Making a difference to people and places is what's important to me - with Mayurie Gunatilaka

Mayurie Gunatilaka travelled the world with her parents before settling in New Zealand in the nineties when there was a strong recruitment drive for engineers outside of the country. She's now the Group Leader for Arup and says making a difference to people and places is what matters the most.

Mayurie Gunatilaka

Mayurie Gunatilaka

Mayurie, congrats on your new role. Tell us more about it

I was excited to join Arup, as a couple of things really stood out for me.

It's a global organisation with an inter-generational view on how it works, incredible talent and a spirit of generosity. I could see an opportunity to access innovative global thinking that would be of immense value to Aoteroa when combined with te ao Māori and mātauranga Māori. I felt the time was right to do something special for New Zealand regarding the legacy we could leave for future generations.

And the fact that we can attract and grow consultants with a strong interest in sustainable development. We can develop their skills on a global platform by integrating the importance of te ao Māori in how we design and create, to give back to Aotearoa.

What are the critical challenges our sector faces? 

At the moment, I think there's a big question mark over whether the investment pipeline in New Zealand is as strong as it can be. 

A strong pipeline of work creates confidence for the sector over the short, medium and long-term. We need to develop confidence across the industry from planning, advisory and design to detailed design and construction. There's a suite of opportunities that already have funding and are ready to go. We must seize on those opportunities.

How do we encourage a more robust pipeline? 

I think it's a work in progress. I believe we're still a long way from having a solid pipeline in place, but the intention is there. 

We need to be smart about developing our pipeline, and combining with Australia may encourage global investors to consider New Zealand. 

Developing a combined pipeline may create a playing field that's big enough to attract some large players from other countries. We can benefit from the lessons they have already learned in places like the UK or America. We'd then be able to stop having to start from scratch every time a new and challenging project comes along.

What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in our sector?

I think that diversity of thought and experience is important to run successful businesses, more now than ever before. 

In terms of gender diversity in our sector, one of the places I've noticed a significant change in the gender make-up of the engineering and consultancy workforce is at the Infrastructure New Zealand conference. When I first began attending the conference, I was one of less than ten women, and now around a decade later, over 300 women attend the event.

When I look back, even though I didn't think of myself as Sri Lankan or female, there were moments when it did feel it was hard going because I could see unconscious bias playing out in different situations. But I started to realise it was empowering. I believe we're creating the right climate to encourage more female participation in the industry, and we should continue to do so.

Tell us about your early life in Sri Lanka? 

I was born in Sri Lanka, my dad was an engineer, and my mum was a school teacher. 

When I was a toddler, we moved to Japan because my dad was doing his Masters in Engineering at Hiroshima University. We returned to Sri Lanka when I was about five years old, and soon after that, Dad accepted an engineering contract to work in Zambia. I went to school in Lusaka, and later we also lived in Ndola. In the early nineties, the recruitment drive for engineers into New Zealand brought us here, and I attended high school in Auckland.

By travelling and seeing the world, I've realised that making a difference to people and places is what's important to me. 

Lastly, what are your thoughts on how COVID has affected our sector?

I think COVID has challenged us in several ways. It has made the industry look seriously at its organisational structures and the overheads, and footprint and legacy that we are leaving. 

The question we need to be asking is "what is the business of the future?" We should be looking at the size of the business structure we need, given that we must stay agile to maximise our operational potential. 

COVID has shown us that we can break from the norms in five minutes and do something different. We need to be encouraging our teams and clients to change their mindset to accept that change is constant, and we will be challenged every day. We'll survive these changes if we continuously look for a way through the challenges. It's not the end; it's just our new norm.

Connect with Mayurie Gunatilaka on LinkedIn