Business and Innovation Courage and initiative Generosity

From wayward to way forward


Someone who says she was “a bit of a runaway teenager” has been recognised as one of Otago’s upcoming business leaders.

Sarah Ramsay (37) received the Future Business Leader award at the Westpac Otago Business Awards, run by the Otago Chamber of Commerce late last year.

The judges describe her as a “whirlwind of energy and constructive ideas” who gives generously of her time and leads from the front to effect collaborative change.

“Vision, energy, excellent communication, community engagement and involvement are all the reasons people will follow Sarah,” the judges say.

They also mention her non-traditional path to business.

Immersion Ventures Managing Director Sarah Ramsay in her office at Innov8HQ, with her Future Business Leader award on the left.

Sitting in the funky Innov8HQ space in Dunedin’s Vogel St, Sarah is indeed a quick-thinking bundle of enthusiasm and warmth as she shares her story.

Pathway to a passion

She says the words non-traditional were probably used because she was expelled from three high schools and left school aged 15, without School Certificate.

She learned from that situation not to do things wrong because “you always get caught”.

Sarah started work, went flatting and studied by correspondence, realising that she liked learning. After leaving an abusive relationship, she travelled to Australia to become a nanny, aged 17.

Seeking night-time waitressing work, she got a job at Tetsuya’s Restaurant in Sydney. Unbeknown to her, Tetsuya’s was popular and regulars included rock singer Jimmy Barnes.

That was quite an eye-opener into a world that I previously never knew existed.”

This was her first involvement in a business. She redesigned Tetsuya’s reservation system, was involved in a book production and became excited about marketing.

While working at the restaurant, Sarah gained a diploma in marketing and consumer behaviour. She looked for other work and, needing to pass a typewriting speed test, used a compact disk to teach herself to touch-type in one weekend. She passed the test.

This led to a temporary then permanent job at the Commonwealth Bank and she worked her way up to be marketing co-ordinator. After a few years, she was seconded to another company, within its institutional investments team.

“It was a great job. I learned a lot about investment, the markets and how to analyse companies.”

Sarah studied finance and economics, worked for an asset management company and in her mid-20s, shifted to Christchurch, New Zealand.

In her job as the National Property Trust’s marketing manager, she looked after five nationwide shopping centres which included more than 250 retailers. These were as large as Countdown and The Warehouse, and as small as individual food court operators.

During this time, she started to analyse which retailers were performing and why; and to help people build their businesses. If a tenant requested a rent decrease, she’d instead try to increase their income.

It gave me a real passion for hands-on marketing.”

Immersion Ventures

Nine years ago and aged 28, she moved to Dunedin and started Immersion Ventures, of which she is Managing Director.

Initially, Immersion was a marketing agency and its first client was a major Wellington shopping centre. She scouted out more clients, approaching them directly.

Sarah recalls crying the first time she owned her own business phone and computer.

Immersion grew rapidly through word of mouth, networking and hard work. Within four years, it had 12 staff. Clients included Calder Stewart, Pacific Edge, big property companies, leading tertiary education institutions and various hairdressers, builders, plumbers and individual retailers.

A city Sarah says is good for business: Dunedin. Photo: Courtesy of

After four or five years, Sarah understood she needed to create a more sustainable, scale-able company and wanted time to invest in other ventures. She was pregnant, plus she and her husband Alex had bought his parents’ engineering business, United Machinists.

So, Immersion now invests cash and sweat equity into start-up businesses in which Sarah plays an active role as an independent advisor.

Over the years, she has worked pro bono for community organisations and been a Board Member at Otago Access Radio, the Dunedin Prison Charitable Trust and Otago Medical Research Foundation. She’s the Chairperson of Startup Dunedin.

In the past, many people gave her a chance and it’s nice to help others, she says.

It’s important to me to give back to the community. I don’t see what our purpose is, other than doing that.”

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For further information:

Click here to read about the Otago Chamber of Commerce, which runs the Westpac Otago Business Awards.

Click here to read about Immersion Ventures.


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