They're young, rich, Silicon Valley idealists who want to change the world from New Zealand. How did the Monahan brothers come to influence our immigration policy - and what's in it for us? In part one of a two-part series, we look at how the Americans have bought up land in a sleepy valley near Wellington, ground zero for their vision of an "innovation nation".
Every February since 2014, an eclectic bunch of people from around the world have descended on Whitemans Valley, an easy 30-minute drive from downtown Wellington, for a week-long "eco-innovation" festival called New Frontiers, a kind of techie’s version of Nevada's Burning Man.
Think yoga, yurts, giant domes, composting toilets, campfires, more yoga, drum circles, dancing, vegan food and talking - lots of talking.
Guests have included film director James Cameron, Immigration NZ head Nigel Bickle, Conservation Department director-general Lou Sanson, regional mayors, US digital artist Android Jones and dating site guru Eben Pagan, poets, painters and inventors, as well as curious locals. It's either a beautiful gathering of like minded thinkers or a weird cult, depending on your point of view. "There’s some freaky looking punters down there camping out in their domes, doing yoga and singing Kumbaya to the moon," one local says.
Mike O'Donnell, a tech investor formerly of TradeMe who attended last year’s festival, was impressed by the diverse range of people and open exchange of ideas.
"They're kind of 21st Century cyber hippies," he says. "It's a little bit overwhelming, but it's quite cool. It's a combination of 60s values, together with sustainable business models, truckloads of vegetarian food and exotic fruit juices."
New Frontiers is the star vehicle of a movement, driven by American millionaires Matthew and Brian Monahan and their acolytes, aimed at turning New Zealand into an "innovation nation" and solving the world's problems with new technology.
With its cinematic landscape of rolling, forested hills and lifestyle blocks, Whitemans Valley in Upper Hutt is ground zero for this movement and the Monahans have bought up large chunks of it - more than $13 million worth, in fact.
What's extraordinary is the extent to which they have the ear of Government officials: convincing them they know best how to attract fellow innovators from around the world and winning a $4m contract to do just that.
Their start-up, Kiwi Connect, a networking platform for entrepreneurs, is the driving force behind the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF), a programme that will select candidates for new "global impact" visas. They’ve partnered with the Hillary Institute of International Leadership to create the fellowship.
So we have the unprecedented situation of rich Americans helping Immigration NZ decide who will become new Kiwis.
But more on that later. First, who are these guys, and how did they get here?
"When we first met them, they were very clean-cut, I thought maybe they were Mormons," a Whitemans Valley woman says.
In fact, they are the not-very-religious offspring of teachers in Murphysboro, Illinois - population 9000 - who went to Harvard (Brian) and the University of California (Matthew) before winding up in Silicon Valley.
Their start-up, Inflection, organised historical and government records online. As for so many of their ilk, it made them fabulously wealthy. In 2012, they sold part of the business to Ancestry.com for $140m.
They'd already fallen in love with New Zealand during previous holidays and had bought their first property in Whitemans Valley for $1.4m in 2011.
After the windfall the buy-up accelerated - four more lifestyle blocks, three forestry blocks, a dairy farm - even the community's 120-year-old church, which they've kept available for local use.
They now own more than 500 hectares.
Matthew Monahan told the Overseas Investment Office in 2012 that Whitemans Valley appealed because it allowed "living with nature while remaining close to the business and culture of the capital city".
He was on a three-year entrepreneur visa, he explained, and planned to live full-time in New Zealand and gain residency once his business interests in the US were "sufficiently transitioned".
In 2015, the brothers' company, Integrated Ag, bought the dairy farm for $4m but the purchase didn't go through the OIO - Matthew Monahan making a statutory declaration that he was now "ordinarily resident" in New Zealand.
The Americans quickly stamped their mark on the valley - new-agey murals popping up on the sides of buildings, lifestyle blocks given names such as Evolution, The Nest, Hotel California; bio-domes popping up.
The Monahans have spent varying amounts of time in New Zealand each year - it's "50/50" so far in 2017, according to Matthew.
Some neighbours say they are seldom seen because they are often in the US on business.
Yoseph Ayele, the Ethiopia-born, Harvard-educated chief executive of Kiwi Connect and the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, who worked for the brothers at Inflection, lives at ‘Hotel California’ and is the most visible presence.
Other Kiwi Connect staff with American accents and big vehicles are frequent visitors.
Locals have found work managing the properties and farm, which has been converted from dairy to beef for environmental reasons.
But for much of the year, the other houses sit empty, which concerns some people.
"They've got five houses but there's no kids or families there, the community suffers," one man says, declining to give his name for fear of jeopardising neighbourhood relations. "I don't know why they need so much land."
One man who has got to know the Americans says they're not so different to other businesspeople.
"They're very ruthless. They're really driven by performance - they are really astute businessmen who put this big, cheesy grin and smiley face to it all."
The biggest bone of contention is the Americans' habit of calling the community Aroha Valley on their websites, in the apparent belief that "White Man's" Valley has racist overtones.
