Power Women: Nichola Te Kiri of Nichola On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

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You need to take on this attitude like, ‘I don’t care what others think, I’m going to do what I need to do, to be the best for my people, to be the best for this job, and to be the best for this company.’ That attitude would be more like a positive ‘can-do’ kind of attitude. I think you need to be able to celebrate and have that kind of attitude where you back yourself, and you don’t give up.

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nichola Te Kiri.

She is a Contemporary Māori Fashion Designer in New Zealand and the founder of the clothing brand Nichola. From small humble beginnings of polymer clay and bead earrings to mixed media pieces, Nichola continually evolves her designs and mediums to push her boundaries and raise expectations in business, all while being a wife, mother, sister, and a daughter to her family. With her unwavering energy and enthusiasm, she is determined to take her designs out into the world, which has already started when her designs graced the stage of New Zealand Fashion week (2018) and Hong Kong Fashion Week (2019).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I had a great upbringing as a child, my mom and dad were very supportive of me in regards to what I wanted to do. At the time when I was quite young, I had a passion for art and design. At that time art and design wasn’t seen as a very wise career option, because the belief was that you wouldn’t make any money, especially as an artist until you had passed on. So, even though he thought it didn’t have a lot of opportunities for me, he was still really supportive because both my parents knew how much I love that and how strong my passion was to do design. So I was very, very lucky to have great supportive parents in that regard. And education was always a really big thing, especially because my mom has a teaching background and my dad went to teach in college as well, but he worked mostly in the community. So yeah, I had the passion for art and design right from an early age.

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

What led me to this particular career path I suppose was a sequence of ideas and options. I had this idea back in the early 2000s to run my own business, that was when I was living in Sydney. I just wanted a change in my life, and to have a stronger connection to my culture — to being Māori. And so that’s part of this desire to have my own business. In terms of art and design, I have always had a passion for those right from a young age. When I started on the journey of thinking “Okay, I want to become my own business,” I started making products, mainly earrings and jewelry because that’s what I could do at that time. As I’m making these things, people started liking them and it grew from there and it progressed. It was like a cycle, I make things then people liked them, then I put money back into it. So that was more about the jewelry, and in fashion it was actually a challenge that I had sent myself into and I just started off making a few pieces. So I initially made the cape, which is one of our best selling products to this day, and it was probably over 10 years ago. During that time, I saw this competition which was led by Miromoda. It was a competition for Māori designers to put forward a collection, and through the competition you get selected to show it during New Zealand fashion week. That was a challenge that I really wanted to push myself into and so I thought I’d set it as a goal to go and do this Miromoda competition (2017), and I did. So I got the runner up in my category and showed it during the fashion week. It was from there that I have continued on with making clothing, fashion, and collections.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

I suppose the most interesting story about my career as a businesswoman, a designer, and a creative was one about self-limiting beliefs. I had this imposter syndrome, and I remember I made these earrings, wore them, and went away for a little vacation. So I was over there, I walked into a shop and this lady saw my earrings and she said, ‘Wow, I really love your earrings! Who made those?’ At that time I just was not confident in myself, I actually told her that someone else made them. So I said, ‘Oh, thank you, these are great! I know the lady that made them.’ I didn’t actually tell them that they were my own. A lot has changed since then, but I remember it so vividly just thinking ‘Oh, who am I to say that these are mine?’ I just didn’t have the confidence back then like I do now to be quite proud of the things that I make and the things that I do.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I suppose the biggest one for me as a trait is passion. Going back, I think if I was not passionate about what I do, and why I do it, I would not be doing it. Passion is the very core driver that sits within you to make and do what you do — for me that was creatives. If I didn’t have the passion for creatives, I would not be doing what I want to do today.

The second thing for me I would say would be determination. So it came when I was pregnant with my second daughter, I was just so determined because at that time I was a single mom. I was so determined to make something out of my life for my children, and that determination has been planted so deeply inside me that it’s what pushes me to continue to do things and do it again.

I suppose the third trait for me would be curiosity. I have this ‘love for learning’, and it’s just like I’m always thinking of different ideas. I always find myself saying ‘how can I do this’ or ‘what if I did that’ and I have got so many ideas in my head that if I didn’t have those ideas, I think I probably would have my creativity dried up quite a long time ago. So if I didn’t have that curiosity to go, try different things, work different ways, or to try different combinations of materials, I definitely would not be able to continue on, because my creativity would have diminished.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

My perspective on this is that we’ve always seen women in a different light. So we’ve always seen them as nurturers, as mothers, and as caretakers. And back in the day, I’m pretty sure you know, those may not have been seen as a strong quality. This is purely my opinion, but I suppose it’s taken people a long time to shift their thinking in regards to the way women are perceived. Those things that I mentioned, being nurturers, being mothers, being carers, and being seen as emotional, or vulnerable, those are qualities that a lot of people may think of as qualities that aren’t strong, which I actually believe as our strength. You know it took me a long time to accept this, that there’s a lot of strength in vulnerability, there’s a lot of strength in being a nurturer, and there’s a lot of strength in being a mother.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

Reflecting back on when I was in corporate businesses and really big organizations, it was often that there are very few females working in those top job positions. There’s often this feeling of a ‘boys club,’ like men would be at the top, and it was very hard for females to break through. And I think parts of it are still there, for this one particular organization that I’m thinking of where they’re really tight on that boys club idea.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

