Sisters mean business

By Catherine Masters

Women running their own companies carry out a daily juggling act with their business, family and home. As Women Entrepreneurs Week gets under way this week, the focus is firmly on women sharing stories of their success despite the challenges. We talk to four women who are part of Company of Women, an enterprise designed to help the growing number of women in business in this country do even better

NZ entrepreneurial women Cecilia Robinson, Bronwyn Richardson, Kiri Nathan and Tara Lorigan. Photo / Babiche Martens
NZ entrepreneurial women Cecilia Robinson, Bronwyn Richardson, Kiri Nathan and Tara Lorigan. Photo / Babiche Martens

TARA LORIGAN

Tara Lorigan is frank about the conundrums she went through getting her successful business, Company of Women, up and going. It has 300 members and is there to help women entrepreneurs learn and grow their businesses.

Her background is in marketing for big multinationals and she thought she knew a lot about business - but then discovered she had a lot to learn.

"I didn't realise that knowing about it, having worked with a lot of entrepreneurs, was going to be really different to actually doing it yourself."

She started a system for helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses faster and called her company Growmybiz. Company of Women is the trading name of that business now, "but it only became the trading name when I realised Company of Women was the business".

After 18 months she thought about going back into the workforce but her board believed in what she was doing and one member imparted how important it was that she knew what her solid, driving force was.

"I realised after spending some time with him that the driver for me was making a difference. I didn't really care how I did that, actually, although it was fantastic for me to be able to use my skill and ability to invent something that might give me the option of making a bigger difference on the planet. I discovered that I was always going to do that anyway. I learned more about myself than I thought there was possible to learn."

Tara is Irish and has the gift of the gab. When she was 7 in Ireland her family broke up and times were hard but, after emigrating to New Zealand at 14, she remembers being at school and hearing the word "potential" for the first time.

"It was a very exciting word and I think my imagination grasped on to that and it's something that fuelled this [idea] that you can be anything."

When she researched the market for Growmybiz, she discovered how little support was out there for entrepreneurial women. She also found the business support that did exist was based on a premise of telling people what they should do and then standing back if it failed and saying "well, it must be them, it can't be us".

It was neuroscience that helped her realise the system could be changed, not by telling people what to do but by recognising human beings are biologically autonomous and that sharing and helping works better than telling.

"Company of Women is about people on the journey sharing with other people on the journey to expand their thinking so that they, in a trusted environment, can think better and have the right people around them on their own journey."

Events are held and programmes run, and there's a helpline too, so it's not just a talkfest, Tara says.

The most valuable thing about Company of Women, she says, is the amazing women who are a part of it. "They're both highly experienced and highly energised to help everybody. That's a very unusual thing. The most powerful thing that will happen for them at events is the journey is normalised. They go 'oh my God, it's not just me'."

BRONWYN RICHARDSON

"Necessity is the mother of invention." It's an old saying but a good one, says Bronwyn Richardson, a 58-year-old businesswoman who runs an import-export company, but started out in catering for funerals.

When Bronwyn was in her 30s she had four young children and jobs were scarce so she and friend Jody Wooley, who also had four children and who became her business partner, began catering for functions.

They had catered for family and were recommended to others until one day, after catering a 21st party, a woman rang whose mother had passed away in the early hours of the morning.

She asked if they would consider catering an afternoon tea in a few days for 40 to 50 people, and they said no problem. They went into the home and gave a complete service, from the food to the linen. "As we were leaving she said 'I can't tell you what a weight you've taken off my mind, thank you so much, everything was beautiful'. So we thought 'gosh, people must be in this sort of situation [all the time]' so we decided that was it.

"We put a brochure together, we went and visited the funeral industry and that sort of set us in motion. But little did we know it was going to be our niche market."

Five years later they had a "wonderful" staff of 20 and catered in family homes, at cemeteries and in church halls. When families didn't have venues, they found them one.

Theirs became a successful forerunner business - there wasn't another service like it - and in the early 2000s they expanded into Australia, hiring more staff who went everywhere, from mansions to little pensioner flats.

They have since sold the business, but Bronwyn says it took years before she began thinking of herself as a businesswoman.

"To be honest, we were just amazed when things happened for us like they did. So we didn't, and I know it might sound unbelievable, but we didn't actually think well, this has happened because we've done this. We sort of thought, 'oh, aren't we fortunate."'

The pair simply "rose to the occasion", she says. "I look back now and I think 'my gosh', you know, because we were up at the crack of dawn, food was being prepared already, then everybody was off to school and off on functions and, in between all of this, phone calls were coming in for a function the following day or the day after, the phones never went off until we actually went to bed."

