All Good Interviews: Michelle Kennedy

We sat down with Michelle Kennedy, founder of Six Generations; an impact driven enterprise to drive meaningful and creative climate action. We spoke all about how her interest in sustainability came about, how she launched Auckland’s first climate festival and so much more.

on March 21, 2022

Tell us about yourself and your background

I’m trained as a strategic urban planner and I recently founded and launched the Auckland Climate Festival which ran for the first time in October 2021. I’ve been lucky enough to live in Sweden, Melbourne, New York and London at various points in my life but Tāmaki Makaurau is home.

How did your interest in sustainability come about?

It grew over time. Being a child of Aotearoa and with access to such amazing natural beauty, I’ve always been in awe and humbled by nature.  I grew up sailing competitively and as a teenager I was fortunate enough to compete internationally. Unfortunately during a regatta in South Korea I got really sick from the pollution. We were sailing through dumped coils of rope, needles, soccer balls, shoes, you name it. That really opened up my eyes first hand to the scale of the problem globally and that was close to 20 years ago now!

When I got back from the trip I vividly remember my geography teacher at high school teaching us principles of kaitiakitanga (stewardship) and taonga (treasure) which opened up my eyes to the Te Ao Māori worldview and deeply resonated with me. 

I went on to study geography and environmental management, alongside international business and strategy at university. As part of this I went to Sweden on exchange for a year which inspired me to continue on to study my Masters in Urban Planning after seeing how much urban practitioners could influence environmental and community outcomes in such a fundamental way. Throughout my studies I learnt a lot about the realities of climate change and wrestled for a long period throughout my 20s as I saw so many contradictions play out in the world and in the way I lived my life. I think the anger and injustice around it spurred me to keep going and I chose to hold on to hope that the groundswell of change would continue to grow.

You’re the founder of Six Generations, an impact driven enterprise to drive meaningful and creative climate action. What drove you to start up this enterprise?

From a young age I’ve always been excited by the creative process in getting something off the ground. I knew though that if I was to do something truly meaningful and valuable to the world I first wanted to gain expertise in my field and really get to know what problems an enterprise could solve rather than setting something up for the sake of it. I also wanted to see how climate change could be part of an integrated and systems based approach rather than being viewed in silo.  

Whilst I was in London working as an urban and transport planning consultant for Arup, I was fortunate to be seconded as the Programme Lead for London Climate Action Week which was launched by thinktank E3G, in collaboration with the Mayor of London in 2019. When Covid suddenly brought me home in 2020, the team in London suggested I might like to set up something similar in Auckland. I’d always wanted to make a broader and meaningful contribution to climate change outcomes in my hometown so this felt like a great opportunity to leverage my international experience, skills and my connection to this place and people.

The name Six Generations stems from the idea many cultures have used over time of thinking at least seven generations ahead when making decisions about the environment. The idea is that we are the one ‘generation’ that will determine the future for the next six. 

You launched Auckland's first Climate Festival last year in October, what was the highlight of the festival for you?

Yes, I did! Auckland Climate Festival was our first project and it was super exciting to get it off the ground – particularly in the depths of lockdown! That was a highlight in and of itself - I was really touched by how many people and organisations got behind the festival either sponsoring, partnering to organise an event, speaking, attending, sharing with their networks despite us going through the mill with Covid and having to change and adapt plans! We had close to 80 virtual events in the end over the three weeks. My hope is that this sent a message of hope to Aucklanders (and beyond), particularly our rangatahi / youth that climate change has not and will not take a backseat.

In terms of the events, I loved that we had a number of them focus on food, such as the Kai Sovereignty event co-organised by Para Kore ki Tāmaki and Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei. I’ve learnt over the years that transformation of our food system is one of the most impactful ways we can make positive change when it comes to climate change and the wider co-benefits of regenerative and redistributed systems, so I’m really hoping this will feature even more during this years’ festival!   

Looking back, what has been the biggest lesson in business you’ve learnt so far?

Don’t be afraid to be courageous and bold and not back down or let doubt seep in in the face of adversity.  If you’re clear and have conviction with your vision and you are adding value, people will come on board!

Who inspires you the most?
Many people inspire me for different reasons but here at home Alec Tang, Director of Sustainability at Kāinga Ora, and one of our advisors, is a stand out for me. He leads with humility and warmth and a deep care for people. Whilst he isn’t originally from NZ he has learnt te reo Māori and embraced the unique aspects of this place. 

We give you a bunch of All Good Bananas, what do you do with them?
I’m a big fan of All Good Bananas!! Call me a traditionalist but I leave them as they are! If I haven’t managed to get through them before they start going ripe then I’ll throw them in the freezer and bake a zucchini and banana loaf when I’m feeling like a sweet treat.

Share three pieces of advice for someone starting a business or enterprise

1. It might sound a bit boring, but keep on top of the admin, accounting, taxes, legal matters! Rather than being bogged down and potentially even afraid of them, consider how these levers can help you in being even better at what you do. Ask around until you find out what you need to have comfort you’re on top of things!

2. Do what you can to remain grounded and seek out people who you think can help support you in achieving your vision. Get good advisers around you they’ll be your biggest cheerleaders, advocates and provocateurs and help you rest every night knowing you’re not alone and heading in the right direction.

3. Back yourself! Take the leap – you’ll never regret trying!!

Best book or documentary on climate change you’ve read/watched?

I recommend everyone watch Johan Rockström’s Ted Talk. As the leading earth system’s scientist he explains in less than 10 minutes why we need to make urgent change this decade.

 Over summer I read the book Regenerate: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Regeneration by Paul Hawken as well as Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture by Gabe Brown. I love the way these books give positive, action-oriented, intelligent ways we can engage in regeneration and look hopefully towards our futures. They provide the parameters to clearly articulate what the problem is, as well as giving a framework and getting your imaginations going for what we can work towards.