Watch out – futurist warns Covid-19 won’t be the last pandemic

Serial technology entrepreneur, foresight practitioner and professional director Melissa Clark-Reynolds talks to Jane Phare about success, failure and why pandemics worse than Covid-19 will befall the planet.

Back in 1980, Melissa Clark-Reynolds saw her first glimpse into the future. It was a clunky mainframe computer at Massey University, slow and inefficient by today’s standards. Nevertheless, the 15-year-old was spellbound.

There before her was a powerful tool she knew she could use for the rest of her life.

Computers would springboard her 25-year career as a technology specialist, developing software and building programs including MiniMonos, an online virtual world for kids, and earn her a New Zealand Order of Merit for services to technology.

It would turn her into an early hacker in the late 80s, accessing Victoria University’s book catalogue system. It wasn’t difficult, she says, hooting with laughter.

“Pretty much every librarian in the universe, their password is either ‘password’ or the name of their cat.”

In 1986, Clark-Reynolds was the only person she knew who owned a modem. “It was about 30 kilos worth and cost me about $15,000.”

And computers would fuel an obsession with patterns, those early signals that happen today but are glimpses of the future.

That would lead to the second part of her working life as a futurist and strategist, helping companies prepare for the best, and the worst. It would be invaluable when a coronavirus called Covid-19 first reared its head in China.

“If you stop and look you can see patterns coming long before other people see them,” Clark-Reynolds says from her Wellington home, high up on Mt Victoria. “That could be human behaviour or maths patterns. That the sort of stuff I get geeky about.”

It was those early Covid-19 signals that put Clark-Reynolds on high alert back in early December 2019.

As a professional director on several boards and working with companies on future strategy through her company FutureCentre.NZ, she encouraged her boards and clients to take notice too.

This virus that had jumped from animal host to human host would also jump borders. That it would land in New Zealand was a given. It was a matter of when.

Clark-Reynolds knew disruption was coming. The question was how best to cope with it and, where appropriate, how to turn that disruption into an opportunity.

“By mid-December, I had pretty much got most of my clients and my boards thinking about Covid.” By early February, pandemic plans were in place.

“We didn’t have a Covid plan. We had a ‘what if we can’t get into the office?’ plan.”

Clark-Reynolds remembers the day she heard the jailed Chinese whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang had died. “February seventh,” she says. “That was the moment I thought we’ve got to close the borders, to stop it getting more serious.”

Then deputy chair of Radio NZ, the board’s challenge was three-fold: how to become a lifeline service, keep the staff safe and keep broadcasting.

Looking back, she says, she thinks New Zealand handled the pandemic well.

“We might have saved three or four lives (by closing the border earlier) but I think the Government has done a fantastic job with it.”

That success has allowed New Zealand to prosper from food exports.

“New Zealand’s got a great brand because we cleaned up so fast. We get a health halo on our product because of how well the country has done.”

As a result, the primary sector is “cranking”, she says.

Clark-Reynolds should know. She’s on the board of Beef + Lamb New Zealand and on the board of Atkins Ranch, a farmer-owned meat company with an exclusive deal with American supermarket chain Whole Foods Market.

With thousands of meat industry workers falling sick from Covid-19 in the US and port holdups causing problems with exports to China, Clark-Reynolds soon saw where the opportunities lay. That ability to look ahead and react quickly is the key to success in a crisis, she says.

“There are business opportunities that come out of something like Covid.”

Apart from foreseeing business opportunities, Clark-Reynolds uses her role as a professional director to bring about change. Pay equity, for instance.

More than 10 years ago as a female entrepreneur she was quoted as saying it was the only role that paid a woman what she was worth.

“As an entrepreneur, you are paid exactly what the market determines,” she said back then. “In a job, I have never had equal pay.”

At the time she singled out a list of the top 50 CEOs and their salaries published in the Herald. All were men.

Roll forward a decade and ask Clark-Reynolds if things have changed.

“No … women are still cheaper.”

The advantage of working as a professional director is that the rate is clear, she says. But women directors overall are still paid less because they take on the lower-paid boards or they do more voluntary work.