I suppose it’s having different qualities and values that allow strong women to be approachable. But in saying that, at the same time, if you’re a strong woman, and you’re confident and you may seem intimidating to someone, I don’t see that as a strong woman problem. I think if you’re intimidated by a strong woman, it will depend on what the uneasiness is about. If a woman is making people feel intimidated for wrong reasons, then that’s really an onus on the woman to address. If you’re a strong female, you would have a good gauge on those people around you, and you’d be able to sense it and potentially change it. I think if you’re a good leader, you should be able to pick that up. I suppose just read the room, and read people.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

We need to normalize strong women, we need to put them at the front, and we need to say ‘strong women are no different to strong men.’ We need to be put in these positions where we’re seen and heard and promoted.

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

I do, and I think it’s around expectations as it is set differently for us as females to those of males. I think it goes back to the norms of the society that have been around for years, that they have these preconceived expectations of what women should do and what men should do. So the only space I could talk about that is when there would be a different expectation of me as female, as opposed to my male colleagues, which I think would be unfair. At those times I have actually voiced well saying ‘why is it like that?’ And you’ve got to question these things and challenge these things. Even though I’m a person that doesn’t like conflict, I think brave conversations need to be heard around those situations.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The biggest challenge for females as opposed to males is to be taken seriously. I see it time and time again that we can voice opinions that are the same as our male colleagues, and they’re not taken seriously. I think sometimes we have to be quite disruptive, vocal, innovative, and sometimes we have to be outside the norm just to be heard and to be validated as our male counterparts.

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

Work-life balance has always been an ongoing challenge for me personally. And that is purely because I do everything for my family and yet if I want to achieve the goals that I set for myself and my business; sometimes it’s a bit of a give and take. I find that I am always on that scale, giving more to one side and less to the other, and vice versa. But I suppose the recommendation I can give in regards to that is to always evaluate and self-evaluate the time that you are giving. Luckily I’m at a stage now where my children are a little bit older, so they’re not so reliant on me as opposed to young children. They still do have needs and wants that are quite easy to work with around my workload. But I also think that’s the brilliance of working for yourself; I can make these times and allowances for my family and it may just mean that I have to work later. It’s a bit of a give and take, and I find myself always evaluating and looking at it like ‘have I spent time with my family’ or ‘have I given enough to work?’

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

I would say it’s a routine; routine communication. That means talking to whoever is involved, and making sure that we fit, and whatever needs to be done gets done within the time it needs to happen. Routine communication and then along with a bit of flexibility. I honestly feel that I go through tipping points continuously throughout life. For reference, there was a time during COVID where things were just getting so stressful for myself, that is from business just surviving and and was affecting my time with my family. So that’s when I worked out thinking ‘hey I need to have ‘me time’.’ So I do that now as a part of my routine. I always have two or three hours in the morning for me, and it’s purely for me to do whatever I want to do, which is normally walking and exercising. I find that I have these tipping points quite regularly, and again, I would do self-reflection, and evaluate and work a bit of a strategy for me to move ahead. But COVID was definitely one of those times.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

I don’t think it has anything to do with your ability as a leader at all. I’m also a big believer that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ I don’t think beauty has any effect on being a leader or strong woman. I do take pride in how I look and how I look after myself, but I suppose the biggest thing for me really is ‘self love.’ I think that’s the key really — to love yourself. If you’re talking about it in the context of a leader, for sure I don’t think it has any weight on being a really good leader.

How is this similar or different for men?

I don’t think it even factors into any males at all. Men, I don’t think even had to have this pressure of appearance as females had in the past. I do think things are changing though, but we’re still a long way to go.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

Definitely self confidence. I think you need confidence in yourself and your abilities to be able to be a really strong woman. We could reference back to the story of how I had imposter syndrome 12 years back, and not having that confidence. But again, a lot has changed since then.

The second one goes back to the qualities that I’ve mentioned before, which is passion. Again, passion is my very core driver, and if I didn’t have that passion for creatives I would not be doing what I do today.

Third one would be determination. You really need to be determined and have a strong eye on what you want to do. Fourth, I think you need to be an action person — an implementer. I think you can have all these amazing ideas, but if you don’t implement, then there’s no point.

The fifth one would be attitude. You need to take on this attitude like, ‘I don’t care what others think, I’m going to do what I need to do, to be the best for my people, to be the best for this job, and to be the best for this company.’ That attitude would be more like a positive ‘can-do’ kind of attitude. I think you need to be able to celebrate and have that kind of attitude where you back yourself, and you don’t give up.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

That would be Oprah Winfrey for sure! I would love to have a private breakfast with her, just talk to her, and just be in her presence to absorb her aura, and the essence of her. It would just be so amazing because I see here as a trailblazer, she’s done a lot in a male-dominated world, especially as a black female. She has done so much and she’s so amazing, I love her! Actually, it was her that said something that I’ve taken on board. I was watching either a show or something of hers, and she said ‘there is only going to be one Oprah Winfrey. There is only going to be one you, and that is your superpower, you can never be anyone else but you.’ So for me, there’s only going to be one Nichola Te Kiri and that is my super power. I have taken that ever since probably 20 years ago.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.