Elisha Watson is the founder of Nisa, an underwear label based in Wellington that employs women from refugee backgrounds. She quit her job as a litigation lawyer a year ago to found the company after volunteering for the Red Cross and seeing refugees struggling to find work. Here, she reflects on the trials and tribulations of starting a social enterprise from the ground up.
One year ago I quit my job as a lawyer to start an underwear company employing former refugees. It sounds as ridiculous on paper as it is in reality – I was someone with a little bit of home sewing experience, who decided I wanted to set up a garment production business that trained and offered paid work to women who really needed someone to give them a go.
It all began with my role as a Red Cross volunteer, helping to resettle refugees who had just arrived in Wellington, my hometown. It was an intense experience, as you are completely immersed in the lives of families that often had very limited English, and who had sometimes not even heard of New Zealand until told they would be ‘placed’ here.
Religious groups set up their houses, volunteers helped them get to and negotiate their (many) appointments required to set up their new lives, and the community rallied around them making them feel welcome as new New Zealanders. But what so many of them struggled with was finding work. Even after living here for a number of years, many former refugees struggle to speak and/or write in English, especially if they don’t thrive in a classroom setting (for example some left school before high school, or are illiterate in their own language, making learning a foreign language exceptionally difficult).
The thing that struck me most when helping to resettle these families was their happiness to be in a safe country like ours. They are often amazed at how quiet it is here, and how you can just walk around on the street and let your children play outside and not be worried about them. On the flipside, being in a completely foreign environment brings worries about the future, money and how parents will find work.
Pomegranate Kitchen had set up a social enterprise employing former refugees for their catering business, and I loved the model. I thought that maybe I could make it work for another skill that a number of former refugees arrive with: sewing. I had recently made myself a silk dress without a pattern, and thought if I can do that, I can do anything. (It turns out there is a bit more to setting up a functional workshop than that.)
I was still working as a lawyer, but I started to get more and more hooked on the idea of starting my own social enterprise. Every spare moment was spent researching how to make it work, getting in touch with suppliers and leaders in the fashion industry to seek guidance. The decision to quit was an easy one as it got to the point where I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I have always been realistic about its chances of success but I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t at least give it a go.
I was expecting that colleagues would laugh at my naive and idealism when I broke the news, and that I would have to tough it out through a few raised eyebrows and shocked looks. My fears never materialised – everyone at my job was so supportive and genuinely excited or me.
I decided to call the enterprise Nisa, which means women in Arabic. We ran a crowdfunding campaign to buy machinery, and I found a workshop space and hired my first employees from refugee backgrounds. Having no experience in the garment manufacturing space, I made so many mistakes. Some of them were quite expensive. I have learned that you should not order colours of elastic based on tiny Pantone colour charts, least you end up with fluorescent orange elastic instead of a beautiful mustard. I have learned that you should test machines before buying them, in case they are totally unfit for purpose. I have also learned that, if you don’t have the experience, there’s only so far you can fake it. So, I employed a production manager with 20 years’ experience in the garment industry, and that decision was the most important one I have made so far.
There have been so many joys and heartbreaks over the past year. Nisa employs people from four different cultures, and there are so many layers to communicating. Some things can get misunderstood or misinterpreted, or in other cases completely lost in translation. The trickiest thing is balancing the business side with the social mission. For the first time, this week I will be paying myself a wage – currently $5 an hour, but better than the previous $0. This feels like a big risk for the business, but it needs to happen.
I have put so much of my own blood, sweat and tears into Nisa, but I do so because the joys far outnumber the pains. It was such a rush doubling our crowdfunding goals, and it’s awesome reading coverage about us in the newspaper and seeing us featured on TV. I work in an awesome workshop with four lovely, funny, kind and generous women, and we are constantly laughing about one thing or another. I am proudest when people contact us with feedback about our briefs and bralettes, when they say it is their favourite pair, or that they can’t wait to take it off the washing line because they can wear it again. Having an amazing product is the only thing that will make Nisa a sustainable business, as I know that people will buy once because they love the idea of what we are doing, but they will only become repeat customers if they love the garments we make.
Sometimes I am a bit overwhelmed with the task in front of me, but I think about how far we’ve come and I draw energy from that. The secret hope is that if I make Nisa profitable enough, one of my employees will take it over and I’ll be able to run away to the French countryside (or some other idyllic location). But let’s keep that between us.
This story originally appeared on Idealog.