Intrepid Journeys: An Interview with Nathalie Harrington

14 September 2017

It could be said that Nathalie Harrington’s journey began in 2001 when her mum took a job as an English teacher in a rural high school in Liuyang County, Hunan Province.

Nathalie Harrington

Nathalie Harrington

Her intrepid mum, took Nathalie, then aged nine years, all the way from Hamilton to begin a new life in China. Intending only to stay for six months, they fell in love with the lifestyle and ended up staying for several years. Nathalie vividly describes what her life was like:

“I attended the local village primary school. There were only 85 kids at the school (including the kindergarteners). I was in a class of 12. The school, being rural and pretty poor, only had electricity in the staff room and very few intact window panes, let alone any form of heating! We got to school by walking for a few kilometres, mainly through rice paddies.”

After 18 months in Liuyang, the little family moved to Fuzhou City, the capital of Fujian Province on the East Coast. Here, Nathalie’s mum took up a position as Head of the English Department at a local university. After another 18 months, Nathalie celebrated her 12th birthday and the decision was made to continue her intermediate and secondary schooling in New Zealand, so she moved back to Hamilton.

Besides providing her with a fantastic multicultural experience, her three years in China had also enabled her to become fluent in Mandarin. This established the foundations for her achieving a Law Degree and a BA majoring in Chinese and Public Policy from Victoria University of Wellington. After a short stint travelling, Nathalie took up a position with law firm, Russell McVeagh, where she has gained experience in both the Litigation team and Corporate Advisory Group.

When Nathalie was selected as one of the ten recipients of the inaugural Minister for Youth’s International Leadership Award in 2016, her fluency in Mandarin came to the fore. The ten young leaders travelled to China as part of a Ministerial delegation to increase and deepen their knowledge about innovation, technology and entrepreneurship in a country with a burgeoning start-up scene. Nathalie and her peers joined 40 other young entrepreneurs and change makers from New Zealand, where they took part in the China New Zealand Young Leaders Forum.

While in Beijing, the youth delegation visited Huawei’s Research and Development Centre, and attended a lunch and New Zealand Embassy networking function with Beijing-based young entrepreneurs working in tech, innovation, and social enterprise.

The group ended their time in China with a one-day programme in Shanghai which gave the group a taste of the city’s growing start-up scene. This included a site visit to local incubator XNode and a roundtable session with Shanghai-based entrepreneurs. The group also attended an event at New Zealand Central, which provided a great opportunity to network and meet with the wider New Zealand community in Shanghai.

She learned a great deal from the experience.

“Through conversations with experienced Chinese businesspeople who have done business in New Zealand, I learned a lot about how New Zealand lawyers can better work with Chinese investors here. We talked about the lack of understanding about Chinese culture and business practices and also about where Chinese investors need particular guidance navigating aspects of New Zealand that are not as they expected. There are some simple steps New Zealand lawyers (and people in all manner of professional services, for that matter) can take in order to better work with Chinese companies,” she says.

“It was also a good reminder of the benefits of speaking another language. Speaking Mandarin has given me wonderful opportunities all throughout university and now in the workplace – it is still relatively rare in New Zealand so it continues to be a point of difference.”

You can read about some of the other insights gained by the young leaders in a previous Youth Matters article.

An important element of selection for the Minister for Youth’s International Leadership Award was to use the experience to inspire, mentor and foster ongoing leadership opportunities for other young people. Nathalie has embraced this duty wholeheartedly.

“Since returning, I have been motivated to be more involved in Asia-related activities. I have attended many Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network events and, more recently, have become the Vice President of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand China Friendship Society (NZCFS). Our aim at present in the NZCFS is to engage with more young people with an interest in China, particularly those at university as well as young professionals. The younger members on the committee are working hard to plan and host a range of events (from informal hotpot dinners to panel discussions and networking events) that attract a young audience. This is in recognition of the fact that many young people are aware that China is an important trade partner but have few opportunities to learn about the country or to be exposed to opportunities to work there.”

Nathalie has a history of volunteering. She spent four years as a volunteer interviewer at Volunteer Wellington, and three years as a Board member. She loved her hands-on role as an interviewer:

“It involved talking to people from all walks of life who, for whatever reason, had decided they wanted to volunteer their time in the community. My task was to understand their motivation for volunteering and to refer them to organisations that were looking for volunteers where I thought they would be a good match.”

She has also volunteered with the Wellington Community Justice Project and now volunteers regularly at the Wellington Community Law Centre.

Her plans for the future are to continue to play a role in the development of the New Zealand-China relationship, while always bearing in mind the importance of her work as a lawyer.

“I don't want to lose sight of the incredible privilege it is to be a lawyer and the opportunities lawyers have to empower communities. It is for this reason that organisations like Wellington Community Law Centre are so crucial to maintaining the integrity of our legal system by making sure that more people know, and can stand up for, their rights.”

This young woman is certainly going places: it would appear that she has many intrepid journeys ahead.