Geoff Whitcher is one of 18 people globally to have won the inaugural 2016 Rhodes Trust Inspirational Educator Award, which highlights inspirational teaching.
Whitcher is widely recognised as a tireless champion for entrepreneurism. He’s been a driver in the creation of a range of formal and extracurricular programmes at the University of Auckland designed to help New Zealand’s transition to a knowledge-based economy.
The programmes were designed to produce a new breed of graduates who not only have technical skills but are innovative, entrepreneurial and business savvy.
Those programmes include:
- Velocity, the country’s leading, student-driven entrepreneurship programme, launched as “Spark” in 2003
- Chiasma, a professional student-led organisation that creates links between academia and the wider science and technology industries
- The Masters of Bioscience Enterprise, which aims to produce graduates “bilingual” in the languages of science and business
- Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) at the University of Auckland Business School, which now supports both Velocity and Chiasma and is engaged in many other activities that promote innovation and entrepreneurship
- As CIE co-director, Whitcher helped develop the Master of Commercialisation and Entrepreneurship, the country’s only master-level degree programme for working professionals seeking to commercialise research, inventions or ideas; and a short course for PhD students on research innovation and commercialisation.
Whitcher has mentored dozens of students over the years, many of whom have gone on to do MBAs at top international universities and/or launch successful start-ups. Among them: Fady Mishriki, founder of wireless power technology firm PowerbyProxi, and biotechnologist Dr Privahini Bradoo, who founded toxic e-waste recycling business BlueOak Resources.
Whitcher as one of Auckland’s most influential business figures. He is known affectionately by his mentees as the “godfather” or “grey ghost”, quietly nurturing, extending and connecting behind the scenes.
Rhodes Scholar Alice Wang, who gained a Master of Public Policy at the University of Oxford, nominated Mr Whitcher for the award.
“Geoff had a vision of building a better New Zealand through developing the potential of young people, and has touched the lives of many young entrepreneurs and students through his energy and dedication to student organisations like Spark and Chiasma,” she wrote in her letter of nomination.
“It’s difficult to describe, with any comprehensiveness, the way that he has inspired and encouraged me in my studies, but to name a few – he gave me opportunities (and the occasional nudge) to extend myself intellectually and personally through Spark [now Velocity], he took a genuine interest in what I wanted to achieve and supported me in reaching those dreams (including aspirations for the Rhodes Scholarship), and he showed me what a single person can do to build a whole community of thinkers, doers and learners, all striving to make New Zealand a better place.”
Whitcher says his years at the University of Auckland have been “incredibly rewarding”. “I’ve been privileged to work with many of New Zealand’s best and brightest – people you’re immensely proud to be associated with,” he says. “I’ve helped them graft entrepreneurial and commercial skills onto their academic qualifications and encouraged them to be the best they can be.”
Before he joined the University, Whitcher had enjoyed a lengthy career working for the Fletcher group and later for Fletcher Challenge.