t be cooking it. My sister will be cooking it.”

She says: “Do you not know how My Food Bag works?” I know how it works, but I’ve never seen it. She leaps up from the chaise longue and sweeps, spangling, into the kitchen to throw open a cupboard. “Look! All the recipes.” But you still have to cook it. “Yes. My nephew cooks it.”

A croissant sits in her microwave. It looks abandoned. How long has that been there? Three days? “No. Five minutes.” Can she not cook? “I can cook. I can cook My Food Bag.” You’re not meant to put pastry in the microwave, it ruins it, Theresa. “I’ve never claimed to be a good cook,” she says, unperturbed.

She opens the fridge to show me … Actually, I’m not sure what she intended to show me. There wasn’t much in there and besides, I was focused on a half glass of what looked like leftover wine. “No, I don’t drink alcohol. Only on very special occasions. That’s aloe vera.” I’m not sure what would be greater evidence of frugality: a leftover glass of wine or a leftover glass of aloe vera juice. I’d have tipped both down the sink, which is quite possibly one reason I’m never likely to be a very rich entrepreneur.

In addition to being partial to a glass of aloe vera juice, she is an enthusiastic imbiber of turmeric juice. There is a large bottle of the stuff in her fridge. It looks even less enticing than the leftover aloe vera juice. “I love turmeric. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory.” Why does she need an anti-inflammatory? “No. Just generally.” So, she doesn’t need an anti-inflammatory. “I do.” What for? “Well, it’s always good to make sure you stay well.”

You can’t argue with that (not if you want an audience with the cats); she looks well and she is always bouncy. “You know, by nature I’m happy. I always have been. Some people are born with the happy gene.”

The last time we met, she told me she could be insensitive – which might go hand in hand with the happy gene; if you are always happy, it can be hard to recognise and empathise with unhappiness in other people. She says she has, “as of last Thursday”, slightly adjusted her outlook.

“Ten years ago, I’d have thought that it’s only good to look at the positive in a situation. I listened to Gilbert Enoka [the mental skills coach] speak at the Dairy Environment Leaders Forum and he was talking about how you don’t want negative thinking but clear thinking. And I thought: ‘Mmm. That’s quite a new concept for me.’

“I always think of the most positive outcome, but sometimes discernment might mean actually considering all the ups and downs of things. So I’ve probably become, slightly, [someone who’s] just not always assuming that the very best outcome is going to happen.”

Gattung as Telecom marketing manager in 1995.

Daughter of immigrants

This may have made her more empathetic. “Yes, I think it probably has.” And less insensitive? “Well, it makes me less judgmental about other people. Most of us tend to judge. So, realising that you can influence but you don’t control, and that life can throw you some random stuff and you do your best with it and everyone is doing their best. I don’t know if I’m more sensitive, but less, ‘Okay, well, if you want something badly enough, you can make it happen.’ Because that’s how I’ve been brought up, you know: daughter of immigrants, eldest child … But you’d have to ask my friends and sisters if I’m more sensitive. I wouldn’t like to claim that. Ha, ha.”

In her 2010 memoir, Bird on a Wire, she wrote about some of the random stuff that life throws. After 22 years, she and her artist partner John Savage split up. He had been having an affair. She could have left that out of her book, I’d have thought. But she says, “I felt I couldn’t write that book and leave that out. Because the book wasn’t just documenting my career, it was more personal than that. It was very difficult. It was one of those times when I didn’t know what was the morally right thing to do. I knew he’d be very upset about it, and he was.”

They are, despite the affair and the book, still friends. She was “very upset”, too, and there was, of course, “grief, sadness, sorrow, regret”, but she has never been bitter because there “are always two sides to a story, right? And I’d been so driven for so long.”

Her career was her affair, really, and I wondered if she now regrets that it was. “Aaah, yes, but I’m not sure that I could have changed that. You know, being a CEO is so all-consuming.”

Would she like a bloke? “Well, it depends when you ask me. Ha, ha. Most of the time I’m very happy.” She lives with the cats and a nephew who is studying at uni, when he is not slaving over the My Food Bags.

She would have had to have been a different person to have chucked it all in for love. She loved being a CEO and she always wanted to be a CEO. When she was at university, she wore power suits to lectures. This sounds eccentric, but it was drive disguised as eccentricity. She wore her power suits because “I believed in acting like I was already doing what I wanted to do, which was to be a CEO, a business executive”.

Now she wears spangly frocks in the afternoon because she can. How else has she changed in the years since I last saw her? “So, for example, in the past 12 years, I’ve been becoming an entrepreneur versus being a corporate wallah.” Otherwise, I’d say she’s pretty much the same. She’d agree. “The girl left Rotorua, but whether you can take Rotorua out of the girl …”

How much does the Rotorua girl have in the bank? “You don’t really think I’m going to answer that, do you? Ha, ha, ha.” Not for a moment, but she doesn’t mind a chancer. Accumulating money was never the goal, she says, being financially independent was. “And I’ve found I’m quite good with money, quite clever with it.”

She spends money on art, books and shoes. She has a Louis Vuitton handbag, but she’s had it for 10 years: “It’s pretty much my only handbag. I hate moving stuff backwards and forwards.” She has other stuff to do.

