The co-founder of New Zealand’s first period-proof underwear company, Awwa, didn’t plan to start up two successful businesses after she left her career in corporate law.
But growing up Michele Wilson knew, no matter what she did, she had to achieve one thing.
“I wanted to prove to everyone that I can be successful while being a loud and proud woman of colour. Māori are innovators and it’s time we are recognised for it,” Wilson said.
“To protect me, my family told me to hide that I am Māori. Even in school we were warned that growing up Māori or Pacific Islander meant we had fewer opportunities than our private school counterparts.
“That really p….d me off. Imagine trying to find your purpose in life while denying to everybody who you actually are,” Wilson said.
The 36-year-old ditched the world of corporate law nine years ago after the birth of her first daughter, Eva, for more flexibility and the ability to work on her own terms.
“I became a lawyer to become a legal activist for women’s rights, but then I fell into corporate law.
“I was the only woman of colour at my law firm. You are practising in a Western world and you have to stay true to that all the time.
“I didn’t feel like I was able to work and live who I truly am, a Māori woman.”
According to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs 2019 stocktake on gender, Māori and ethnic diversity on the Government’s 430 state sector boards and committees, 21.1 per cent of board members were Māori, 4.6 per cent were Pasifika, and 3.6 per cent described themselves as Asian. Just over 71 per cent of appointees were European.
That compares with 70 per cent of New Zealanders who identified as European in the 2018 Census, 16.5 per cent who identified as Māori, 8.1 per cent who identified as Pacific peoples, and 15 per cent who identified as Asian.
Wilson said the day she knew she would quit law was when her firm asked her to fill out a time sheet request for a dentist appointment.
“It’s very difficult as a lawyer to have flexibility, especially nine years ago, it didn’t happen.”
After the birth of Eva, Wilson had a personal awakening, reconnecting with her Tainui and Ngāti Paoa heritage, learning te reo and about traditional herbal medicine rongoā Māori.
“Growing up I was told not to study te reo because it wouldn’t get me anywhere. So I studied Japanese instead.
“Now I’m catching up on my Māori study after putting my kids to bed and it’s painful for me because I know I would have had such a benefit. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I started to think I wanted to embrace my Māori culture.”
In 2018, the mother of two helped set up two te reo classrooms at her daughters’ school Matipo Primary in Auckland’s Te Atatū suburb.
Wilson started her first business Frankie Apothecary in 2016 after creating a skincare cream made from kawakawa to heal her Eva’s eczema.
“Her eczema was so bad. Eva was so itchy she would cry and wake up with blood all over her sheets,” Wilson said.
After growing the company to a level where “kawakawa balm became a household name, every mother had it in their house for their child,” Wilson decided to sell the company an Auckland couple to focus her efforts on Awwa, which she started in 2018.
Wilson and her business partner, Kylie Matthews, developed a pair of high-tech undies that could hold the same volume of blood as two tampons.
While studying rongoā Māori, Wilson said she learnt about how Māori women traditionally managed their period before tampons and sanitary pads.
“We would use a plant called angiangi which would be reused until it couldn’t be any more, before it was burnt. It was tapu to have your period, a sacred time because it signified the continuation of our whakapapa.
“When colonisation happened, Westerners had a very different view of periods. It had to be kept secret. It was taboo. Over time even Māori began to believe talking about periods was whakamā or embarrassing.
“I’m really passionate about breaking down those stigmas so women can be proud of who they are.”
Wilson said she wanted to create a product her tupuna would be proud of, one that respected the environment and women.
More women were becoming conscious about the ways they could reduce their waste impact on the environment.
Wilson said the company operated as an essential service online during lockdown and was now using two factories, Sri Lanka and China manufacture the underwear.
Despite Covid-19, Awwa, a team of six women, made almost its last year’s $1 million in revenue n the first six months of this year, she said.
Through Awwa, Wilson has donated 1000 pairs of period proof underwear to schools around the country.
“Māori and Pasifika women were highly affected by period poverty and it’s a huge driving force for Awwa as well.”
The company also donated 5 per cent of all underwear made to charities supporting women.
Wilson said the secrets to running a successful business were to have an innovative product or service that improved people’s lives and loving what you do.
She was planning to set up a third business, wholesaling kawakawa oil she produced with her father.
This year she also planned to grow her Wāhine in Business social media project to encourage women to take up entrepreneurship and share her business know how.
“Our tupuna were innovators, it comes naturally to us. Māori women aren’t told they can go start a business. We’re told to study, go to university, become a lawyer to be successful.
“But women are natural entrepreneurs. I want to share all of my knowledge because what I want to see women of colour become as successful as possible.”
* Nominations for Stuff and Westpac NZ’s annual Women of Influence Awards are now open. For more information about the programme and this year’s virtual Speaker Series visit www.womenofinfluence.co.nz.