Big Interview: Pippa Mitchell and Jenson Varghese.

For this month’s Big Interview, we speak with MRCagney’s Technical Director, Pippa Mitchell, and their Managing Director, Jenson Varghese.

You’ll learn about MRCagney’s transition to becoming 100% Kiwi owned, and their insightful research undertaken to help understand the transport experiences of disabled people – plus key take-aways for you to consider. Learn why it’s so important to know your ‘why’ when it comes to your diversity and inclusion journey. And lastly, find out what areas of D&I are of particular importance to both Jenson and Pippa.

To begin, could you give us a brief overview of MRCagney and what you do?

Jenson: The definition I use is “social enterprise,” and that’s a bit of a buzzword. There are different definitions, but we exist primarily to make a positive difference, to do good. We do that through sustainable transport and urban planning. 

We’re a consultancy. We’re not a not-for-profit. We are a commercial for-profit organisation – but we use that ethos of wanting to do good to determine the types of projects we work on and the clients we work with.

And in that realm, we try to stick to our specialisation. 

Pippa: It’s funny, I think, that the way that sometimes comes across could be a little cliché. But it is genuinely true!

It’s hard to convey it in words that haven’t already been used in excess, particularly in the environment we’re in now. But it’s one of our core values – to make a difference, and we pick projects on the basis that we can make a difference with them.

Jenson: And by extension, we don’t work on projects that don’t align with those values either. These are projects that may have adverse environmental outcomes for example.

MRCagney recently celebrated becoming 100% Kiwi owned after 21 years of working across Aotearoa and Australia. So, what do you hope to see from this change in leadership structure?

Jenson: I think in the short term, it’s around focusing on trying to make Aotearoa a better place. We will still do work in Australia. We’ve got expertise here that is special in New Zealand, Australia, or even around the world. But right now, the reason for this is just looking to have a larger voice in how the business runs locally, and making it much more focused on this part of the world.

Pippa: I think people often lump Australia and New Zealand into the same bucket, but it is quite different. The decision-making processes, the way businesses run, the way government works in the two places is quite different. We knew we could do a lot here, and it was a fantastic opportunity to focus on that.

How does the relationship with Australia work now?

Jenson: We used to be a company with offices in Brisbane, Melbourne, Auckland, and we have a small office in Hamilton – and so now, we’ve separated the business. 

The New Zealand offices are now 100% Kiwi owned. The businesses in Australia still operate. They’ve rebranded to a different name. Now they’re called PMP Urbanists. So they’re still there. And we’ve got a good relationship with them and still try to work together on certain opportunities, but we are two separate companies now.

Last year, MRCagney, together with the Disabled Persons Assembly, researched understanding the transport experiences of disabled people, including barriers that exist, and exploration of new opportunities. Are you able just to tell us a little bit about this, how it came about, interesting findings, any advice you may have?

Pippa: So, this is an exciting project. Bridget Doran, who is the principal researcher, has a well-recognised reputation for working in this space. And Waka Kotahi often puts out calls for research, and it was a tender process.

Bridget felt passionate about the fact that it would be a terrific opportunity to do research where some of the researchers are themselves disabled. So we teamed up with the Disabled Persons Assembly to present research, in the tender effectively.

We had this very strange moment in the tendering process, where someone asked if it would be a conflict of interest to have disabled people in the research team… It was an interesting comment, and it certainly surprised us. It was worked through and was a non-issue. But it showed that there’s a real lack of understanding of this area and the critical importance to bring people who have lived experience into the process, the research, and the work.

Jenson: And, the fact that we’re paying them as consultants for their insights. So quite often they’re brought in as stakeholders where they just provide some inputs, effectively free of charge. That must change. 

Pippa: It’s been a great learning curve for us. We’ve worked with a disability policy expert who is blind, and we’ve had to learn a whole lot of things – making our systems more inclusive, recognising our own assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. It turned out to actually be easy to work with someone who is blind, and now we’re doing more work with him on other things. So it’s opening up a great set of experiences for us and it was an incredibly interesting piece of research.

