Why a Wellington lawyer quit her day job to enter the underwear industry.
Words Natalie Cyra. Photography Virginia Woods-Jack
Social enterprise Nisa is an organic cotton underwear brand employing women from refugee backgrounds in a bid to give them independence, self-esteem, skills and a way to provide for their families.
Elisha Watson was a successful litigation lawyer working in Wellington when one day she decided to give it all up. It all came about after she began volunteering for the Red Cross’ refugee resettlement programme, and in the conversations with families she worked with, one request kept coming up: “help me find a job.”
Watson had learned first-hand the obstacles, particularly around language, these people faced in acquiring employment. “After everything they had suffered in their countries of origin, and the years-long process of gaining refuge in a new, safe country to call home, it really bothered me that these people who so desperately wanted to support their families and contribute to their new communities often weren’t able to do so, despite often having had highly respected jobs in their home countries,” Watson says.
Having long been a keen sewer, Watson soon learned her interest was shared by many of the refugees. “I realised I could provide a solution – by starting a garment manufacturing company, which would utilise skills they already had and didn’t require a high level of English language ability.”
While the prospect of giving up her income for an uncertain future was daunting, once the idea for Nisa, a social enterprise employing women from refugee backgrounds to make organic cotton underwear had formed in Watson’s mind, she knew she had to try it. She resigned, taught herself to use industrial sewing machines, and hired her first three employees: Boshra, a young mother from Syria; Olivia from Myanmar, also a young mother, and Fowziya, who came alone to New Zealand from Somalia.
Nisa’s range includes organic cotton underwear in briefs and bralettes, which come in a range of colours and styles.
But Watson’s desire to help doesn’t end there. Nisa has recently launched a ‘donate a pair’ campaign, in partnership with The Unmentionables, a project which provides essential lifestyle items at refugee camps through their ‘dignified distribution’ model in Greece, Jordan, Uganda, and Kenya. “The most requested item in these camps is underwear. With the help of The Unmentionables, we aim to provide underwear to 500 women in refugee camps across the world,” she says.
Watson hopes to grow Nisa to 20 employees within the next two years. “Watching my staff in action, it is clear that work has immeasurable value beyond their pay cheques. Their English has improved, as has their self-esteem and independence. They’re providing for their families, and catching public transport for the first time. They’re interacting with and contributing to their community. They’re finding pride in their work.”
To vote for Elisha Watson, category winner for Social Enterprise, as the People’s Choice award recipient, click here.
To find out more about Elisha Watson and Nisa, follow her on social or visit the Nisa website, nisa.co.nz