Social enterprise was always on the cards for Isabelle Smith.
For 23-year-old Isabelle Smith (pictured above left, with business partner Josie Milton), being able to ‘give back’ has always been something she wanted to achieve in her career. Currently studying towards her Master of Laws at Georgetown in the US, Isabelle is also putting the entrepreneurial skills she picked up at King’s College to good use, launching a business in early 2017 that would help to address the issue of period poverty in New Zealand.
Here’s what Isabelle has learned over the years and the advice she would share, in her own words:
Miss FQ: Work-wise or study-wise, what are you up to right now?
Isabelle Smith: I’m the co-founder and director at Necesse, a subscription organic tampon service and I’m also currently a LL.M (Master of Laws) candidate at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
Growing up, did you always see yourself in a socially-conscious line of work?
I always knew I wanted to have a career I found rewarding and to me that will always involve the element of ‘giving back’. Currently, I am studying towards a Masters degree whilst working on Necesse remotely. I hope that future career opportunities will allow me to work collaboratively on projects that I find interesting and feel are having a positive environmental and social impact, working alongside colleagues I respect, learn from and enjoy working with. I know there will be times when I won’t be able to tick all of these boxes but hopefully in these cases I’ll be able to achieve a sense of giving back through other activities and involvements.
Our high school years are some of our most formative — what subjects did you take and how did they prepare you for what you do now?
I took quite a broad range of subjects during high school – English, biology, chemistry, geography, business studies and maths – as I had lots of different interests and was never entirely sure what I wanted to do at university. Taking English and geography at King’s College prepared me well for studying law and science at the University of Canterbury (UC). Ultimately, I found my interest in environmental law from the overlap between my two degrees. My decision to take business studies as an optional paper in Year 13 at King’s gave me a great introduction to business and entrepreneurship and definitely sparked an interest in this area for me. As a result, I took a number of business papers at UC and also became involved in the UC Centre for Entrepreneurship and Entre Club.
What’s the best advice you ever received from a teacher?
I can’t remember an exact quote per se, but it was probably something along the lines of “I know or believe you can do better” from a teacher I had at King’s College. It may sound like rather generic advice, but sometimes it’s easy to get sidetracked on other activities or pretend you’re doing your best when you know you’re not. I think teachers can have a powerful role in helping kids see their potential. Receiving this kind of advice was always helpful to remind me that my teachers genuinely cared about me achieving what I was capable of and wanted to see me succeed.
Necesse is an organic tampon subscription service that donates to women in need.
Tell us about how you launched Necesse.
I co-founded Necesse with Josie Milton in early 2017, in an effort to address the ongoing issue of period poverty in New Zealand. The idea was simple – subscription organic tampons, with every order resulting in the donation of a box worth of tampons to women in need – enabling women to support other women. After completing months of background research into the tampon industry, surveying the market in New Zealand, and establishing a business plan, we sat down with Aviva (formerly the Christchurch Women’s Refuge) to secure our first charitable partnership. We then took our idea a step further by entering the Entre $85k Start-up Challenge run by Entre, an entrepreneurial club at UC. Soon after entering the start-up competition we made the decision to begin a crowdfunding campaign, pre-selling our subscriptions to raise enough funds to order our first shipment of tampons. We raised $15,000 in just over one month of crowdfunding, allowing us to reach our suppliers minimum order quantity of 100,000 tampons and get our first shipment on its way. At the beginning of 2018, almost a year after coming up with the original idea for Necesse, we launched subscription sales direct from our website and to date we’ve donated more than 3,000 tampons to charity on behalf of our wonderful Necesse subscribers.
What do you like most about your work?
I have learnt so much through starting Necesse and have been privileged to meet and learn from many wonderful and inspiring people along the journey. Working on a start-up has many challenges and has been time and energy intensive. However, it’s also incredibly exciting to be working in a fast-paced environment, where you can be creative and have control over business decisions. The best part about Necesse is that we’re working on something we’re passionate about, that is having a tangible positive impact on lives of women in New Zealand.
What are the biggest challenges?
Limited resources and breaking into a competitive market. Like most start-ups we’ve had to make tough decisions, particularly financial ones, upskill quickly and we haven’t been able to do everything at once. We’ve also had to work hard to grow and maintain brand awareness and stand out from the crowd.
Isabelle (right) and her Necesse co-founder Josie Milton, won the Entre $85k Start-up Challenge at the University of Canterbury in 2017.
What’s something no one tells you about starting a social enterprise?
A strong social and environmental purpose is key but it is also vital to begin with a sustainable business model, otherwise you cannot maintain positive impact long term. For us, crowdfunding was a fantastic way to grow an initial start-up fund to launch our business and gain a community of supporters from the outset.
What do you think are the qualities that have helped you most in your career to date?
Teamwork, perseverance and humility. I haven’t achieved anything without the support of others, from friends and family to teammates and mentors, and in the case of Necesse, the 300+ Kiwis who backed our crowdfunding campaign. Communication skills and a willingness to learn have also helped immensely. I have been amazed by the generosity of others to help us make Necesse a reality, which we discovered through the simple actions of asking for help or advice when needed or reaching out to make a proposal or collaboration idea to work with other people or businesses. There is no reason to go through the start-up journey alone – working with others has so many benefits but also makes things more fun, and no matter how small you are you will always have something to offer back, whether now or in the future.
What environments and experiences do you think nurtured these qualities in you?
My school experience was very community based – from sports teams, the boarding house and community service. This continued at the University of Canterbury where I was able to join a hostel, get involved with clubs and sports, study abroad and meet new people from all around New Zealand and the world. These experiences all provided opportunities for me to make new friends, work in different team environments, lead and develop my self-management skills. I have my family, friends and community to thank for making these experiences possible and encouraging me to make the most of all that’s on offer.
This article is brought to you by King’s College.