Angela McLeod, whose property borders one of the Monahans' forests and who is a descendant of the Whiteman family who settled the valley in 1871, says they don't seem to "get" the importance of the name. She makes sure to give them a history lesson each time she attends their summer community barbecue.
"I like the fact they are techno-savvy and innovative, looking at sustainability and care for the environment," says McLeod, an Upper Hutt City Councillor.
"But Whitemans Valley is my place, I grew up here...I tell you what, there is no way that there's gonna be a name change while my two feet are firmly planted on the ground."
We asked Matthew about this when we caught up with him and Ayele at Techweek in Auckland.
"We respect the [Whitemans] name," says Monahan. "We're not trying to change it. But we found it pretty funny, so we nicknamed it.
"We thought, OK, what's the opposite of calling it Whitemans Valley? And that's how Aroha Valley came about."
Matthew accepts that people might view them suspiciously - "there were a couple of comments on the dome, 'it looks like a spaceship'" - but for the most part he feels plugged into the community.
"They've saved us on countless occasions because we didn't know what we were doing, so our farm is very much a collaboration with the neighbours.
"Of course people are curious, but you just invite them over for a yarn and everyone gets to know each other."
Monahan, 33, has been through something of a metamorphosis since his arrival in New Zealand - no-one would mistake him for a Mormon now.
He still wears glasses but his hair is shoulder length and he wears a large pounamu.
His favourite band is Fat Freddy's Drop, he's learning Maori and can do a decent mihimihi. He meditates daily.
Brother Brian, 30, who is in the US during this interview, is into something called "flowetry", a cross between rap and poetry, and will often take the mic at conferences, introducing himself as B-Mo. (Sample lyric: "let me speak it quite clearly so y'all can hear me, you ain't gotta live in New Zealand to live Kiwi".)
When they're not rapping they speak a techie language which can be impenetrable.
Their favourite word is "ecosystem", co-opted to refer to the start-up world.
Matthew nominates Charles Eisenstein, who has spoken at New Frontiers, as his favourite author. That's instructive of the brothers' world outlook - Eisenstein is known as a proponent of "degrowth", a movement based on "ecological economics" that rejects consumerism and capitalism.
(The limited partnership that bought the dairy farm was called Sacred Economics, after Eisenstein's 2011 book.)
Brian raps about building a culture “not based on commerce, but on kindness”.
The brothers gave $4m to set up their non-profit Namaste Foundation, which has gifted money to everything from Black Lives Matter to climate change groups.
The Monahans' philosophy is, of course, the polar opposite of Trumpism.
"I'm definitely not a Trump supporter," Matthew says. "I think the environmental challenges we have ahead of us are real. They are really giant problems that require all hands on deck."
The New Yorker recently ran an extraordinary article about mega-wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers who are buying up land in New Zealand ahead of the apocalypse.
Certainly, there were suspicions this was precisely the motive behind Paypal billionaire Peter Thiel obtaining a New Zealand passport.
So are the Monahans doomsday preppers?
Absolutely not, says Matthew.
"Frankly, it's a bit annoying to us, this image of New Zealand being a place to escape from the apocalypse."
But he admits Silicon Valley has gone money mad.
"I remember thinking 'wow, it's crazy that Facebook is valued at a billion dollars', and now they're aspiring to be a trillion-dollar company.
"When is enough enough? An important thing about environmentalism is a recognition of limits. Infinite growth is not good for anybody."
Monahan worries about climate change, rising economic inequality, disregard for indigenous people, racism and so on – but the solution isn't to get a bolthole on the other side of the world, he says.
"We don't need survivalists, we need positive endeavours to fix things."
Monahan sees New Zealand as a place to raise a family and do good, find solutions, foster innovation, bring people together, link us to the rest of the world.
Some remain sceptical. One source who has had a bit to do with the Americans says he likes them, but believes Government officials are being naive in their rush to assist them because they have an agenda like everyone else.
They have an "ivy league mentality", the source says, where they believe they have a better vision for the world.
"They take the parts they need to succeed here - the Maori theme, the show of modesty. All the while they're doing what they need to succeed in the long game - acquiring a base, surrounding themselves with like minded people, gaining access and influence through political networking."
But people who've worked closely with the Monahans say their intentions are pure.
The Hillary Institute did "extensive due diligence" on the brothers and their associates, says founding director Mark Prain, and was impressed enough to hitch the Hillary name to their wagon.
They stood out in Silicon Valley for their values and "higher aspirations", not something that community is necessarily known for, Prain says.
"They're neither doomsday preppers - your Peter Thiel-type personality - nor are they extravagantly the other way around. We're not talking about old hippie-style California lefties who are big on aspiration but not on implementation.
"There's a pragmatism and common sense about them."
Monahan says he cares deeply about New Zealand. He cheers for Team NZ in the America’s Cup, rather than Larry Ellison’s Oracle Team USA.
"I want to raise my children here if I'm so lucky.
"I think the advantage New Zealand has is that there's not floods of people trying to move from Silicon Valley right now. But who knows in the future? Who knows what will happen to the demand for this country? We were just super-grateful we were able to get in."
Written and researched by
Tony Wall and Adam Dudding
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