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How refugee-powered ethical underwear business NISA is building a force for good

by News Desk

Elisha Watson spent years volunteering with the Red Cross refugee resettlement program in Wellington, New Zealand, while working as a lawyer during the day.

She has always found it easy to connect with other women, and supporting the refugee community in her local area felt like a natural extension of her passion.

Watson tells Women’s Agenda her initial interest in refugee resettlement came from her experience living in Germany where refugee and asylum seekers were seen as political ‘issues’ rather than people with hopes and dreams.

“I wanted New Zealand to be different,” she said. “A place of welcome for people seeking refuge.”

Leaning into her passion of building a business for purpose, Watson decided to attend evening sewing classes at the local community education centre.

“I wanted to learn so that I could make my own dress for a wedding I was attending, so I ended up teaching myself a bit of pattern making too,” she said.

Soon after, Watson launched NISA, employing women from a refugee background to sew (in her words) — “kick-ass undies”.

The underwear is made from organic cotton sourced from India, and Oeko-Tex (textiles tested for harmful substance) and Blue Sign (environmentally sustainable) certified.

“A bit of naivety is important,” Watson says of bringing the vision of NISA to life. “Otherwise no-one would ever start a business, let alone a social enterprise!”

“I didn’t really have fears, because when you’re starting things you’re blissfully unaware of all of the complexities and challenges that you’ll be faced with in the future.”

Watson’s business model focuses on up-skilling staff and supporting them with language learning. Most of her staff are from refugee and migrant backgrounds, which she believes creates a warm working environment where cultural knowledge can be shared as well as open opportunities to practise English.

She credits other female leaders with helping her business succeed.

“I’ve found so many amazing mentors who have helped me to build the business,” she says. “My advisory board consist of four very strong women who are pioneers in their own field, who contribute so much to NISA’s growth.”

“Being a female in business is an asset, as there are so many awesome female-focussed incubators and programs.” 

Watson’s brand is among a growing number of independent, female-led, eco-friendly underwear companies offering consumers intimates-wear with an ethical focus. The demand for these products (as well as Watson’s independent drive) has seen her succeed in launching a social venture from scratch.

“Regardless of what motivates your departure from your job, it will happen and you need to plan for it, or you risk undermining a business you’ve worked so hard to build,” she says.

“For us, the dream would be for one of our employees to be able to take over the business, with financial backing from our thousands of customers. This is part of the reason I am looking to do a capital raise, to start that process of growth that would make NISA stronger, more resilient, and able to flourish on its own. That’s what success looks like to me.”

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