Business Hub: Cecilia Tarrant on giving back and building up future business leaders

Cecilia Tarrant knows the value of being able to study abroad at a university.

It was her masters degree in law at Berkeley at the University of California which helped launch a 20-year international career in real estate financing in New York and London working for global investment banks Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley.

But Tarrant, who recently took up the reins as chancellor on the University of Auckland’s council – a role similar to chairing a board – knows it is also not a simple path to get more international students into New Zealand to study with borders under strict restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is a lot of people lining up for spaces in MIQ,” says Tarrant, who also sits on the board of kiwifruit packhouse company Seeka.

“The shortage of RSEs compared to what they would normally have had for harvest has made it challenging for them.

“At the university we recognise we are just one of the groups competing for MIQ places – but with international students it’s not simply a matter of MIQ places – it’s also a question of getting them visas, flights and having all those things marry up together.

“It’s a lot more complicated than just – are there spaces in MIQ?”

While the university’s finances have not been as badly affected as it first anticipated Tarrant says it has had to make some tough choices this year including calling for voluntary redundancies from staff.

Staff have also been stretched by the fact that some international students have continued to study with the university while staying overseas, meaning lecturers have to do both online classes and physical classes when Auckland isn’t in a lockdown.

“It is placing more stress on staff.”

Tarrant says an increase in domestic enrolments this year has helped its finances.

“We don’t expect that will be sustainable but the Government has been good at funding higher numbers of domestic students this year, so we are in a better financial position than we expected to be.

“But we do expect that major impacts are yet to come. Our forecasting indicates there will be longer-term impacts as there is a slower return of international students to the campus and as the students who are studying offshore on reduced tuition fees – as they finish their degrees.

“People aren’t going to want to start studying offshore if there is no likelihood of them actually studying onshore. We would expect you will see a lower return of international students and lower numbers.”

Tarrant says there are a number of impacts this could have on the university in terms of making sure it is sustainable financially.

“One of those could be we may have to increase class sizes and that could then have a knock-on effect to rankings as staff/student ratio is quite important to that. There is a lot of consequences around potential longer-term financial impacts.”

And she is worried about the university attracting fewer masters and doctorate students who carry out important research.

“As a research-led uni those researchers are incredibly important to Auckland [and] the impact it makes on New Zealand.”

Tarrant took over as chancellor in June from former investment banker Scott St John. But she has connections to the university going back to when she was a student undertaking a conjoint law and arts degree.

Back then she never imagined she would end up as its chancellor.

“I’m not sure I even understood what the council was and even knew the difference between the chancellor and vice-chancellor – and that is something that has been interesting to explain to people that effectively the chancellor is the chair whereas the vice-chancellor is the equivalent of a CEO.”

Tarrant grew up in Waitomo township where her parents ran the general store and her mum sold souvenirs out of a caravan parked opposite the glow worm tourist attraction.

She came to Auckland for high school boarding at St Dominics in Henderson before going to university.

“I wasn’t even sure when I started studying law whether I would become a lawyer.”

After law school she got a job in Simpson Grierson’s litigation team and became convinced it was definitely the right career for her.

Two years later Tarrant was keen to study overseas and applied and was accepted to a number of universities in the UK and the US before choosing to go to Berkeley.

“At the time it was difficult to get a work visa in the US but if you went and studied you would then have the opportunity to work for a short period of time.”

Tarrant moved to San Francisco to work for a property financier after her study and her work with investment banks then led to a move to New York to work for Credit Suisse First Boston.

“They were looking for someone who was a real estate lawyer to join them, not as an in-house lawyer but as an investment banker, and I jumped at the chance.”

But it was a bit of an adjustment moving to the Big Apple, especially in January in the peak of winter.

“I had never lived in snow before. I remember an American friend in New York calling me up at one stage and it was the weekend and it was snowing outside and I was inside and she said ‘what are you doing?’

“I said ‘I’m sitting inside’. She said ‘if you are only sitting inside because it is snowing outside put your coat on and go outside because that is what you have got to do’.”