These days she is on the advisory board of Company of Women and also runs International Trade Link, which helps companies take their goods offshore and holds the seven categories of business licence to trade in China.

She never thought when she started out this is what she would be doing, but her advice to other women in business is that everything is possible: "Don't think of what you can't do, think of what you can do."

CECILIA ROBINSON

Young businesswoman Cecilia Robinson was almost due to have her baby boy Thomas when she finally went on maternity leave.

The Swedish-born New Zealand national spent the four days until he was due cooking and cleaning and "doing all that normal stuff you should be doing".

But Thomas was late. Instead of putting her feet up, she said to husband James she couldn't just sit around waiting so she wrote a business plan for a dinner-to-your-door company, My Food Bag, which launched this week with recipes by MasterChef winner Nadia Lim.

She went into labour four hours later. Thomas is 6-months-old now and his 27-year-old mother is managing director of My Food Bag and already has another successful company, Au Pair Link. Husband James is a director of both companies.

It's a busy life but Cecilia, not surprisingly, has an au pair to help out. Julia from Germany has been on board for two months and is already part of the family.

Cecilia laughs when asked if she thinks of herself as a go-getter.

"I guess to a certain degree for us it's kind of the norm. It's just the way we live our life. I think anyone can do anything so we really enjoy our lives and work really hard."

Success doesn't just happen, she says. You have to make sacrifices and be willing to roll your sleeves up and do the hard yards.

When that pays off, it's well worth it. In 2012 Cecilia won Her Business Woman of the Year and in 2010 was named by Swedish magazine Shortcut as one of the standout newcomers of the year.

She tells how she was going to law school in Sweden but, to the horror of her parents, decided to go to America where she worked as an au pair.

Instead of returning to law school and, again to the horror of her parents, she decided to then hop on a plane to New Zealand where her brother was living.

She met husband James on her first night, got a job and studied as well but found herself missing her American charges so much she got to thinking there would be New Zealand families who would love having an au pair.

Au Pair Link was born out of a two-bedroom apartment in Auckland and now has 40 staff around the country.

"We place over 1000 au pairs a year, both inbound and outbound, so it's a pretty big business nowadays."

My Food Bag involves ordering a bag of top notch ingredients, which arrive at your door with nutritional recipes so you don't have to go to the supermarket or give up and opt for takeaways after a long day at work.

Making life easier for working mothers is the inspiration because this way they still have the pleasure of cooking but the details are taken care of.

For Cecilia, the venture really does combine business with pleasure: "I just love the idea of creating a business where we can make our nation a lot better eaters than we currently are."

KIRI NATHAN

Fashion designer Kiri Nathan's mum used to clean the houses of affluent people in Remuera and St Heliers.

Young Kiri would go along to help and there would always be the latest fashion magazine lying around - "that's when I started to really develop this love of fashion".

"I just thought they were amazing and these lovely housewives used to gift me the magazines once they'd had a read so I'd take them home and cover the walls with photos of all these incredible editorials and join the clothing class at school. It developed from there."

Kiri has just come back from showcasing at London Fashion Week and is off to China this week: "I sit here and pinch myself and try to take a breath."

Though fashion was her first love, the 40-year-old mother of five - and grandmother of one - says life and a lack of confidence to back herself delayed her foray into the world of fashion and business until just a few years ago.

At 18 she became a solo mother and, to support her son, became a flight attendant. When he was 10 she met her husband Jason, who also had a 10-year-old daughter. They married and had three children in three and a half years.

Life, not surprisingly, is "full on". Travel was not conducive with young babies so a few years ago Kiri hung up her wings and stayed home. But she soon got bored so entered, and won, Style Pasifika. That and other competition wins led her to set up her own business, Kiri Nathan Ltd, and though the company has run at a loss since it began, this year looks set to be the turning point - the aim is to achieve $1 million in turnover.

She credits meeting fashion designer Annah Stretton through competitions as changing her life. Annah is mentoring Kiri and has taken her under her wing.

"I upskilled in her manufacturing unit, I drove down to Morrinsville every day for six months and also I think I upskilled in general by just being around her and watching her in business, watching how she managed situations and people. That was huge learning."

That was last year. They had a collaborative label and from that Kiri met the British High Commissioner and the director of the British Council, who helped get her to London. She says life is a "massive juggle" but her family makes everything real. They are what makes her "get out of bed every day and go hard so that things will be better for them".

Kiri says at the Company of Women she gets great advice and support from other women.

"The one thing a lot of people have kept telling me is when you crack it, it will happen very quickly so make sure you've got all your systems and processes in place so you can move from a very small-scale business to a very big-scale business efficiently and effectively."

• To find out more about Company of Women and Women Entrepreneurs Week go to companyofwomen.biz

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