Respected businessman Uluoma’tootua Saulaulu Aiono was inducted into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame last month.
He said a desire for freedom guided his career: “My dream was to be free. I’ve done a lot of things and I’m still doing a lot of things. But the whole point of it all is to keep achieving my dream of being free, that is to say doing what I want, when I want with whoever I want, as long as it is legitimate and honest.”
Ulu founded the groundbreaking machine learning company COGITA nearly 40 years ago. He has also been involved in many noteworthy initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity and served as Chairman of the Health Plus Trust Alliance and the Cause Collective.
During her induction ceremony, Ulu lit up the room with her infectious laughter, humble nature and calm presence.
The importance of family and surrounding yourself with great people was a common thread running through the ceremony: fellow honorees Graeme Hart, Pania Tyson-Nathan, Bruce McLaren, Charles and Jessie Begg, Greg Tomlinson and Les, Jackie and Phillip Mills all discussed these topics.
“Each of us struggled, until we felt there was something possessing us. We couldn’t sleep, or we could sleep, but we woke up, we were still thinking about it. And I says, it’s the dream. The dream is something you can’t stop thinking about, because it possesses you.
In attendance were a group of students from Auckland Grammar School who were delighted to meet Ulu, a former boy from their school.
“His character as well, where he’s progressed and being at a function like this,” student Ollie Worker said.
What struck the young Worker in Ulu’s speech was the perseverance needed to succeed.
“I can’t doubt the amount of hard work he’s had to put in to get to the position he’s in now,” Worker said.
The worker and his classmates spoke with Ulu at the event. The business leader sent them some words of wisdom:
“You have to figure out what your dream is. And it doesn’t matter what you do. Just do something. Start simple,” he said.
“I didn’t know anything. But I went there and got a job. Then I got another job. It didn’t work out because I was worried about the danger.
“I went there and got a degree. And then I got a job. And I realized that jobs aren’t for me. But I was doing things. Don’t spend your time thinking and trying to think, trying to find the right solution. Do something and fix it.”
From Apia to Otago and shattered glass ceilings in IT
Ulu was born into a hardworking family in Apia. He describes himself as a difficult child, but still received an excellent education from his parents and grandparents.
His mother was born into a prominent family, his father was the paramount chief of Apia.
“My mother was born into a very privileged family and she and her sisters were like princesses in Apia and Samoa.”
Ulu’s father was from a very poor background but worked hard and secured a senior civil service position as Chief Interpreter for the Supreme Court of Samoa.
Eventually young Ulu and his parents left Samoa to start a new life in New Zealand. They traveled via the Matua boat, which Ulu remembers well:
“Which, oddly enough, belonged to the Union Steamship Company, which grew out of my wife’s great-grandparents’ shipping line, called the Crane Line.”
The move to New Zealand was a very difficult change in circumstances – especially for Ulu’s mother.
“It was a very big change for her to come to New Zealand with my dad. There was probably a year to two years of discussion before they agreed to come to New Zealand.”
“And 17 years later, I became an object with my wife,[Margaret] who was a great-great-granddaughter of, you know what I think were the original founders of the shipping line.”
Margaret and Ulu had a son, Loligi Alexander Salofata Aiono, in 1988. The boy was named after Ulu’s maternal grandfather; they wanted to capture both the Scottish side and the Samoan side.
Ulu also reflected on her upbringing. As a young boy who didn’t like being told what to do, freedom was at the top of his agenda, rather than college. Ultimately, he found that college provided him with the tools he needed to become his own boss. After earning a degree in Computer Science from the University of Otago in 1983, he started his own company, COGITA.
“When I went there with my wife in 1979, I was really the only Pacific Islander in the field where I chose to study.”
Ulu returned to the University of Otago in 1984 and earned a master’s degree in business administration.
“The environment at the University of Otago was very warm and welcoming. And it wasn’t just the students. It was the culture of lectures, workshops. And I found the same when I does the master’s and the third cycle.”
Ulu has become the first Samoan student to complete an MBA at the University of Otago.
In conclusion, Ulu commented on community health starting with adequate housing:
“My call would be wellness and health starts at home. And unless that happens, our country will be a very difficult place to live.”
He believes that all New Zealanders deserve safe housing, “which is my concern right now as chairman of Habitat for Humanity Northern Region”.