In Conversation with Mai Chen 

Mai Chen

Mai Chen is one of New Zealand’s most respected, admired and recognized leaders. A quick Google search will reveal her many impressive career and entrepreneurial achievements. Chen is the Managing Partner of Chen Palmer, Australasia’s first public law specialist firm, which she co-founded in 1994. She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Auckland School of Law and a BNZ Board Director. She is widely know as the "superdiversity" expert and founded the following organizations: New Zealand Asian Leaders, Superdiversity Institute for Law, Policy and Business and SUPER diverse WOMEN.

Mai is the best-selling author of Public Law Toolbox (2012), Transforming Auckland: The Creation of Auckland Council (2014), and the acclaimed Superdiversity Stocktake: Implications for Business, Government and New Zealand (2015).

We’re thrilled to have spoken with such an accomplished and multidimensional entrepreneur who embodies the power of Global Citizenry. We know you’ll be as inspired as we are after reading Elle’s conversation with Mai and we highly recommend you watch her TED talk right after.

Elle: In your brilliant TED talk, you talk about Adversity/Adaptability Quotient (AQ), the ability to adapt and thrive in an environment of change, and Cultural Quotient (CQ), the ability to communicate fully with people from different cultures. Would you attribute your inner drive and success in the many areas of your life to this?

Mai: I know I’m not the strongest, nor the smartest. If I have succeeded, it is because of my ability to adapt. But I’ve had no choice. There was no Chinese ethnoburb for me to slip into in Christchurch, New Zealand where we immigrated. We didn’t have any relatives in New Zealand and we had no friends to help us. So it was just my immediate family and we spoke no or very little English.

I had to adapt culturally, or we would not have successfully settled in New Zealand. You can only grow your CQ (and understand other people’s culture) if you understand your own culture. As a 1.5 generation New Zealander, what of me is Chinese? What of me is Kiwi? What is just unique to my family? What is attributable to growing up poor in the South Island of New Zealand or because my Dad was an Olympics Gymnastics Coach or my Mother being extraordinarily driven and ambitious for us to succeed? I am interested in CQ because I have been on my own cultural journey for a long time.

Elle: In 1994, you founded Chen Palmer – New Zealand’s first boutique law firm and one of the first to focus on legislation and public policy. You left your position as the youngest Senior Lecturer in Victoria University and like a true entrepreneur your mortgaged your house to do this. What was the easiest and hardest part of this decision you made at the time? And looking back what kept you going?

Mai: The easiest part was that I’d never been in private practice or run a business or been an employer before so I had no idea how hard it would be to set up Chen Palmer. The hardest part was that without experience and a law partner who also didn’t have experience in running a private law firm, we made a lot of mistakes. What kept me going was that it was the best job in the world due to the range of interesting work I could undertake from Chen Palmer. It was an amazing platform where I could practice and teach law and be an entrepreneur and research and write books and reports. I really like legal problem solving and getting justice for those who have been unfairly treated. I love advising on regulation and regulatory defence of clients. I kept going because I got better as I got more experienced and found I was well suited to private practice.

Elle: You manage a successful law practise, are a professor at the University of Auckland, and founded New Zealand Asian Leaders and the Super Diversity Institute for Law, Policy and Business. You have been married for thirty plus years and have a son. Are there any rocks you want to throw at your tiger now? [for those who have not seen the TED talk yet it means doing things that scare you.]

Mai: My current tigers are:

  • Only saying yes to what I am good at and what I love and letting go of what I “should” do, even if I am not interested nor particularly good at those things.
  • Saying no to anything that is inconsistent with who I am and what I believe.
  • Accepting that there are things I will never achieve, because I am not suited to them or I failed. 

    These things scare me because I have to accept I have limitations and that there are things I cannot achieve no matter how hard I try. I have to let go of opportunities, even if they may not come again because I am mortal. Making the most of my precious limited time on this earth requires me to focus on what really brings me joy and peace and is my Ikigai. As the Buddhists say, you do not know how long have.

    Elle: What is your vision for New Zealand Asian Leaders and SUPERdiverse WOMEN?

    Mai: My vision is to make visible what is invisible. Asians are often portrayed badly but they have a lot to contribute, and in fact contribute a lot. SUPERdiverse WOMEN need to be acknowledged as being doubly disadvantaged. I find being a woman hard, but I have found being Chinese even harder. Getting women on Boards is easier for Anglo-Saxon women than for ethnic women. We are just the one step too far because we look so different than the stereotype of a successful director. Both New Zealand Asian Leaders and SUPERdiverse WOMEN aim to help our members to succeed as they encounter more barriers than those who are less visually diverse. The most important vision is for the Superdiversity Institute which sits over both of these organisations. That vision is to make people think about the issues, challenges and benefits arising from the growing cultural and linguistic diversity of most countries around the world using New Zealand as an example. Auckland is the fourth most superdiverse city in the world with over 200 ethnicities and 160 languages being spoken.

    Elle: You championed a social media campaign in New Zealand called #myidentity. At Zvelle, we can relate to what you are championing as we talk about the idea of Global Citizenry. What was the response of this campaign?

    Mai: This was launched by the Governor-General and by a series run by the New Zealand Herald on #myidentity. I think identity is the next big idea in diversity. It’s not about women, it’s not about ethnicity or sexuality, but that we all have a unique identity. And that’s what distinguishes us from robots. It’s our unique identity that makes us diverse thinkers in a way that computers could never replicate. We need to focus on understanding each other’s unique identities and on growing our diverse thinking capability.

    Elle: One person living or dead you’d like to have a conversation with?

    Mai: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    Elle: What is your favorite word or phrase?

    Mai: "What if..."

    Elle: What does using your voice mean to you?

    Mai: Using your voice means being brave, choosing to take risks to make a difference, and choosing to care.

    Credits: Zvelle shoes. Top to bottom image: Anais Knee Boots (Black).

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