Alumni Profile Kate Yesberg

Alumna Kate Yesberg has spent much of her career in law reform, but has taken a step back to rediscover herself through art.

Alumna Kate Yesberg has worked in human rights and development in Southeast Asia, practiced public law, worked on law reform projects in the Pacific, and co-led an international trade and policy team at the Treasury.

But discovering a passion and talent for painting has seen her move into a new world of creativity and self-expression.

Graduating with an Bachelor of Laws with Honours and a Bachelor of Arts in cultural anthropology and religious studies in 2010, Kate began her career with public law firm, Chen Palmer.

“When I was at law school I never thought I would practice law, but having done a little NGO work I decided I needed to master the craft and I was interested in making sure I had a skill set I could work with. Public law interested me because it was all about power and holding power to account, which had been a bit of a driving force for me.”

After three and a half years at Chen Palmer, Kate applied for a Fulbright Scholarship and moved to New York to study a Master of Laws at NYU. After graduating, she returned to Aotearoa and went to work at Chapman Tripp, eventually working her way up to Senior Associate. From Chapman Tripp she made the move into the public sector joining the international trade and investment team at Treasury.

In addition to her busy legal career, Kate developed an interest in leadership, joining the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Leadership Network and a local branch of a mental health service provider as board secretary. She is currently the chair of Yellow Brick Road, a national mental health organisation that provides support for families of people going through a serious mental health challenge.

“I’m really interested in leadership and how organisations can get the best out of their people.”

Promoted into a leadership role at Treasury just as COVID-19 hit New Zealand, Kate was responsible for leading a team and some big policy areas. “Valuing leadership as a skill set and helping people to develop their leadership skills can be tricky. So, when you get thrust into leadership roles for the first time it can be a challenge.

“Leadership is being comfortable knowing that your way is not necessarily the best or only way of doing things,” she says. “The whole orientation of the job changes—from doing the work yourself to helping others grow and do a great job in their own way. That has been a really satisfying shift.”

Working long and intensive hours, Kate says she did experience burn out at times. “I had dedicated myself to living a serious life, trying to make a contribution I felt proud of. But I think it was at the expense of my creativity, and at the expense of my health.”

Kate has just completed a 6-month sabbatical from her position at Treasury, painting full time. While her geometric abstract art gives the impression of years of art-making, Kate says she only started painting six years ago when she was looking for a creative outlet from her fast-paced career.

“I didn’t pick up a paintbrush until I was 29. But once I picked it up, I didn’t put it down!”, she says. “When I started painting it was like meeting myself for the first time. It has been a wonderful surprise, I love it.”

Kate found her art was one of the best tools for self-care, “and actually, for getting to know myself better, not just as a generally capable person but as a unique person with a full and pretty wild imagination”.

“In my professional career the external markers of success, the things I wanted to achieve, had started to feel quite linear. But the making of art feels wide and expansive and unpredictable. I have no idea where it’s going to go and that is really exciting. I love that about creativity.”

Hundreds of hours in the studio has given Kate a new appreciation and insight into her career and what her next steps might be.

“I reflect on what has been important to me so far. Putting myself in situations with diverse groups of people, where I really have to think about what I’m bringing to the table and what other people are bringing. I really believe that it makes for better decision-making and a richer experience.

“For me, having stepped out of the workplace for a while, and thinking about the things I want to focus on when I go back, making sure I’m in a diverse workplace is super important.  I want to make sure I am working with and learning from people with backgrounds and experiences that are different to mine.”

“Space is the other big thing, making sure I have time to think and create and look after myself.”

Reflecting on her time at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, Kate has some advice for current students or recent graduates.

“Really trusting yourself, getting to know yourself and understanding your values, the things you are interested in and that make you tick”, she says. “But I also suppose the flip side is not worrying too much. One thing inevitably leads to another which leads to another—it can be hard to see it in advance, but it is happening. As long as you’re listening to yourself, you can’t really go wrong”.