From no high school education and rejected uni applications, to advising the country’s top financial leaders, AUT graduate Barrett Owen started from the bottom, and is now here.
“So where are they placing you?” I ask curiously.
“One of the poorest counties in the world... Rwanda, South Sudan, Ghana, Myanmar… one of them,” Barrett replies, over a Facebook messenger video call.
Quite used to moving, Barrett was born in Alaska, grew up in Australia, settled in New Zealand, and had a stint in Spain. He is currently living in Wellington and working for the government, advising the country’s top economic minds and leaders on what to do with NZ’s cash money. However he is leaving soon; he scored a new job to go rescue a poor country’s economy. He just doesn’t know which one yet.
“They will tell me in a few weeks. Then I’ll be there for two years, assisting their government with financial decisions. About taxes, interest rates, savings policies, and all that.”
Considering I don’t even now how to spell financial (as it continuously comes up with a red squiggly line as I write this), I was pretty impressed. But how he got to this point wasn’t just impressive: after hearing his story, I realised I’d stumbled on some real Slumdog Millionaire shit.
Barrett didn’t go to high school. I immediately assumed he was home-schooled, but he corrected me.
“Unschooled. I had no formal grades since Year Six.”
A long story short, his family grew up in a unique church that kept him moving around. He sold chocolates most of the time. Not helping a prickly situation, his mum died when he was young, and his dad had to work tirelessly just to keep the family afloat.
Barrett ended up doing the Australian equivalent of a Unitec-type bridging course, but AUT wasn’t convinced.
“I was rejected from AUT and some other universities several times. We had to plead to the AUT coordinators, and they finally let me in.”
Turns out his gap in education worked as an advantage.
“Most uni students were sick of studying; they had been for 12 or 13 years. Where I was just relieved to get learning again.”
Barrett’s relief turned into hard work, as he earned top in AUT business out of 1500 first-year students. With an interest in one day working for an international organisation like the United Nations, he went on to specialise in economics. He topped economics in his third and final year. While discussing this, his humility kicked in.
“I didn’t get top in overall business, just top in economics. A few pro friends of mine beat me.”
Well, his extremely average position of only top in economics was still a perfect platform to continue his studies into honours. Until tragedy struck, once again.
“Back in Australia my Dad died. He had a heart attack. I was enrolled in honours, but had to drop out.”
Parentless, with his two siblings tied up in their studies, and an inherited mortgage, Barrett dropped out of his honours and got a job to keep payments up on the family house in Melbourne.
“My goals and motivation turned to ash… a lot of that is from losing a parent.”
It took two long years before his dad’s superannuation money came through. By that time, Barrett decided it was time for the self-described “cliché-find-yourself-gap-year” and took off to South America.
“What’s the buzziest story you’ve got from South America?”
“At the Bolivian Salt Flats, our drivers were on drugs. They were going like, 80kms and were falling asleep at the wheel. But it’s the salt flats, so there is nothing to crash into!”
After clearing his head (and most probably almost losing it in Bolivia) Barrett rediscovered his desire to save the world through an international organisation and enrolled in a top master’s course in Barcelona.
“I thought I would go to the beach everyday, chill out, practise my Spanish, but I spent the whole year in the library. It was freaking intense.”
I wondered if it could have been that bad. Then Barrett took me through his typical daily routine in Spain.
“Wake up at eight, then lectures, then library, 20 minute lunch, then back in the library until close… at 10pm. Every day. No weekend. For a year.”
Barrett’s lack of even NCEA Level One maths proved to be a hurdle. “The masters was extremely mathematical. I barely even knew how to move ‘x’ from one side to the other. The course wasn’t in Spanish, but it was still a foreign language in a way.”
Despite the military schedule, Barrett graduated, and headed back to New Zealand armed with a Master’s in Economics from one of the top 20 courses in the world. He then got his current position in Wellington, where he has advised Bill English, Steven Joyce, and Gerry Brownlee.
“Analysts at my level don’t usually directly deal with those types of people, but I have been lucky to have had the chance to. I have some of their handwriting over a few of my reports.”
After unsuccessfully attempting to get Barrett to disclose some top-secret government material I could sell to Russia, I decided to ask about the role AUT played in his journey from an uneducated Aussie in the outback, to advising New Zealand’s financial fate.
“[AUT is a] hidden gem. Objectively it can be an unknown in some circles overseas, but AUT students are more down to earth and personable. It’s those skills that allow you to excel at organisations at a higher level.”
“Do you think that AUT being less well-known holds students back?” I ask.
“Not necessarily, AUT students just often don’t apply for shit… they can get down on themselves; they just need to give it a shot. They are better with people, and don’t realise how many positions they could get. They are actually well prepared to compete with anyone.”
Barrett has a few more months before he heads off to God knows where to save the world. Despite everything he has overcome, he feels a responsibility to help shape the world for the better, and feels the UN is the best place for that. He still has hopes to work there one day.
In line with his ‘good guy’ approach to life, he insisted I put in his email address in the piece in case any readers want to ask him a question. It could be a good contact to make, before he runs the planet.
Barrett’s email address: email@example.com