Elisha Watson, Nisa’s founder, reflects on the journey from setting up a small workshop on Kent Terrace 5 years ago to now, with Nisa employing 15 staff. Pictured: the first Nisa workshop on Kent Terrace.
How did Nisa get off the ground?
I quit my job in 2016 to set up Nisa. I had been working as a commercial litigation lawyer in Wellington, and in my spare time I was getting involved with the refugee community as a Red Cross resettlement volunteer, and providing legal advice to refugees and migrants at the Community Law Centre. I met so many amazing people, and shared a love of sewing with a number of women in the community. I began to wonder if I could use those sewing skills to help them overcome a barrier that they had talked to me about - that of finding a job.
I got more and more excited about the idea, and when I got a small grant from the Wellington City Council, I knew that it wasn’t just me being crazy - that other people thought it was a good idea too and would support it. So I handed in my notice at work and took the plunge.
I thought underwear would be a good product to make because it’s easy to ship around and wouldn’t take up much room if we could only have a small workshop. And to be honest, I also didn’t have much interest in being a fashion designer or making clothes that would only be worn for one season. Underwear was an item that people need, which I could feel good about making.
I didn’t have any experience in the garment manufacturing industry so setting up the workshop was a bit hit and miss - I ended up buying some things that we absolutely didn’t need, and missing out on equipment that with hindsight was absolutely vital! But after a successful crowdfunding campaign we could employ a production manager, so I stepped out of the production side of the business and actual professionals could work their magic, which was such a blessing.
Elisha and Boshra at the Kent Terrace workshop in 2017.
When was the first time you felt like Nisa became a real, big time business?
When people ask me how big the Nisa team is and I tell them it’s around 15 people, some people are like ‘oh that’s quite small’, and others are like ‘woah what a big business!. Who I agree with depends on the day really.
There have been quite a few ‘pinch me’ moments - like when I was invited on the Prime Minister’s trade delegation to Australia (sadly in the end I couldn’t attend as I was too pregnant to fly on the PM’s plane), and when I speak at big fancy conferences and people seem to be interested in what I have to say! My favourite thing though is when Nisa customers stop me in the street and show me their Nisa bra strap (or the elastics on their underwear) and tell me that it’s their favourite ever thing to wear and their goal is to fill up their whole underwear drawer with Nisa products.
I never guessed I would have such a passion for business - I started Nisa because I wanted to create employment opportunities for women in Wellington from refugee and migrant backgrounds, and business was something I had to do to achieve that goal. Luckily for me it turns out that I absolutely love it! It’s so creative and challenges me every single day. I really enjoy being able to experiment with everything from different creative concepts to new business systems and see the results, sometimes as quickly as at the click of a button!
The opening party for the Willis Street Nisa workshop, 2019.
What are some of your favourite funny stories from the workshop?
Being an underwear label, a lot of the most humorous moments come from - you guessed it - underwear! A memory that leaps to mind was at a shoot where we were doing website photography for our cotton g-string. The g-string looked incredibly narrow on the front of the model, and I was like ‘oh dear, something has gone wildly wrong with our product development’, and after a bit of head scratching it dawned on me… she was wearing it back to front! Everyone burst into laughter and we honestly struggled to regain our composure!
Where do you want Nisa to be in 5 years?
My dream is to have an alumni of 100 employees from refugee and migrant backgrounds who use their experience at Nisa as a springboard for their own careers. I feel so proud about what some of our staff have gone on to achieve - whether that’s entering tertiary education, finding another job in the industry, or having the confidence to try something completely new!
I’m proud to say that we’ve employed 30 people from refugee and migrant backgrounds since we started, so we’re 30% of the way to that goal.
The Nisa team in 2021.
Who are some special people outside of the business that have helped you along?
I have to give a big shout-out to our advisory board - a team of women from the business, fashion and media world who have supported me every step of the way. They’ve seen a fair few tears, and have given some really stellar advice. They have averted a few catastrophes too… like when I was convinced we needed to buy a caravan and sell underwear out of it.
We’ve also had help from some unlikely places - George Janus, a commercial real estate agent, has been one of our biggest fans and found us both of our workshop premises - thanks George!
We’re also now really lucky to have the support of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. It’s so powerful when you are surrounded by people who want to see you succeed, and have the experience and advice to help you do it!
Who inspires you?
My team. Every single person in our team gets out of bed every day and gives it their all. So even when it’s hard and I feel like giving up, I think of them, their motivation and commitment, and the beautiful community we’ve created together. That’s the fuel that keeps me trucking along.
I’m currently on maternity leave looking after my first baby, and it’s so cool seeing what the team are achieving in my absence. It’s definitely a challenging time with inflation running rampant and consumer confidence being low, but I couldn’t imagine a better group of people to captain the Nisa ship.
Hearing the stories of our team is also very moving, and reminds me of why I started Nisa. Our team have come from all over the world, and many have faced real hardship and challenges to get to where they are - and seeing them thrive, make new friends and learn new skills that they’ll be able to build on for the rest of their lives is everything!