Elisha Watson (second to left) bonded with resettled women over their shared love of sewing. (supplied)
Elisha Watson (second to left) bonded with resettled women over their shared love of sewing. (supplied)

BusinessMarch 1, 2018

The Primer: the NZ underwear company employing refugee seamstresses

Elisha Watson (second to left) bonded with resettled women over their shared love of sewing. (supplied)
Elisha Watson (second to left) bonded with resettled women over their shared love of sewing. (supplied)

Every week we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves through eight simple questions. This week we talk to Elisha Watson, who quit her full-time job as a lawyer to start Nisa – an organic cotton underwear company that employs women from refugee backgrounds.

ONE: How did Nisa start and what was the inspiration behind it?

Before this, I was working as a lawyer and in my spare time, I volunteered with the Red Cross to help resettle recently arrived refugee families.  It was a very special opportunity to welcome them to New Zealand and help set up their lives. However, one common struggle I observed were the difficulties they had in finding a job.

So the idea for a social enterprise blossomed in my mind where I would employ former refugees and utilise the skills they already had to make a lovely product.  I settled on making underwear as many former refugee women had sewing skills. Underwear is an item that we all need that stays well away from the world of fast fashion.

Nisa underwear comes in four different styles of briefs, with matching bralettes, to suit different shapes, sizes and lifestyles. (supplied)

TWO: Did you have any experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Nisa?

I had no direct experience in the business world before I started Nisa, but my work as a lawyer exposed me to the business world where million-dollar transactions were the norm. This made starting Nisa a little less scary since we’re nowhere near dealing with that kind of cash.  However, my mum always said I’d be good in business (although possibly all mothers say that about their children).

I’m hard to embarrass and don’t mind putting myself out there to promote what we’re doing.  You really have to humble yourself and seek help in every way possible to make such an ambitious vision possible.

THREE: Tell me about Boshra, Rana and Fowziya – Nisa’s first three employees – and how they came to be involved in the company.

Boshra (26) is from Homs, Syria and came to New Zealand in 2016 with her three children and her husband. She’s an excellent seamstress and has so much potential. Rana (42) is from Baghdad, Iraq and came to New Zealand with her husband and children in 2012. She has such an affectionate and warm personality. Fowziya (27) came to New Zealand alone from Mogadishu, Somalia in 2015. She’s desperately hoping her family can join her soon. She’s a total ray of sunshine and makes everyone smile.

We work hard at our studio, but there’s constant laughter over some misunderstanding or another. The Red Cross Pathways to Employment team were the key to finding our first employees – they supported me and the candidates through the entire process and made sure we were all on the same page.

Rana, Fowziya and Boshra all came to New Zealand as refugees (supplied)

FOUR: What’s the story behind the name Nisa and why underwear rather than other forms of clothing?
The name Nisa means ‘women’ in Arabic. I chose the name because it held meaning for a few of our employees and because we make underwear by women, for women.

In regards to why we chose underwear, originally the plan was to make women’s clothing. But it’s such a competitive field and I always felt like there was enough clothing in the world already (I’m a big fan of second-hand clothes). Underwear, on the other hand, is something that wears out and very few people are willing to buy second hand. People genuinely need underwear. At the same time, it felt like the world of lingerie was controlled by men. Our vision is to make ethical underwear that firmly has women in mind, and is neither lacy nor frumpy.

FIVE: What kind of support have you received so far in terms of getting the business off the ground?

We received a seed grant from the Wellington City Council to help set up the workshop and get things off the ground. A few months later we ran a crowdfunding campaign. Our target was to raise $10,000 to buy some more industrial sewing machines. But the day our campaign was launched, we were on the front page of The Dominion Post! We received an outpouring of support from Kiwis all over the country, with some people donating thousands of dollars each. It seems that we struck a nerve and people were really moved by what we are trying to achieve. We ended up raising $20,000, which allowed us to employ a production manager to further train our employees and look after the workshop.’

Nisa undies are made from soft organic cotton knit fabric and locally-woven elastics to create “a hug for your bottom”. (supplied)

SIX: What do you think are some ways the business community in New Zealand can help when it comes to refugees and former refugees in New Zealand?

Employ people from refugee backgrounds. They’re awesome employees, and although they do need more support with language, it’s totally worth it. We all need a helping hand sometimes.

SEVEN: Do you any plans to scale and if so, what are they?
Our ability to scale depends directly on how many people buy our underwear. We receive a number of emails every month from former refugees looking for work, so the motivation to grow is definitely there. If sales go well, we can give more former refugees those crucial employment opportunities. The dream would be to expand the size of our Wellington workshop as well as open workshops in other cities in New Zealand where refugees have resettled. One day, we might even be able to take the concept global!

EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a start-up or business that you really admire right now. 

I admire what Pomegranate Kitchen and Little Yellow Bird are doing. They’re two Wellington social enterprises run by women who care deeply about social issues and are taking a stand against ‘business as usual’.  They’re just cool people doing inspiring things.

The Spinoff’s business content is brought to you by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.

Check out how Kiwibank can help your business take the next step.

Keep going!