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‘Every day I see something that makes me proud’: The toymaker who runs a social enterprise

Michelle Sharp was a corporate go-getter, working for Vodafone before co-founding a successful tech company. But the Kilmarnock Enterprises CEO says she found her path to happiness when she stepped off the business treadmill.

Steve Jobs said “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do”. I’ve always been a bit crazy.

Ever since I started my first business at age nine, the Garfield Drawing Club, I have been feeding an entrepreneurial hunger that saw me gain a great variety of experience in the commercial world. I climbed to the top of the corporate ladder, and found myself looking back at my childhood. It was there that I found my inspiration to climb back down the ladder and begin a new journey.

Nowadays, the change I fight for is a lot closer to my heart. I am very proud to be the CEO of one of New Zealand’s leading social enterprises, Kilmarnock. We provide education, employment and opportunity for people with intellectual disabilities, empowering them to lead purposeful lives. I believe that with the right support, encouragement and opportunity, we can all achieve incredible things.

Despite all the success I experienced in my commercial career, this is the first time that I believe my younger self would be proud of me.

I grew up on the outskirts of Mexico City in a nearby mountainous village. My family was surrounded by poverty, and on a daily basis I saw firsthand the many barriers that stood between good people with good ideas, and the ability to build a business that would feed them and their families. I witnessed my parents fighting to break down those barriers and give the people in our village the chance to make something of themselves.

Kilmarnock is known for wooden toys, but it’s also recycling e-waste.

I remember days when my brother and I would miss school because my mother had offered the seats in our car to the women travelling to the city markets to make money. I recall being upset about missing school so my mother sat me down and told me that one day away from school would not hurt me, but one day in the market could feed a woman’s family for a week.

I reminded her of this years later when I was twelve years old and we had moved to Newbury in the UK. I was being teased in school for looking different, sounding different and struggling with dyslexia. I repeated her words ‘one day away from school would not hurt me’, she stuck by her words but added that ‘running away from my problems would’. She told me to embrace my differences and that one day I would see the value of diversity.

I adapted the way I learnt to counter my dyslexia and went on to study mathematics at the University of Southampton, and later an MBA at the University of Leicester. I convinced Vodafone to sponsor my studies and I spent my holidays working in the different departments and getting to know all aspects of the business. I saw incredibly well-run units and very dysfunctional ones, and I experienced the way one person could so strongly influence the culture of a company. I credit Vodafone for teaching me the importance of ensuring every one of your employees is happy, supported and has the room to grow and develop. Because if the culture is right, the business results soon flow through.

My greatest commercial success was co-founding and becoming the client services director of Timico Ltd, one of the fastest growing business to business telecommunication providers in the UK. We were a telecommunications, data and IT supplier for the small-to-medium enterprise sector. We repeatedly won the Microsoft tech track award for the fastest growing tech organisation.

In that role, I was able to employ a number of exceptionally skilled second line support technicians on the Asperger’s spectrum. I learnt to adapt the work environment to suit the individual and as a result, some incredibly talented people who had previously struggled to hold down employment were able to excel. It was a great feeling to see my team grow in skill and confidence. But slowly I began to burn out.

I was working excessive hours in a high-pressure environment and realised I barely knew my children. My Kiwi husband and I made the decision to make the move to New Zealand in pursuit of better work life balance.

One day I was walking down Riccarton road and came across Kilmarnock Toys. I was drawn in by the beautiful wooden toys and discovered they were advertising for a part time business development manager. I was overwhelmed by the realisation that I could use my business experience to make a genuine, tangible and lasting difference to people who had experienced endless barriers to secure employment. I cannot describe the sensation of discovering a job that combined both my love of business and the intense desire to break down barriers and unlock opportunities for people who has been unjustly marginalised.

Three years later I was offered the role of CEO, and embarked on the daunting challenge of transitioning Kilmarnock from a charity-based model, to one of New Zealand’s pioneering social enterprises. I began by transforming Kilmarnock’s culture into one that is creative, aspirational, and enthusiastic. One where there is no hierarchy and communication channels are open and receptive.

WITH THE RIGHT SUPPORT WE CAN ALL ACHIEVE, SHARP SAYS. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

As a nine-year-old in those first days of the Garfield Drawing Club I learnt a very important lesson. I knew that Garfield was popular and I desperately wanted to meet other kids my age. So I sent flyers around advertising lessons on drawing Garfield. The only problem was, I couldn’t draw. Thankfully in my first session I found an aspiring artist who could, and that day I learnt a lesson I still carry with me: that a wise leader surrounds themselves with incredible people who are strong where they are weak.

Together, my team turned Kilmarnock’s dire financial situation around by diversifying and stabilising contracts and introducing new, previously unimaginable, revenue streams. We now operate essentially six businesses in one and we’re no longer beholden to one single customer for our financial stability.

Transitioning to a social enterprise has enabled us to leverage business excellence to greatly enhance our social mission. We provide a fun, connected environment where the team is inspired to take command of their future and show the community that we all have strengths, regardless of our disabilities. I suppose this is what my mother meant when she told me that by embracing my difference, I would realise the power of diversity.

Every day I see something that makes me proud. Just yesterday one of my colleagues came to me after being invited to join the Kilmarnock Academy, an in-house training programme where employees can gain NZQA qualifications for work-related activities. She told me that she was going to decline the offer as she had done very poorly in school and was afraid to revisit the academic system that had isolated her so much in her youth. I was able to tell her that we had offered her the slot because we truly believed in her ability to succeed. I shared with her my story and now she looks forward to proving those who doubted her wrong and rediscovering the confidence crushed so many years ago.

I may not live the same high flying corporate life anymore but I have found something that is far more rewarding. Through my lifelong love of business, I am empowering people to unlock their individual potential, find social and financial independence, gain confidence and build a life for themselves that they truly value.

This content is part of an ongoing social enterprise series in collaboration with Kiwibank and the Social Enterprise World Forum.


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