Working to help those in need was always going to be a major part of Christie’s life after growing up in Bogota, Colombia. Her New Zealand born grandparents had a “life calling” to go to South America and work with the poor and her parents ran an orphanage. The children, who she so happily describes as her brothers and sisters, also served as a daily reminder of the country’s poverty.
“I was always conflicted by the actual poverty around the world and I witnessed situations that many people in New Zealand wouldn’t see in terms of poverty.”
Christie’s solution to what she saw was social enterprise. Seeking inspiration from her father, who she describes as an entrepreneur, she made a goal to one day start a business that would sell products made from scratch to raise funds for those in need.
As a teen, Christie tested the theory by selling cakes and muffins to people on her street and supplying the dairy with brownie. Her motivation was to raise enough money to “dress nicely”.
“My parents were starting from scratch so they didn’t have much money to dress us and so it was usually hand-me-downs from church and the girls from church would make fun of me.”
With the money she made she would go to the mall and buy herself something that would allow her to fit in.
By the time Christie moved to New Zealand in 2007, and began her studies at AUT the following year, she was ready raise some money for those who really needed it.
Christie chose a bachelor of business at AUT, graduating with a major in management in 2013. The major’s papers were based around entrepreneurship, innovation and business strategy which quickly gave her the skills she needed to start her own social enterprise.
With the help of her family, Christie imported hand-made art pieces from South America to sell at markets with the money returned to the artists so they could support their families.
Despite her enthusiasm the business didn’t go well as she had partnered with the wrong person. While she says it took her a long time to warm to the concept of starting another enterprise, she remained eager to put her education to the test, so began entering business case competitions through AUT.
“I really wanted to learn more of that area of social entrepreneurship and AUT was just fabulous at it because they gave me the chance to compete around the world.”
Alongside her studies, Christie competed in a 72-hour competition to create a viable business and presented a business case with solutions for an NGO in Singapore. However, her biggest boast is a trip to San Francisco to compete at the Hult Prize competition which identifies and launches top social enterprise ideas.
AUT took two business students, herself included, and two PHD public health students to compete in a health business competition, where they presented a business that would target non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, within slum areas. While the idea was complex for business students, their business strategy knowledge saw the team placed second in their pool.
“It was definitely life changing for us, specifically for me because I really wanted to do something like everyone else who builds a social enterprise and creates some tangible impact in terms of the environment … and it’s very gratifying to be able to throw yourself in the deep end for a good purpose.”
Creating a tangible impact is something Christie is now achieving in more ways than one with Pallet Kingdom. The business has two purposes, the first being to recycle wooden pallets into furniture, and the second is to work with disadvantaged teens who have been referred by their parents or the DHB.
Manual labor is a good way for the teens to keep their brains occupied according to Christie, so she teaches them to prepare the wood, by cutting and sanding it before using power tools to turn it into boxes.
With a friend, who is a builder by trade, Christie also uses the prepared wood to make furniture from her own designs. Though she says she is good with the tools, Christie admits to seeking a more experienced hand to do the finer details.
Despite always envisioning owning her own social enterprise, Christie describes Pallet Kingdom’s start as a “funny story”.
“It came about as an idea, there wasn’t an official moment that we started. As a hobby I started building furniture for my house from the pallets I found discarded and one of my friends saw one of the tables I made and she was completely in love with it so she gave me money for it.”
Now, Pallet Kingdom is so busy they can hardly keep up with demand but thankfully, Christie has her partner in life as her partner in business. Gabriel Acuna-Carvajal, co-owner of Pallet Kingdom, takes care of all the admin while Christie is busy at the workshop.
“He’s a strategist so he’s really good at being able to plan things out in terms of logistics, which really balances my workload in terms of being able to contact people.”
She says they can get 150 emails a week from people wanting furniture made or their discarded pallets collected, meaning time and room has to be dedicated to both. However, Christie isn’t complaining, the more furniture Pallet Kingdom makes, the more it can integrate the local community.
Despite her successes in New Zealand, Christie says it is inevitable she will one day move back to Colombia as she has always wanted her work to help the street kids there.
Christie chose AUT for its small classes and the relationships they encouraged between students and lecturers. She says the lecturers are genuinely concerned for their students, and if grades begin to slip they provide students with a tailored way of leaning.
“I was there last Christmas and it’s just disgusting and really hard to watch, so hopefully I might be able to be connecting both countries in some form.”
When she does return, she says she has the comfort of knowing that her degree from AUT puts her at a higher level than anyone who studies business in Columbia.
Christie chose AUT for its small classes and the relationships they encouraged between students and lecturers. She says the lecturers are genuinely concerned for their students, and if grades begin to slip they provide students with a tailored way of learning. As someone who suffers from dyslexia, Christie appreciated the extra support.
“For me the last year at university was the best and being able to have that personal connection with the lecturers really did encourage me to seek advice and really want to learn.”
She saw even more support from the lecturers as a member of the student organizations Enactus and Think.e which she describes as her “tribe”, saying they studied together and learnt from each other.
“We had faculty advisors who were really nice and helped us and we created a really good relationship with them and some of my lecturers are really good friends of mine now and they give me really good advice.”