Hey Elisha, tell me a little bit about yourself and what Nisa is all about?
Hi! My name is Elisha and I run a social enterprise called Nisa here in Wellington. Nisa is a comfort-wear label – we make things like underwear, sleepwear, swimwear and we provide employment to women from refugee backgrounds in our Wellington workshop. The workshop is also open to the public and has a little shop inside of it here on Willis Street. So, yeah - it's a pretty cool place to work.
That's so amazing! I was so inspired by your story - it's incredible how you've come from basically no experience in the industry!
Yeah, I used to be a lawyer, so I've had no experience in fashion. It has definitely been quite the learning experience for me as well.
I can imagine, and have you ended up enjoying the fashion world?
The funny thing is that loads of people love to do the ‘fashiony’ side of things, so it's really easy to bring people on board with those skills. The part that no one else likes that I actually love is the 'running the business' bit. I think it's quite fortunate. I never would have guessed that I love business or that I had any talent for it, but I think the way it's worked out has been just fine. I love a spreadsheet! We've just found something called 'Airtable', which is like spreadsheets reimagined and I am just like 'oh my god!'. It makes my day every day haha! That is what is lighting my fire at the moment!
Haha, I love it! So, you were in a 9-5 job as a lawyer, what drove you to break away from the norm?
I guess the lucky thing is that I am still kind of in a 9-5 job. One thing I really appreciate is having a big team of employees that all leave at five or five thirty, which means that I also leave at 5 or 5.30. And I kind of have the benefit of swanning in after I've had a nice breakfast and stuff like that, so I actually love the fact that I am still in a 9-5 job - but that 9-5 looks very different. I now work in an underwear factory! A very small one, but it's still an underwear factory, and its right in the centre of the Wellington CBD, so actually right around the corner from the big law firm I used to work for. I guess what drove me to break away from that was feeling, on a personal level, that I wanted a challenge for myself and I wanted to do something that I felt like provided opportunities to other people. I felt like I was so privileged, and I am full of privilege. What I've managed to pull together in my life is very much a reflection of all of the resources and love that have been throw at me and I kind of wanted to spread that luck and love to other people. I was volunteering for a refugee community in Wellington and the kind of 'social enterprise' idea was buzzing around and people were talking about it more and more. Then I thought I would try my hand at it and use it to help the former refugee community here in Wellington and provide opportunities for them.
That is so, so amazing. Was it quite a spear of the moment decision or something that you eased in to?
I think I was thinking about it for about six months before I left my job as a lawyer. I was doing research, making connections with people, thinking about what it would look like, how it would be. I think I had, within about two weeks of quitting my job, our first employee. There definitely wasn't much of a holiday between quitting and starting.
And how did you manage such a stark contrast?
It was very stressful. Now I talk about it being a 9-5, but back in the day when I started, it was like a year of sleepless nights, crying, worrying. It is deeply stressful to start a business, and every year it gets easier. Even though it's still very hard and the challenges grow as the company grows, you're not as shaken by it anymore. It is definitely nice to feel a bit more stable.
Yes, I can imagine! On that note, what do you think has been your biggest challenge so far?
Biggest challenge? Oh god! I am such a forward-looking person, which is both a strength and a weakness, I think. I literally forget what I did yesterday, I'm like 'delete!'. So, it's really hard for me to answer that question because I am so influenced by what has happened very recently. I think some big challenges recently have been moving into our current space, so moving workshops. These are some of the big logistical challenges where you're like "Oh my god! How is this going to work?". Everything goes badly and you kind of cobble together and after heaps of sleepless nights, you eventually get over the line. But yeah, things like that are definitely very challenging.
So, on the contrary, what would you say has been your biggest success?
I guess this relates back to the challenges. When we were planning to do a capital raise in April, I had spent about 6 months working on our pitch to investors and then we had to pull the plug on that because the campaign was due to launch about a week before we went into lockdown. So that was very, very hard. Then on top of that, I had the stress of having no idea how long the company would survive with zero sales. The answer was probably about a few months if people just stopped buying, so that was deeply stressful. But then it kind of turned itself around very quickly because we had our best sales month on record during lockdown! It was pretty crazy! So, what started out as a very scary thing actually became very exciting for us!
Amazing, that's so cool! Do you think that was down to people kind of realising what their closest values were and using those to drive their purchasing decisions?
Yeah, definitely. I mean I think people had a lot of time and enjoyed shopping online. People were browsing the web more than they ever would, and then on top of that people were really thinking about the companies they wanted to support because obviously, companies were doing it really rough. And, I guess people really wanted us to go on! So yeah, thanks to them, we're kind of stronger than ever.
Aw that is so, so cool! And you've managed to cope with the spike in demand?
The first few weeks back were very stressful because we run something called a 'lean manufacturing system' which means we hold hardly any stock. That's not a problem when we are making at the same time as selling, because we make things within a day at the workshop. So, if we sell out of something, a customer wouldn't even know because we just make it that day and send it out to them. But obviously, that system completely breaks down when you have sales, but no one's making anything. I didn't quite realise how bad the problem was until I got back into the workshop. So that was very stressful but stressful in all of the right ways! Much less stressful than having the opposite problem!
Yeah and I guess hopefully that will make you more resilient if something like this was to happen again (touch wood)!
I hope so, yeah!
Awesome, so what would you say is your ultimate dream for Nisa?
I would like to pass the business on to someone else and see it really thrive and I'd love for it to be still around 100 years from now. I think what we're doing is really special and I would love to see it flourish and kind of take on a life outside of me.
That is so special, I love that!
So, do you have quite strong relationships with your employees and stakeholders?
Yeah, most definitely! I guess this is about the power of food, because we all eat morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea together every day and that's kind of the glue that binds us together. Sewing can be a pretty solitary task and people kind of chat around, but they’re ultimately hard at work. So, it's during those special times, those break times, that we have a really good time and some great chats.
Aw, that's so lovely!
My next question was do you have any regrets? Sorry, that seems a bit dark after all that positivity haha!
Regrets? There are many regrets! There are always things or situations that go wrong, communications that go wrong where you're like, "oh, I really could have done that better!", but that's kind of just human nature. You learn and you grow every day.
Yeah like you said before, always forward-thinking and not looking too far in the past!
Awesome! So lastly, do you have any advice for anyone ready to do the same?
My advice is very boring. If you are thinking of starting up a business, do a small business accounting course. Get really into it, because that is the most empowering thing. Really understanding your financial position is important because that is ultimately the fuel that drives it. Then on a personal level, I think it’s important to be brave. We are so lucky to live in New Zealand because it's unlikely that you'll starve if your business collapses. Just remember that you live in a great country that encourages people to think big and think bold and really take a leap!
I love that so much and it’s cool to see how we've all come together in this time to support local businesses like yourself! It's amazing to see and hopefully, that will continue!