Why every creative kid will soon want to study in Gisborne

Fiona Fraser

Fiona Fraser

A tech hub throws opens its doors in 2021, offering those local to Tairāwhiti – and out of region students too – the opportunity to learn and intern in the field of animation.

Shanon O’Connor has unicorns in her sights. “There are so few Māori women in tech, that it’s not even a statistic that is recorded,” she says.

But O’Connor and her team are set to open that door. With tech contributing around $8b to the New Zealand economy annually, she says it’s high time for Toro – a national centre of excellence for creative tech production that will connect school-leavers (and those retraining) with the skills, hands-on experience and mentorship to thrive in the animation industry. It’s an opportunity, she says, to encourage diversity in the industry, and she’s looking forward to seeing more Māori coming through in the stats in the near future. It’s a low base to work from – fewer then 5% of those currently working in tech are Māori.  “We will be actively disrupting those percentages.”

Shanon O’Connor of Toro

O’Connor, whose career spans web and content development, teaching and entrepreneurship, is also behind TŌNUI Collab, a STEAM education specialist facility for tamariki, which welcomes 60-70 students through its doors 40 weeks of the year. Toro is a natural extension of the fine work O’Connor is already doing and she can’t wait to get started.

“We’ve been seeing amazing creativity from our young people – there is certainly no lack of talent or aspiration,” O’Connor says. “But what happens – and this is a global pattern – is that we struggle to be what we can’t see. And in this region, kids can’t see opportunities in tech around us.  We needed to create a way that that could happen.”

Toro is the coming together of industry and education. Led by O’Connor, Nikora Ngaropo of Young Animators and formerly of Weta Digital, Barry Soutar of T3W and Sam Witters of Fuzzy Duckling, it harnesses the expertise and influence of 22 globally renowned companies that have all demonstrated a commitment to basing some of their operations in Tairāwhiti. These are names that will be familiar to many of us – Greenstone Television, Kiwa Digital and Augusto, for instance. It’s a tonne of talent for a small New Zealand city and it’s hugely exciting. “What’s really crucial for us is that we’re housed in a space where the production companies are also visible to our young people. We want them to walk down the hallway, look through a glass door and be able to check out what’s happening in real time.”

But O’Connor is at pains to point out what Toro is not. “This is not some kind of industry pop-up. Toro creates jobs and then builds and develops the skillset so that those jobs can be filled from within the region,” she explains. “Young people will be able to train and then immediately work on projects through internships, moving further through the career pathway as they progress. And when I say interns, they’re not going be making cups of tea and running around fetching water. Our interns will be actively involved with our animation and production partners.”

All without leaving Gisborne. Why is that important? “It’s beautiful here and we have an amazing lifestyle, but when we get the brain drain it’s because people leave for work or for training. Now, you can have the lifestyle you want, but additionally aspire to new things, without leaving your whenua. We have a lot of forestry and agricultural opportunities, but we needed to diversify what was happening in our economy.”

Rangatahi from Gisborne checking out TŌNUI Collab

Toro, which has attracted support from Trust Tairāwhiti and the Gisborne District Council, features in the economic recovery plan for the region. “It’s seen as an opportunity to be lifting up and diversifying the skillset.”

The reaction from the local community and the tech world has been purely positive, says O’Connor. “The appetite from rangatahi is huge. To be able to do something like this excites them. When they see cool things on screen, the idea that they could be part of that and be the creators of that excites them.”

And with Covid continuing to throw practical challenges New Zealand’s way, Toro will be part of the solution to not just the growth of the local economy, but the tech sector overall. “There’s currently a huge demand for new content. And our ability to develop new content is easier in the animation space. Animation has been on the up for many years – not just screen animation but game development and applications in advertising marketing, consumer content and so on. Aotearoa should continue looking at tech as a weightless export, allowing us to keep working and building relationships and trade with other countries, even when we have restrictions upon us.”

Fiona Fraser

Fiona Fraser

Fiona Fraser spent 18 years as a journalist and editor before founding Contentment Agency, her content and public relations business. From first getting behind a radio sound desk as a teenager, to thrashing podcasts as an adult, she appreciates the myriad ways tech can enhance communication and connection.

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