We have entered an exciting time – a time where a demand for gender equality has begun to gain real momentum, and is becoming a powerful and undeniable expectation globally. This International Women’s Day the theme ‘A Balance for Better’ homes in on a gender balanced workplace, and how essential this is for businesses, economies and communities to thrive, so today – and on her 60th birthday none-the-less – we want to introduce you to one of Auckland Zoo’s leading ladies, Head of Facility Services – Monica Lake.

A self-professed conversationalist from California, with an affinity for being outdoors, and a complete aversion to screen-time outside of the workplace, Monica believes that as long as she’s doing something she’s interested in and is contributing to the lives of others, she is glad to be going in to work every day.

Head of Facility Services may not be the most explanatory of titles, but after talking to such a talented woman who oversees one of the biggest renewals Auckland Zoo has undertaken to date, whilst maintaining all current assets to the highest of standards, you may agree that no title could encompass everything Monica accomplishes in her role.

Monica sees her responsibilities as including asset preservation, maintenance, grounds – but that’s just the half of it. The other half is marrying the new, exciting renewal work of the South East Asia Project with Auckland Zoo’s vision of a modern zoo – aligning our values with our future zoo and bringing people together to build a future for wildlife. Monica acknowledges this is a big part of what makes this work so interesting: there’s no textbook or formula.

“We know how to bring people together. We know about what we can do for wildlife. We know we have great conservation programmes. We know about giving people a great day at the zoo. We know what we want to tell people and compel them into action. But what we’re trying to do is create the links between wanting to come and spend a great day with your loved ones, and connect people to our animals, our staff and their experience, and learning about why they love wildlife. It’s not just an educational learning, it’s an emotional learning.

“My ultimate goal is that every visitor leaves the zoo feeling great about themselves and nature, and excited about discovering what they can do,” Monica said.

My ultimate goal is that every visitor leaves the zoo feeling great about themselves and nature, and excited about discovering what they can do

Monica Lake, Head of Facility Services at Auckland Zoo

When asked why she loves working at Auckland Zoo, Monica summed it up nicely, “Because I do”. Rather than thinking of what she wants to be, she focuses on what she wants to ‘do’ – spending very little time ever in a job where she is not happy to go to work every morning. And how does she, or anyone else for that matter, make that a reality? Answer: to always be of service.

“I want to do something that makes things better. I want to feel as though I am contributing towards other people’s work. For me that’s part of who I am, but I also think that’s part of being a woman in the workplace – always wanting to make things better. Maybe it’s all mixed up with child-rearing and takes me to that part of my life where I was a ‘mummy’,” she reflects.

In a career snapshot that is anything but traditional, Monica began her journey with a single thought – that she needs to be doing something with her life that interests and motivates her. Perhaps in a move much before its time she chose to study environmental design and economics, never imagining it becoming such an invaluable tool in 2019 where the environment is of utmost importance. It wasn’t until living with two architects during her early university days that she ever considered it as a career choice. Her interest in the subject grew and upon graduating, she got an entry-level job with an architecture firm, doing as-built drawings and reception work. She went to Graduate School and studied architecture, and also volunteered at Steinhart Aquarium working in the glasshouse and helping keepers with the penguins. Her early days were busy, but rewarding, and contributed greatly to her career in years to come.

Upon finishing her architecture studies, Monica landed a job as an intern working for the City of Seattle working her way up on larger and larger projects, and one day she found herself working on the new City Hall. Monica was exceptionally lucky that her boss had the same affinity for sustainability and the environment that she did, and she was suddenly referring to what she learnt in her first degree in environmental design, unlocking her vault and gaining the opportunity to pioneer a Seattle City Hall absolutely focused on sustainable building. This was the first of its kind in the early 2000’s to have a completely living green roof – playing with strategies to use rainfall and stormwater to provide water to the facilities and do things like flush toilets and water gardens. Whilst working on this project Monica learnt how to work as part of a team so closely linked to their contractors, discovering how important these connections really are, noting “architecture isn’t architecture until it’s built”.

Monica’s next move involved applying for a job at Woodland Park Zoo – a private non-profit that was about to embark on a new penguin exhibit, once again connecting all her prior experience: sustainable initiatives, architecture and design, and even her time volunteering with penguins.


Journey around our Future Zoo!

Captured by drone this birds-eye-view lets you journey around our burgeoning South East Asia habitat.

“All of the things I had just finished doing in terms of water, stormwater, and recirculation of water and the sustainable initiatives I had been exposed to, suddenly became important, and there was the wonderful penguin tie-in. You never see the connections on the way forward, only when looking back.”

Working her way up at Woodland Park Zoo for more than ten years, by first taking on a single project, then moving on to head their capital programmes department, and then also adding head of facilities to the mix, Monica was then tempted by this role at Auckland Zoo, a wonderful opportunity to be involved in a renewal.

“It was a chance to build on this incredible horticulture which already existed, and had a tradition of immersive landscape design – I didn’t have to push the ball uphill, I was coming into a place that was already committed to undertaking this important work. What Auckland Zoo are doing matters, why would I want to be doing anything else?”

When asked about succeeding in a male-dominated industry, Monica admits she has never come up against adversity. She knows the horrible stories often described by important women that have managed to come out the other end, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes a challenge being the only woman at a table trying to make your voice heard – so the solutions-focused Monica knows that means she needs to learn to connect on a different level.

“It’s always been important to me to find connections with people – how do I add value, but also connect? How do I change the conversation so it better reflects how my mind works, what I think about and my values?”

Something as simple as changing the metaphors used in a workplace to make it more gender-inclusive and women-centric is something Monica has done for many years. Rather than adopting gender-biased phrases Monica puts her own spin on things, and reinvents the wheel, instilling her own phrases wherever she goes, noting that it’s important to be mindful of the words we use, making sure we are being inclusive, and even shifting the way people think about problems. She insists she is not looking for culprits or someone to point the finger at, but simply is thinking about the best way to get things accomplished.

As a measure of self-growth, Monica has tried to model traits of others that she values – self-sufficiency being a big one. There are particular people Monica has met along the way that she has admired, in that they have built a life for themselves and are doing what they love, and most of all have given her the confidence to be herself. She believes it’s the most important thing a role model or mentor can do – give you confidence you’re doing the right thing.

In the theme of ‘A Balance for Better’ this International Women’s Day, Monica strongly believe that gender balance is important for every single reason. We all have different kinds of perspectives, we are a multicultural, multi-gender society. It’s also about recognising that we don’t all start on a level playing field, not in any way – men, women, people from different cultures and diversity of all kinds. The goal is equal opportunity and some may need more of a hand getting to that same level others are starting at.

“There is no one ‘us’. You can’t come up with a solution for ‘us’ from a perspective of one. In order to be balanced and have balanced perspectives there needs to be a triangle of support, it can’t just be one entity, there needs to be a broad base of diversity of all sorts.”

If there was one thing Monica could leave young females to think about, it would be that as long as you have interest in what you’re doing, there’s a real value to delayed gratification and realising that not everything you are doing now has to be the end result. You can put in the extra effort today, and reap those rewards at a later time.

“It’s ok not to get it all right away, you do need to study or learn about things, take the time to notice it all coming together and make those connections,” Monica concludes.