There were a lot of workshops bringing people in from all over the country. We experienced huge learning curves in terms of organising those workshops, given that business as usual processes often exclude people in ways we hadn’t ever considered. We needed to ensure obvious things, including that people felt safe getting there, and that they felt they were understood. It was a massive learning opportunity, but incredibly insightful.

I was one of the internal reviewers for the report, and it covers a lot. It’s incredibly valuable because lots of people just make generalisations and assumptions in this space. What this does is put some numbers around the issue and get a range of views and a range of information in which there’s a massive gap.

It also makes some incredibly harrowing reading though. There are a lot of quotes in there and you realise “Wow, we’ve got a long, a long way to go.” It’s a good starting point though.

Do you have any advice for firms on how they can be more inclusive to the disabled community when designing structures?

Pippa: It’s getting the disabled community involved as more than a stakeholder. It’s even little things like our report, every image had a written description underneath it for the people that couldn’t see it. And there was an easy read version and New Zealand Sign Language option for a survey we ran. If you’re trying to communicate in an inclusive way, you need to recognise that what’s considered normal isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone. And these days, it’s not hard to be more inclusive. There are so many great tools out there, you just have to be genuinely committed.

I love that bit of advice about having those voices at the table – and paying them for their time rather than bringing them in as a stakeholder free of charge.

Jenson: The other thing I would add is it’s easy to assume that we can design what works well for all users. That’s something the industry’s guilty of. You used to hear terms like, “We need more access for people with disabilities, because when I’m pushing my child in a pram, I know how hard it is.” And you know, that’s not the same.

Some of the stories that came out of this study were heart-breaking, where people are forced to stay inside their homes because somebody’s put a signpost right outside the one ramp, they need to get past to get out.

There’s a long way to go. As an industry, we can be guilty of assuming we can put ourselves in their perspective, but it’s not that easy to do. Lived experience matters!

In terms of all the different facets of D&I, do you think that properly catering for our disabled community is an area we’re not as far along in the journey, and needs to be focused on?

Jenson: Yeah. And you know, you’ve got standards. There have been standards for years. But they’re minimums, like a lot of engineering approaches are. And there’s always some strange justification at some point to not provide it, or they value engineered it out because it would cost more. So, unfortunately, we see those standards get taken out too easily.

MRCagney is a small, medium-sized firm who are taking D&I very seriously. We hear a lot from our smaller firms that given there’s often less resource, it can be hard to make moves in this space. Do you have any advice from these smaller firms on how to get started?

Jenson: I think the biggest thing for us, for me, was truly understanding the benefits, or the why you do it. 

It’s around diverse perspectives, which ends up meaning that you’re providing a better outcome for your clients. You’re managing risk because you have different voices that think differently and are comfortable enough to raise those different perspectives.

So, I think the biggest thing is understanding why you’re doing it. It can’t just be diversity and inclusion because that’s the buzzword right now and that’s what everyone’s doing. 

If you genuinely understand why you’re doing it, and why it needs to be done, and why your company will benefit from it, that goes a long way towards helping you set up and evolve to adapt.

So agreed, it’s not easy. But I think the why needs to be a big driver for an organisation or change in this area.

Sounds simple, but just true and effective. It’s just understanding why. Do you have anything to add to that Pippa? 

Pippa: It’s driving that point home. So for example, we signed up to the Diversity Accord. We also signed up to Pride Pledge, and that’s been an interesting process. You’ve got to have the leadership buy-in to this. You’ve got to be clear on your why, because otherwise it doesn’t get done. You need that buy-in.

Pride Pledge has been awesome. They’ve got such a range of resources – on how you measure things, how you survey things, how you run things. There are some great tools out there with these organisations, if you sign up, they can help you. 

I went to a Pride Pledge workshop last week, and most of the organisations there were huge. But they shared and they were so generous with their information.

