Elisha Watson is a woman on a mission. This young social entrepreneur is an inspiration - and we’re so thrilled to have her amazing underwear garments on Peddle. We catch up on a Google Meet chat, and she’s busy in her Wellington factory. It’s 2pm and even though she’s been so busy she hasn’t had a second to grab any lunch yet, her positive energy is palpable, even virtually.
Elisha is our kind of gal. She has recently been named a finalist in this year’s SheEO New Zealand Ventures Award - an incredible acknowledgement of the outstanding innovation and contribution that she and her team are making to bettering the world.
Three years ago, Elisha made a life-changing decision, that is changing the lives of others. A successful litigation lawyer, she volunteered at the community law centre and Red Cross Resettlement programme in her ‘spare time’, working with former refugees who had come to New Zealand in search of a better life.
Rather than just help people with problems, Elisha wanted to create opportunities for these people who so desperately needed support, especially when it came to finding employment.
A keen sewer, she realised that many of the former refugees she met themselves had sewing skills - skills that could be easily transferred without depending on language, which is often a barrier for refugees finding gainful employment.
Elisha decided that a business manufacturing garments would provide employment opportunities for many of the former refugees she met. But being sustainably-minded, she didn’t want to just add more clothing to an ever-increasing world of fast fashion.
“Underwear is something that people really need, and it isn’t something people are generally happy to buy second-hand. So I felt really comfortable that underwear would be a good line of clothing to produce.”
So Nisa was born. Nisa is Arabic for women, and is a social enterprise employing women from refugee backgrounds to make organic cotton underwear. The Red Cross’s Pathways to Employment programme that helps people into work was Elisha’s line into finding former refugees to employ for her endeavour.
Her first three employees were Boshra, a young mother from Syria; Olivia from Myanmar, and Fowziya, who came alone to NZ from Somalia.
She now employs 11 people, and has ambition to grow the business to 50+ employees over the next few years.
When I asked Elisha what the trickiest part about setting up her business has been, she laughed.
“My answer changes depending on the week. Not just one thing has been tough - every week there are tough things. But the one thing I wasn’t highly skilled in at the beginning that I’ve now got my head around is finances and how to read the books - that is crucial to keeping us a successful business.”
Like many founders, Elisha only started paying herself a small salary a year ago, but hopes that in the near future she can replace her role in the business to focus more on its growth. But for now, it’s her company’s purpose and the people around her that keep her going.
“I absolutely love my colleagues, and the creativity of what we do. People buy from us the first time because of our story. But they come back and buy again because we produce a really high quality product.”
Not just anyone would give up a well-paying legal career to start a business with an uncertain future. But Elisha wants to bring about positive change in the world, and has thrown herself into her mission boots and all.
“It’s really tempting to do a slowly slowly approach. Especially if you’re transitioning from a paid job to working in your own business. But I believe it’s better to fail fast and know if it’s going to work or not.”
Elisha’s story is such a good one. Not only do we love her products, but her philosophy about business resonates with us. So of course, we wanted her advice for those of us starting out in or trying to grow our own businesses.
“I never would have thought of myself as a business person. But I have a total love for it. You don’t know what it’s like until you do it. So jump in. Make a decision about how much you throw at the wall. Don’t hold back, or be too cautious. Give it everything and see where the chips fall.”
You can pick up Elisha’s range of underwear - briefs, bralettes, socks, camis, lounge pants and men's briefs - here.