And typically female chief executives in New Zealand don’t get paid as much as the males they succeed.

As an example, she uses Theresa Gattung taking over from Rod Deane as CEO of Telecom in 1999. “She got paid a $1m less a year than him for the same job.”

That happens at every level and is still happening, she says.

As a current and former director on a string of boards, pay equity is a priority. “You put it into the CEO’s KPI (key performance indicator) and magically pay equity happens.”

Pay equity is just one of a string of interests. Her LinkedIn profile reads like a complex mystery, raising more questions than it answers.

What was she doing in Vietnam for years? How come she’s done courses at Stanford University, trained at Harvard and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And how did she end up in Papua New Guinea?

Clark-Reynolds shrieks with laughter at some of the listings and the memories they evoke. Apart from being a serial entrepreneur, she is also a serial learner, constantly signing up for courses (now mostly online). This year she’s taken courses with The Institute for the Future in California and New York University. Coming up is a six-month programme with IDEO (Innovation Design Engineering Organisation) in managing innovation.

Papua dates back to a precociously bright student who graduated from Victoria University with an honours degree in anthropology and went off to New Guinea “to do what anthropologists do”.

“You work in the back blocks of (Papua) New Guinea, where there’s no running water and you hand out contraception and stuff. I realised that I probably should have done engineering. I could actually be useful if I could rig up some PVC pipe and put in some toilets.”

She was accepted to do post-graduate engineering in New Zealand but discovered she couldn’t go part-time. By that stage, she had her young son, Rupert, now 38.

So she headed to the US as a solo mum to do her masters at Rutgers University in New Jersey, studying environmental epidemiology and waste management. Obvious and useful subjects now, but this was the late 80s.

Back in New Zealand in 1990, Clark-Reynolds nearly went broke launching a business helping companies to be sustainable.

“I just couldn’t sell it to people even when I could show companies how much money they were going to save by being greener.”

It wasn’t her only failure. She’s been CEO of a string of start-ups, some very successful – she sold GMV Associates/Fusion, a private ACC insurer to Southern Cross – others not.
Clark-Reynolds faces up the failures; they’re there on her LinkedIn. To fall over a few times is the best way to learn, she says, and failures become invaluable experience.

“People who only succeed probably don’t learn very much. They also can’t be good directors because the scar tissue from some failures is really useful for CEOs. Good directors have a range of experiences.”

Vietnam was another adventure with a forced ending. With Rupert in tow she spent five years, on and off, helping with health and safety, and environmental issues while studying at the University of Hanoi in the mid-90s. Those years, she says, were some of the best in her life and her team made a difference with their work.

Then in 1997, the Asian banking system collapsed. “My clients literally went broke overnight.”

Clark-Reynolds was forced to close up and come home.

Her concern for the environment never left her and with the birth of her daughter Grace 18 years after Rupert, she realised not much had changed.

“There’s nothing like having children to sharpen the mind about what world you’re leaving them.”

She admits to “stalking” Al Gore, not so much as a fan but because she wanted a way to spread the climate change message.

The stalking worked. Clark-Reynolds left her job to train with Gore in the US in 2007, subsequently doing around 50 presentations of a slide show version of the film An Inconvenient Truth in New Zealand.

Which brings her back to Covid-19. This pandemic, she says, won’t be the last one and the next one could be worse. Look at the pattern; they come around every three to three and a half years and Covid was right on time.

That means there’s another one due in two and a half years. And it’s not bats or pangolins that are to blame, it’s humans.

To Clark-Reynolds the path to destruction is ominously simple: change the climate and the habitat for insects carrying diseases expands and they spread. Expand animal agriculture and humans into areas like rain forests and you’re asking for trouble.

“We are bringing mammals into close proximity with an area where they would never have naturally lived.”

Take the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan where bats – they carry more than 3000 coronaviruses, she says – were put in the same space as humans and probably illegally traded pangolins.

“There is no habitat where they co-exist. What happened is that we created that link. We are going to accelerate these kinds of pandemics.”

“Sars, Mers, Ebola. They have come from viruses jumping the species barrier.”

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