It does take quite a commitment as a smaller company to make sure you have the time and the willingness to do it, especially when there are competing priorities. But when you commit to these things, they support you well.

So just utilising those networks and utilising those resources available.

Jenson, you have been Managing Director since mid last year. And in your leadership term so far, you’ve become a signatory to the Accord, and appointed to our inaugural steering committee. D&I is clearly very important to you. Obviously, all aspects of D&I are very important, but are there any areas you hold close or feel very passionate about?

Jenson: I was born and raised in Samoa. I studied at uni in Auckland and then went back to Samoa and worked there for a while. So, having more Pasifika representation at the leadership level is important.

It’s tricky because culturally, Pasifika tend to be a lot quieter. And in our industry, it tends to be the louder voices that get heard and are in the positions of influence. And so, it’s that question around how you can get those diverse perspectives at the leadership table, and also within the broader industry?

Pasifika people are underrepresented in engineering and transport planning. So that’s the area I’m most interested in. Ensuring there are more Pasifika voices in this space. Ensuring those voices are heard.

That’s interesting what you said about the cultural element – Pasifika tend to be humble and quieter – so often don’t put themselves forward as much. That’s something we’ve heard from other Pasifika engineers and architects over the years. Do you think that it might be something for our leaders to focus on – enabling and empowering our Pasifika people to put themselves forward for those leadership positions? 

Jenson: That’s part of it. The other part of it is also recognising what you’re looking for when you’re hiring somebody or appointing for leadership positions. If the people who are making the hiring decision have a loud communication style then they might have an internal bias when looking for potential recruits.

Somebody may not interview as well because they’re a little quieter or more considered. So, it’s looking at how you ensure that the system isn’t structurally biased towards a particular personality or culture, and Pasifika is just one example of that. But it applies across the board in terms of that diversity. To achieve diversity, you’ve got to ensure that your systems are set up to allow that to happen and to thrive.

Pippa, so you’re a technical director at MRCagney, and recently became an owner. So as a woman in a male-dominated consulting and transport sector, what are your observations of diversity? How are we doing? And do you have any advice for how you can see the profession not only becoming more diverse, but inclusive?

Pippa: It’s certainly changing for the better, but I think I’d pick up on the point Jenson just made. 

Like last week International Women’s Day, I went along to a couple of sessions, and they were about how to be assertive and how to present clearly. And I mean, that’s good for anyone in a way, but it all comes back to us changing our behaviours to fit into the system as it currently is.

There’s been a lot of focus on STEM at high school and university – so we have a lot more young women and gender diverse people coming into the industry, but they’re not making it through. They’re barely getting to the intermediate level. There’s virtually no one at the senior level. And I’ve been asked how come you’ve made it? What’s the difference? And there’s no one thing. I’ve had great male champions, including people like Jenson. But the system needs to change.

Last week, I was listening to all these things about International Women’s Day and going to a Pride Pledge workshop – and it made me think – if anything, what we need to do is get a whole lot of people to do workshops on listening!

It’s not simply about how you present, how you run a meeting, or how you do your professional development. If anything, everyone needs to learn to actually listen to what the person is saying. Not what you think they’re saying, not judging them because they take a little bit of time to say it, or they’re more deferring in how they say it.

You miss so much by not actually listening properly to people’s voices. 

The system must change and there’s some positive work happening, but unless we get the people within the system at the moment to also change their skill sets and change the way they think, we will keep hitting roadblocks.

The conversation’s moving a lot faster than it used to, and that’s exciting. I’m learning a whole new world. I’ve been focused on women, but now with gender diversity and the wonderful people at our company, I’m learning, there’s a much bigger issue. And that’s where I came with that sort of listening reflection. I really do feel like there is starting to be a bit of momentum behind the shift in D&I. So that’s encouraging – but there’s a fair way to go. We need to stay the course.

If you’re a Diversity Agenda member with a great story to tell, please get in touch.

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