Welcome to My Net Worth, our regular column on the lives and motivations of our country’s top business, legal and political people, in their own words.
Former software engineer Shama Sukul Lee founded Sunfed in 2015 to create plant-based food products that have the eating pleasure and low-carb, high-protein nutritional benefits of the chicken, pork and beef they are intended to replace. The company attracted $10 million in funding from investors including Australian venture capital fund Blackbird Ventures, Sir Stephen Tindall's K1W1 fund and the Crown-backed New Zealand Venture Investment Fund. Sukul Lee’s earlier roles in Auckland included building a subscription website for news media company APN (now NZME) and redeveloping the New Zealand Herald mobile website.
I was born in Fiji. I was very headstrong, a bit of a wild child. I have two older brothers and we just explored and ran wild a lot. My dad was a teacher and was very adventurous. When I was four or five, he packed us all up and took us to live on Mago, a remote island.
I think that was probably one of the best things that happened to us. It was very real in the sense it was a very abundant place and I remember we all had to go and get our own food, so we were very much in touch with things in that way.
My parents never diminished me because I was a girl so I grew up almost not even knowing what my gender was. It had no relevance in the way my parents chose to raise me.
I was a very strong student in the sense that I was top of the class, but I was a terrible student in the sense that I did not like authority. It's a weird combination. I won a scholarship to the University of Auckland to study computer science and mathematics.
After university, I worked for the South Pacific Tourism Organisation. They were trying to build an internet system to connect multiple Pacific countries. It was a very good learning experience to work under very, very, good programmers, because the UN had brought all these expatriates into Fiji.
I had a really big existential crisis. I did my masters, an MBA, built my house, I had a really good job, all of that stuff, got married. But I was feeling more and more unfulfilled. So I quit my job and went into self-imposed exile for about a year. I had to cut out all the noise. No social media. I stopped talking to people for a while, which was very worrying for my family.
When I eventually came out of it, I shed everything I had accumulated in terms of material things and mindset – we accumulate things to make ourselves feel bigger. Out of that, Sunfed was born. It was a very high-risk project. I had to mortgage my house.
I’ve had so many learnings. Every entrepreneur will say you have to learn to work with your fears. The more you see them, the more you see how much of a hold they have on you. So that's been a really big learning for me personally.
I think pride can make you take credit for things that are not truly yours. We all stand on a lot of shoulders. So, instead of being proud, I'm grateful for things.
My business is pretty all-consuming. We're trying to build a global company with mass scale, so everyone's sprinting. We’re building this big thing and there's no one to teach us. It's all novel. But by seeing where your limitations are, you see where you need to improve.
I don’t really have downtime. I’m always on, but I love running with my dog and I love using my body and making sure it's healthy. I do a lot of yoga; I do it every morning to balance myself. But apart from that, the majority of my time is focused on the business.
My husband, Hayden Lee, and I work together. I started needing help, and he quit his job and jumped in. We've been building the company together and I wouldn't have chosen anyone else to have this adventure with. I'm lucky to have a very supportive husband. We’re not dependent on each other, we’re there to enhance each other. We're partners in the sense that we can bolster each other, not drag each other down.
My best advice comes with a caveat. Everyone has their own truth in their life, in that what might work for me won’t necessarily work for you. So always take people's advice with a grain of salt. Instead, focus on the facts. If you keep doing that, everything else will work out.
I don’t really buy things; I just don't feel the need. The most important thing is to keep your mind uncluttered. When you are building a business, you need clarity.
As told to Jacqui Loates-Haver.
This interview has been edited for clarity.