In 2007. Photo/Jane Ussher

Inspiring women

Her next thing to throw herself into is a seminar called worldwomen17, which is designed to celebrate and inspire women. It will be in Auckland from March 17-19. From the blurb: “Love, compassion and joy are wonderful tools to start initiating a movement that works for us and it is so much more rewarding than the energy of fighting against others who prevent us from being ‘whole’. An enemy image creates a short boost of energy – but we are stuck in reactive thinking instead of using our minds for proactive approaches.”

I sent her a piece from the New York Times about the so-called “diamond ceiling”, about why so few women are billionaires and CEOs. She responded: “There aren’t more female billionaires because women are less prepared to take risks with money than men. Indeed, many women don’t even think in terms of the concept of the difference between being ‘labour’ and being ‘capital’. That is one reason I was so inspired listening to Vicki Saunders speak in the US and am delighted to be bringing her here for worldwomen17. She is actively working to create a new economic model – SheEo – for female entrepreneurs, by involving women creating $1 billion for female-owned businesses around the world.”

(Saunders was name-checked, alongside Melinda Gates and Michelle Obama, as one of the most influential leaders of 2015.)

Gattung has always been supportive of women in business and laments the rarity of women in top jobs. Her friend Kevin Roberts – who is on the My Food Bag board – resigned from his job as chairman of ­Saatchi & Saatchi in August last year after a kerfuffle over his comments about gender diversity in the advertising industry – to wit: “The f---ing debate is over” – and because he didn’t spend any time on gender issues at his agency.

More recently, Massey University chancellor Chris Kelly stepped down after saying that female vets were worth “two-fifths” of a full-time equivalent vet. Gattung’s Wellington vet, Mike Scully, also weighed in, but she won’t be changing vets. “No. He’s a good vet. And, I think that Chris and Mike are clumsily making a reasonable point.”

Vicki Saunders.

She also thinks Roberts was making a ­reasonable point. “Yes, I do, but I don’t want to comment on that.” Why not? She has long had comments to make on gender diversity. “Ask him.”

I’m asking her, and it seems reasonable to do so. “Like I just said, I think they’re clumsily making reasonable points. Okay, let me dial it back a bit to … the end of my time at Telecom when we were running programmes for the top hundred [a leadership programme]. I was assuming that when we asked people: ‘Do you want to be CEO?’ – because that was my impression of the peer group that I’d gone through business school with … And if you’d asked me: ‘Do these people want to be CEOs?’, I’d have said ‘yes’ … So, I’m assuming that a group coming through the ‘100 people’ were like we were, that they were ambitious and they wanted to be CEOs. I remember being stunned that the percentage was much lower than I thought. Men and women choosing or valuing things like a balanced life – and let’s just leave aside what balanced life means – over let’s call it vertical ambition.”

She was stunned because she couldn’t understand it. Can she now? “Yes,” she says, but with a caveat: “It’s not for me. But I can understand it.”

This may indicate that she is less insensitive than she used to be. That she can see that not everyone is like her or those “people like us”. She chose not to have children. “I do need sleep and I never thought that I could manage it.” Also, she never desired children. “No. No.” That was lucky, then. “Yeah! It was. Ha, ha.” Cats are nicer. “They’re not nicer, but they are easier!”

There was some talk about her running as a right-wing candidate against Phil Goff for the Auckland mayoralty, and she did briefly consider it. “I think he would have won. He had the deepest and best name recognition.” She thought about it too late to have thrown all she had at a mayoralty bid and if she can’t throw all she has at a thing, she doesn’t do it.

With My Food Bag chef Nadia Lim.

Giving back

Her latest thing, worldwomen17, is a non-profit venture. She is involved because “I’m passionate about women’s stuff. I always have been and I’ve got the time and the energy.” She believes in “giving back”; she thinks people who have made a lot of money should. “I also believe it’s good karma to do so. I really believe that. Call it good grace, call it good karma, call it whatever you want – keeping the energy moving around.”

She is “a retired Catholic” who believes in heaven and God. “Of course I do. I believe there’s something beyond the five senses. So I don’t believe that when you die, that’s it.”

I don’t know what else she believes, but she reads some odd books. Her reading stack has Diana Cooper’s Discover Atlantis – how to harness its unique powers for yourself. “Yes. That’s interesting.” How’s the harnessing going? “Ha, ha. I don’t know if I need any more unique powers.”

The Cooper books are among her “latest things”. A New Light on Ascension is another title. And a sample quote from Love Life, Live Life: “If you drive on the roads without understanding the Highway Code, you will have a confusing and difficult journey.”

Honestly, why is she reading this rubbish? “It’s not rubbish. It’s interesting. I’ve got a very wide reading interest. Have you not noticed? You’re judging.”

We went upstairs to meet the cats. Archie stuck his tongue out at me. If I didn’t know better, I’d have said she sent a telepathic message telling him to do it. He’s just like her – sticking his tongue out at the world. “Yeah. He goes his own way, does Archie.”

Read more: Theresa Gattung's five secrets to success

This article was first published in the February 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.