Within New Zealand’s investment community, Ngaio Merrick has a reputation for being refreshingly direct. Alongside her ability to quickly forge genuine relationships, it is her knack for connecting with people and being exceptionally kind that she credits for her success in the investment sector, and it has played a part in her becoming New Zealand’s first female founding partner in a deep-tech venture capital fund.
There are three things Ngaio credits for her direct yet kind manner of engaging with people. Like her venture fund partner Adrien Gheur, she experienced a nomadic childhood. After being born in Singapore, Ngaio lived all over Asia and Europe, moving every 8-9 months with her family and being forced to make new friends at many primary schools. Secondly, she started attending boarding school at age 9, and was similarly thrust into a situation where she had to rely on herself. Her parents weren’t there to catch her, and she learned quickly how to stand on her own two feet.
Her youthful education continued when she began studying physics, maths, and computer science at university in Orlando, Florida at the tender age of 16. She felt out of her depth emotionally, physically, and culturally. As a foreigner she was a novelty, and the fact that she in her own words “looked about 12” made her even more so. These formative experiences provided her with the ability to speak her mind with confidence.
“Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was constantly having to figure things out for myself. Combine that with being the only sister to three boisterous brothers and I learned to stand my ground pretty quickly.”
She came to New Zealand on a holiday after finishing university and fell in love with the country, happily staying more than thirty years. She began her journey selling technical computing software (finite element analysis, computational fluid dynamics, and mining software) before becoming General Manager of an accounting software company. That led to a position within an economic development agency in Auckland’s North shore, where she learned about the role of venture capital in taking good ideas and turning them into tangible and scalable solutions to problems. As a scientist, she was fascinated by those who were using technology to solve problems for people and the planet, and she loved working with start-ups that were moving quickly and building new things.
Despite her science background Ngaio is equally fascinated by people, a trait which she nurtured by adding a Diploma of Journalism to her pursuits in tertiary study. She maintains that the skills learned within are the most commonly used elements of her education, explaining that venture capital, at its core, is a people game.
“The only thing that matters to me is people, without exception. Everything else is stuff and noise. Oh, I also love spreadsheets, but don’t tell anybody.”
In 2012 Ngaio caught the eye of Sir David Levene, the manager of the family paint-business-turned-home-decorating-chain that was a big part of New Zealand’s retail landscape between the 1950’s and the early 90’s, and she soon found herself employed as his Portfolio & Investment Manager.
Within that role, which she continues to this day alongside the fund, she learned a lot about what it takes to be an effective venture capital investor. Ngaio has come to understand how critical the founder and the team are to the likely success of a company, and appreciates how the ecosystem has matured and become more collaborative than it was when she first started out. It’s also notable that she has carved out a niche for herself in an industry typically dominated by men.
“I do notice if I walk into an all-male room and then I quickly move on. I’m not here because I’m a woman, I’m here because of who I am. I have a different dynamic with male founders than some of my male investor peers, and I think that has sometimes worked out well for both sides.”
Ngaio spends time and energy giving back to ecosystem development, running relevant workshops without fee, mentoring women, and encouraging them to enter the market. She believes there is less of a glass ceiling issue in the venture capital community, but more of a glass wall - it’s hard to get in, but once you’re there, it’s a much more level playing field than other industries. She’s encouraged by seeing how many women with science and technology backgrounds are entering the early stage entrepreneurial ecosystem across New Zealand.
Ngaio largely credits her success in investing to the highly specific and thorough process of due diligence that she follows with founders. Being incredibly discerning when it comes to picking people is a trait she shares with Adrien Gheur and Andrew Williams, respectively her founding partner at Nuance Connected Capital and cornerstone investor representing Alvarium. She had met Adrien a few times before serendipitously entering into talks with him to help co-found the fund. He had initially been talking with her about investing, but when her work load with Sir David Levene’s fund was lessening and she was looking for a next move, the talks turned quickly to co-founding. Andrew, who is Co-founder and Chair of Alvarium, had also been chatting with Ngaio about launching a new fund and the rest is history.
Ngaio’s brief for living is that if you can be kind, be kind now because you might not get the opportunity again. She jokes that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern borrowed the “be kind” motto from her. While she is described by some as “a little scary” before you get to know her, there is an authenticity and kindness that lies beneath. These character traits have seen her come to be known in some circles as a Mallowpuff - a delicious cookie popular in New Zealand with a hard chocolate exterior and a gooey marshmallow centre.
Alongside her direct and honest manner, travelling the world as a child provided her with a few more handy attributes. While a lot of people tolerate change, Ngaio gets ridiculously excited about it. Whether a new version of software, rearranging furniture in the house, or launching a new venture she embraces change wholeheartedly. She also places very little value on material goods and doesn’t do hero worship. She admires people who have triumphed over adversity, particularly parents who have seriously sick children - a reflection of her own experiences with her two children who regularly required hospitalisation when they were young.
“Having unwell children is a real leveller. You realise what’s important in life, and what isn’t. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I’m a veritable fortress.
In launching Nuance Connected Capital, Ngaio is most excited about letting the world in on a secret that she has known for a long time - the latent talent of Kiwi entrepreneurs who think outside the box, tackle the big problems, punch above their weight, and continue to succeed against the odds. She is looking forward to making strategic introductions into the right international markets and seeing what New Zealand’s top entrepreneurs might do with a healthy dose of early stage capital to take their ideas global.