by Karen Richter
May 28, 2024

Empowering Change: Natalie Donzé leads the way in shaping better outcomes for places and communities

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we are honoured to highlight one of our own inspirational leader, Natalie Donzé, who exemplifies the spirit of this important day.

Natalie, tell us a bit about yourself.
Kia ora koutou. Ko Natalie Donzé tōku ingoa.

I am an Associate Director and Manager of Urban + Place at Stellar Projects. I’ve been with Stellar for 5 years.

I was born to a New Zealand mother and American father, I have two siblings and their families, a partner, and we all live in Tāmaki Makaurau.

What inspired your career?
A cumulative series of events. I was 8 when my whānau moved to Aotearoa, New Zealand, from Vermont, USA. Leaving a small town of 3000 at the bottom of Mt Mansfield, to the big smoke (!) of Palmerston North, New Zealand (where Mum grew up), and then to Tāmaki Makaurau 4 months later was a big change for little me. I quickly learned that I loved the energy of a city; people close to home, diversity of culture and experiences, how cities change. It felt like home, and the more time I spent in them the more I wanted to be a part of them. My own connection to cities led to wanting to understand how others connect to places too. I’ve been fortunate to have lived, and/or worked, in many. Now I get to help join the dots between people and their environments; designing processes for change, helping to understand what people value, and facilitating/enabling ways for them to have a stake in the outcome.

There are several individuals across genders that have helped shape the path I’ve taken over the years – a core group of wāhine that lift me up, and some important male advocates too. I have a lot of gratitude for their advice and opportunities they helped to open doors to. I’m inspired daily by the people I work, engage, and collaborate with. And Papatūanuku too.

How did you get started?
My first job was at Heart of the City (HOTC), the City Centre Business Association. For those who aren’t familiar, HOTC supports the business community in downtown Auckland through marketing, promotions, events, activation and providing services such as security and advocacy for city issues and development. It was at HOTC where I learned about place economies and shared value, functions of place, competing needs and desires for place, and a place as a destination – both to visit, work and to live in. I worked across the marketing and events portfolio helping to shape ideas like Auckland Restaurant Month and delivering public realm programming and activation. I was there for 5 years, and I finished as a Manager of Placemaking and Events.

I then worked in NYC for a non-profit behavioural research and design consultancy called ideas42, had a stint in the Auckland Design Office (ADO) at Auckland Council, and joined Stellar Projects in early 2019.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?
Enabling many perspectives at the table help shape better outcomes for places and communities. And more recently, within a business.

I also recognize that not everyone gets to do what they love or participate in ways they would like. There are several reasons why; war, racial and social injustice, bias (implicit or not), physical and psychological barriers… it goes on. I don’t take it for granted.

Any challenges?
Many. Currently, it’s the careful balance of work-life ‘harmony’ as we call it sometimes.

Tell us something you’ve learnt recently.
I very recently took part in a seed sourcing and sorting activity for a project where I learned so much about native seeds, when to source them, how to keep them safe until ready to use them. I’ve grown up around gardens, plants, exploring the bush and the oceans on weekends, so whilst I love cities, I also like being grounded in the natural world often. I’m now an iNaturalist fan and have been looking at what people are posting locally about the plants and seeds nearby.

What was the biggest highlight so far?
There are a few. Moving to NYC and getting to work and live in one of my favourite cities. And with Stellar, the Wai Horotiu Queen Street Project, working alongside Mana Whenua, Eke Panuku and our Toi Waihanga colleagues on the regeneration of Te Ara Tukutuku, and helping to secure desperately needed funding for infrastructure to enable housing (and lift level of service) within the Far North. Pipes are community infrastructure too.

What appealed to you about working at Stellar Projects?
I’d known of Stellar for a few years before I joined as an employee. I first worked with the team on a project before I took a contract the ADO. At that time, Stellar was in a house on Anzac Street in Takapuna – just around the corner from where we are now. It’s grown in many ways since then!

But what was clear from the outset was the focus on relationships and quality of delivery.
I stayed connected with Stellar over the years between then and when I joined in 2019 (after I returned from NYC a second time). Being part of something in its entrepreneurial phase is energizing, and having the opportunity to grow a new workstream within that was even more so. And that focus on relationships and a delivery mindset still applies across all our services. The great team, clients and working for communities keep the fires burning.