Career

Theresa Gattung's life-changing health scare

The trailblazer is learning to let go and balance her passions.

By Amy Prebble

Renowned businesswoman Theresa Gattung has always struggled to take things easy.

Even as a teenager, she opted to do extra work.

"I did extra subjects in School C. I enjoyed it all – languages, maths, English, geography. I just had to fit them all in!" she laughs.

Theresa continued to pack in an extraordinary amount in the years following high school.

She burst through the glass ceiling to become the CEO of Telecom from 1999 until 2007, made the Forbes Top 100 list of the Most Powerful Women in 2006 and co-founded the successful food-delivery business My Food Bag.

Her tireless work on initiatives supporting women, including Co.OfWomen and World Women, is a major reason why she was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014 and is therecipient of this year's Westpac Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement award.

However, a health scare in March meant that Theresa (56) was officially under doctor's orders to slow down.

"I did think I had my life in a bit better balance at the time," she says. "I actually had a month off in summer with my sister Angela. I'd only been back at work for a very short period and I started to feel dizzy, not well at all. It got worse over a couple of weeks, then one day I collapsed and ended up in hospital."

She had a number of tests and was diagnosed with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, but there was no confirmed cause for her collapse.

This meant a big change for Theresa, who is used to "dashing here to do a speech, or dashing there for a board meeting".

"I could barely get out of bed in April," she says. "I was just resting and recovering. The vertigo did get sorted, but I still felt incredibly fatigued.

"Basically, I've taken it as a wake-up call − I can't do all these things that I'm doing.

"I decided I had really loved my 10 years with the SPCA and I've helped bring together all the 47 separate centres into one organisation that would fit the purpose for the next 50 years or so. After that, I didn't need to continue. A few of the private companies I was on... we sold one and I got off the board of the other. To some of the other boards, I said, 'I just can't do this for a while.'"

She also chose to spend more time at her place at Waihi Beach, where her beloved parents Marion (77) and John (83) live next door.

"The thing is I'm not 16 anymore, and I need to manage my commitments and just think about what the most meaningful thing is for me to do."

One thing Theresa's truly passionate about is the New Zealand branch of SheEO, an initiative that aims to help fund female-founded or run start-ups.

"It's harder for women to get funding for their businesses," she says matter-of-factly.

"Only four percent of the world's venture capital goes to women-led companies. So the idea is that 500 women each put in $1100 and the half-a-million-dollar pot goes to five women-led businesses that are in the early stages.

"The people who are putting in the money select them. You don't get a return – it's a five-year interest-free loan and they pay back the loan."

SheEO was launched in Canada by entrepreneur Vicki Saunders, has expanded into the US and Australia, and immediately interested Theresa.

"It's about celebrating," she says. "It's about encouraging and supporting other women, both with your powers as consumers and the power of your own networks, and also capital. Of all the ventures that SheEO has funded, no-one has defaulted on a payment – that's a pretty good track record!"

So with all this still going on, what exactly is she doing to look after herself?

"Well, at one stage I was doing so much self-care stuff that someone said to me, 'You need to be careful that you haven't swapped juggling business meetings for self-care appointments!'" she hoots.

Theresa started off with peaceful, restorative treatments including meditation, yoga breathing and Jin Shin Jyutsu.

"I needed gentle things. I've done some emotional release work as well. I've worked on letting certain things go with Ute Frerichs [a homeopath], who I'd met when I was needing to deal with my grief after my best friend died a few years ago."

She's also quick to point out that she has a good doctor.

"If anyone has any health setbacks, I always say, 'Do everything in the conventional path – don't just eat celery if you've got cancer that needs to be treated with drugs – but do the other stuff as well because it is working at a different level and in a different way, so do both,' and that's basically what I've done."

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