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Boss Ladies Part Five: The Kiwi women thriving in the business industry

The fifth of our Boss Ladies series shines a light on Elisha Watson founder of Nisa, a clothing brand that provides employment opportunities for refugee women.  

Watson came up with the idea for Nisa while working as a lawyer and volunteering for Red Cross refugee resettlement programme. She discovered a shared love of sewing and decided to set up a sewing workshop as a source of employment, friendship and community for refugee women. 

Since its launch in 2017, Nisa has provided jobs for nineteen women from refugee and migrant backgrounds, helping them to learn English, develop a skill/career path, make friends and settle into life in Aotearoa. Watson’s long-term goal is to have a community of 100 alumnae who have gone on to inspire their own communities and start their own businesses.

Here, Idealog chats with Watson about the challenges faced by women in the workforce, the importance of sustainability, and the recent success of her business.

How did your passion for sewing come about? 

At the same time as I was volunteering with the Red Cross resettlement program, I had started taking night classes for sewing. I would show the women I was talking to what I had been making, which led to conversations about sewing. I’m a bit obsessive when I am learning something new – I want to be an expert, hence the classes. But now I don’t sew at all – I prefer to leave it to my team of experts!

What was it like making a significant career jump, from working as a lawyer to running your own business?

It was more a case of following what felt right, than making a jump. I was lucky that I knew my family and my partner were there as a support network, so I didn’t have to worry about ending up homeless – I’m very aware that this is a huge privilege that others don’t necessarily have. 

Elisha Watson founder of Nisa

Why was it important for you to provide employment and a sense of community for refugee women? 

I was working at the community law centre and as a resettlement volunteer with the Red Cross, and I saw people that I wanted to help. Nisa’s goal is to provide not just employment but a pathway to a long-term career. Our employees are increasing their confidence with speaking English and picking up life skills such as learning to use Wellington’s public transport network. They are getting out of the house and into the community, of which they subsequently feel a more active part.  And they are gaining the skills they need to eventually move into a full-time position.

What are the challenges that come with being an entrepreneur? 

At a personal level, you need to understand and accept that you can’t make everyone happy. This is something I still struggle with, but I think it probably makes me a better boss and a better person.

Do you think there should be more women in leadership roles? 

Yes, but the issue of women in leadership – the ones who are CEO material – isn’t a priority for me. I’m interested in the women who are working long hours, often juggling work and family commitments, often at the lower end of the pay scale. My work with Nisa has made me more aware of the challenges faced by women in the workforce – especially those of ethnic and refugee backgrounds, and in part-time employment.

For many women of refugee and immigrant backgrounds, their skills and personal circumstances mean part-time work is the only option open to them. Many of them are mothers, and their responsibilities as such often rule out the option of full-time employment. Women and their families should be supported and not punished if part-time employment is the only viable option. 

The benefit they receive is reduced according to the number of hours they’re employed, but if work-related costs such as transport and childcare are high, they actually find themselves further behind than if they were not to work at all.  

(Note: This actually impacts many women in part-time work, so while I have a particular passion for seeing it corrected for women of refugee or migrant backgrounds, actually the benefit would be for many part time workers in Aotearoa).

I’ve seen first-hand, time and again, how much my employees want to work, and how devastated they are when they realise they can work only around five hours a week before it can start to negatively affect their family’s financial position, and let’s face it, five hours a week is not very much at all to build skills, know and confidence in your new country.

Nisa’s long-term goal is to create a community of 100 alumnae who have gone on to inspire their own communities and start their own businesses. You can read about one of our former employees, who completed her nursing training while working part-time at Nisa and is now ready to join the nursing profession – here.

Why is it important to produce sustainable, comfortable garments? 

Sustainability should not be a “nice to have” – it should be a “must-have” for any business and for any consumer. We should be buying things that we will love for a long time and that will last for a long time. 

The modern underwire bra design is based on the corset, which is certainly not considered an item of comfort – and although there may be times and places where it feels appropriate to wear, I want to be making garments that wearers aren’t desperate to whip off as soon as they get inside the house!

How did you feel about having the chance to showcase your brand at NZ Fashion Week (although cancelled)?

It’s bittersweet – we put a huge amount of time and energy into our appearance at NZ Fashion Week, including the creation of a showcase piece. The organisers are still hopeful that the event will be able to take place in the first half of next year, but in the meantime, we are celebrating the fact that Nisa has reached this point in its journey.

Nisa produces a range of garments (bras and briefs, socks, swimwear and activewear for women; briefs, socks and tops for men), using a variety of fabrics (organic cotton, natural merino and regenerated nylon fibre made from fishing nets and other waste products). Garments are available in sizes XS to 4XL, with plans to further extend size range in the future.

Recently, Nisa has launched a new product line: women’s activewear, made in their Wellington factory from recycled yarn that is comprised of fishing nets, plastic bottles and textile waste.

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