27 Jul 2015

Giving a way of life - Vanisa Dhiru

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 27 July 2015

Giving is a way of life for Vanisa Dhiru. Helping the homeless and women's rights are among many causes championed by this inspirational Indian New Zealander.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle follows Vanisa as she fires up students at Victoria University to become leaders and givers too.

Many people label others by their ethnicity, gender and age. If you can turn this around, turn the negative into positive – then you make it empowering.

Vanisa Dhiru tells me she was “born and bred in Palmerston North.” She came from “humble beginnings” and today she is a leader and “mover and shaker” in the not-for-profit community in New Zealand. And it started in a dairy – the kind that many Indian families still own and run around the country today.

Vanisa’s parents owned one such corner dairy in Palmerston North. Her Indian father emigrated from Gujarat, Northern India in 1975 and married her New Zealand born Indian mum.

Open seven days a week and working very long hours, Gujarati speaking Vanisa and her brother were shop helpers from a very young age. But these were fun days says Vanisa and their family were happy to grow the family business together – a close knit and hard working team.

Now at 34, “giving” has been a way of life for Vanisa. Making Wellington a “Fair Trade City”, long term help for the homeless and gender equality are among many causes she has championed over the last decade. 

I’m at Victoria University attending her 'Women in Leadership' guest speaking event with the Victoria Plus programme. For the 50 mostly female students in the room Vanisa is an inspirational role model, currently the Executive Director of the 2020 Trust and Vice-President of the National Council of Women NZ. Her resume includes leading and advisory roles at Volunteering NZ, the Red Cross and the YWCA.

We took a walk and talk through the busy quad after her guest speaking role, the perfect place to interview Vanisa – as a Victoria University Alumni. She explained how her childhood shaped her drive in life. “We learned how to count by counting money and learned to read by reading the chippy packet names. Customers would help us if we didn’t know the answers.”

We were the only Indians at our high school, so I thought how can I use this experience to help others? Today I like to mentor women of different ethnicities to take labels and turn them around, use them to their advantage. Be empowered.

After finishing University and while working at her first job in NZ Trade and Enterprise Vanisa got onto the NZ Leadership institute with 60 other young people from around the country. This was the seed of her 10 year plan to work within the not-for-profit and voluntary sector and then become a leader in these organisations (her 10 year plan was accomplished in 5 years).

In 2010 Vanisa Dhiru was one of 3 finalists in the Young New Zealander of the Year award.

Vanisa campaigned to make the capital a fair trade city and volunteered in an Indian orphanage up to this time.

Vanisa did a leadership course in 2006 that encouraged her to challenge herself. She credits the leadership course for helping her to realise how she could make a difference. "Somebody gave me an opportunity, you need to take every opportunity and grow them." She has even been a beauty queen.

Entering the beauty contest Miss India New Zealand, Vanisa used the pageant as a platform to champion a worthy cause. "I didn't want to be Miss Indian Dairy, so I was Miss Trade Aid."

Terrified of public speaking she decided that this would be the ultimate test, especially if her audience were aunties from her own community. At 29 Vanisa won Miss Photogenic and Miss Community Services at the competition, raising more than $1000 for Wellington Trade Aid.

During this time Vanisa went to India and Bangladesh with Trade Aid to gain first-hand experience of its activities, sharing these stories with schools, community and business groups to promote Fair Trade. She worked on the Make Wellington Fair Trade campaign too. Subsequently Wellington City Council passed a resolution to make the capital a Fair Trade City.

Vanisa was also President of the YWCA of Wellington and Hutt Valley and helped set up a leadership programme called Discover, linking schoolgirls with mentors.  During this time she trained to be a justice of the peace, was on the board of Dress for Success Wellington. She became very active in women's and ethnic groups, interested in women's development.

Why not for profit?

“I was doing a lot of volunteer work while in the government and I was on many boards; YWCA, Fair Trade, Volunteer New Zealand, before becoming a leader in those organisations.”

Not for profit is about making our society good, equal rights, equal opportunities...I wanted to make it my life. I’ve got a lot to add. Part of me wanted to steal all the secrets from the corporate and government world and take them back to the not-for-profit and make a real difference.

Are there more barriers for ethnic minority women in our society?

“If we take the gender issue there are some glass ceilings in some industries but some women put the ceiling there for themselves in the first place. The added layer of ethnicity – it can either work for or against you. It can be as simple as the barrier of people not being able to pronounce your name. It can be the barrier of English as a second language, but work to overcome these and make the labels your own.”

The service and leadership “Victoria Plus” programme has around 900 students across all disciplines with up to 400 students engaging in volunteering around Wellington at any one time. Assistant Manager, Careers and Employment, Victoria University, Jane Fletcher tells me that Vanisa has been inspiring students for the last six years.

Touasi Tiwok is currently doing her Masters at Victoria University. Touasi is from Vanuatu. She found Vanisa’s words of encouragement particularly inspirational. Touasi plans to take Vanisa’s pearls of wisdom back to Vanuatu, so she can become a leader within her own community in environmental planning – fulfilling Vanisa’s own dreams by doing so.