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Meet the Team
Claire Szabó

Claire Szabó Meet the Team

Claire Szabó 
Interim Chief Executive | Tumu Whakarae

Claire is a highly experienced leader, having been CEO of Habitat for Humanity New Zealand and President of the New Zealand Labour Party, and currently serves on the Board of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. She has a music degree from the University of Auckland, and further degrees from Victoria University, Trinity College Dublin, and Harvard.

Can you tell us a bit about your family, kids, and where you're from?

Dad came to New Zealand as a refugee in 1956, and Mum is the daughter of a coal-miner from Ohai. I’m married to choral conductor Rowan Johnston and live in Kelburn with our two primary school-aged children, Lexie (9) and Nick (5). 

Where did you grow up? Where else have you lived?

I grew up in Papakura, South Auckland where I learnt music at the Saturday morning music school from an early age. I went on to complete a degree in performance cello at Auckland University, where I also studied composition and conducting. I’ve also lived for 5 years in Budapest, done a previous 7-year stint in Wellington, and a year studying at Harvard in the United States. 

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

Spending time with my husband and kids! I get to enjoy a lot of music through them without having to do practise. It’s a big win for a busy mum!

What is your earliest musical memory?

Hard to say. Early memories include hymns at church, Sweet Caroline on the kitchen radio from my highchair, my mum’s jazzercise record, and my big sister’s recorder practice. Not long after all that I have a vivid memory of a poster of the NZSO which was hung on the wall of the intermediate school where I started learning recorder and cello. 

What are the values that drive you?

My father’s refugee story, escaping an oppressive Soviet regime to find peace, security and opportunity in Aotearoa, has inspired many of my values such as the cherishing of democracy, freedom of expression, and the nurturing of culture and language. Mum’s life’s work as a nurse has also inspired me as a mum and kaitiaki in my community.

What has been your career progression?

My working life started at 21 in Budapest where I established my own company and ran education services in Hungary and various EU countries for five years. Back in New Zealand, I joined English Language Partners New Zealand, working with migrants and refugees, and held my first CEO position there for 5 years. From there I went to the Harvard Kennedy School to study public administration, and came home to take up the role of CEO at Habitat for Humanity New Zealand, a post I held for 7 years. I was then elected for a 3-year term as President of the Labour Party, and went on to work as a Ministerial Advisor in Parliament until the last election. My governance roles have included Trustee and Deputy Chair of the Auckland City Mission and Board Member (currently) of the NZSO. I’m now delighted to step in as Interim CEO at SOUNZ. 

Your top 3 favourite books?

Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes, Patrick Snedden’s Pakeha and the Treaty: why it’s our Treaty too, and Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of markets.

Where’s your favourite place in the world?

Often, it’s at home with my husband, watching the kākā in our pohutukawa tree. But given the choice of anywhere, it might be a cafe called “Gerbeaud” in Vorosmarty Square in central Budapest for a coffee and a slice of their ‘Dobos’ cake. Yum!

If you could visit anywhere in the world you’ve never been, where would you go?

With this question it’s tempting to think of far-flung exotic locations, but there are plenty of spots here in New Zealand I’m yet to make it to! I’d love to do the Milford track, for example. Or walk on Ninety-Mile Beach.