Like many Kiwis living overseas Tarrant connected with other New Zealanders in New York and through that connected with Auckland University again as they hosted events for alumni.

She was approached to set up the US friends of the university – which enabled people living in the US to make donations to the university and still get a US tax deduction. “I was the first chair of that charity.”

When she moved to London after moving to a new job with Morgan Stanley, she also set up the UK version of the charity to raise funds for the university through former students living in London.

At the height of her career in London Tarrant helped set up the financing for Canary Wharf – a huge new business district in London housing many UK arms of global finance companies.

But it was also while working there that the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008.

“It was a very challenging time. Essentially I spent 2008 working with clients on solutions for some of the challenges in their transactions. Lehman Brothers was in the building next to Morgan Stanley at Canary Wharf so we saw all the people from Lehman Brothers leaving when Lehman was closed down – they were a major tenant in the estate which had a big impact on the transaction we had done to finance the estate.

“There was a lot of work that needed to be done. I worked a lot of long hours in investment banking. At the end of 2007 and through 2008 we had to lay off a lot of people and eventually ultimately I was laid off myself – you just kept cutting and cutting and cutting and eventually you were cut because my business had closed down. There wasn’t any financing of real estate going on.”

While Tarrant could have stayed in London to do other work she decided it was time to try to live back in her home country.

“I had always intended to come home. Never saw myself as someone who was going to stay away forever, even though I had been away for over 20 years – but I always came back to visit every year.”

She began doing volunteer work with the university’s charitable arm and through that met people, which helped her re-establish local work networks again, enabling her to step into governance roles at the likes of Fletcher Building.

Tarrant also became the executive in residence at the university’s business school where she helped found a mentoring programme linking female business studies students with local businesswomen. The programme is now in its 11th year and has been expanded to the law school as well.

Alongside that she chairs ArcAngels – a network that helps support and fund female entrepreneurs trying to get businesses off the ground.

Tarrant says women entrepreneurs find it harder to access funding and, despite there being greater emphasis on a level playing field for women coming out of university into the workforce, it still hasn’t solved the lack of women in top executive roles.

“We need to keep encouraging women to take those senior roles because what women really need to see is role models – that somebody else has got there and I can get there too.”

Tarrant says when she was more junior in her legal and banking career she didn’t see gender inequality as an issue.

“When I got more senior in investment banking it was more of a shock to me.

“I described myself as having hit the glass ceiling and reverberated off it because it was definitely there.”

Fortunately she got support from other senior women and a supportive male mentor to help her navigate through the promotion process.

Tarrant says her advice to other women trying to get into top corporate roles is to back themselves.

“When opportunities are presented they have to seize them.”

While Tarrant is using her corporate experience to give back her knowledge via governance roles she says it is also a very rewarding place to be in.

“I’ve had a lot of support in my career so it’s fabulous to be able to give back … but I get an enormous amount out of it myself … to interact with the entrepreneurs who have so much passion for their inventions and for the things they are doing and then to interact with the investors, some who have varied backgrounds, a lot of whom are like myself -have spent time overseas – it adds up to a very rich life.”

Cecilia Tarrant

• Chancellor of the University of Auckland
Age: 60
Family: Is close to her brother, his wife and their two sons who are seven and 10.
Education: Conjoint Bachelor of Laws and Arts degrees from the University of Auckland, Masters in Law from Berkeley, University of California
Career: First job with Simpson Grierson before moving to the US to study and then getting a job at Csaplar & Bok, a real estate financing firm in San Francisco. In 1992 moved to New York to work for Credit Suisse First Boston and then Morgan Stanley in 1997 where she worked in New York and London. Came back to New Zealand in 2009 and moved into governance roles. Currently chairs ArcAngels and New Zealand Green Investment Finance and sits on the boards of Seeka and Payments NZ. Was appointed Chancellor of the University of Auckland in June.
What was the last holiday you went on? Took my nephews to Wanaka for 10 days in the last school holidays
What was the last book you read? “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins
What was the last movie you saw?“Space Jam 2” with my nephews.

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