Made in New Zealand

21:21, Sep 29 2012
Rebecca Taylor
Fashion designer Rebecca Taylor started out cleaning Wellington's Plaza Hotel and clearing dinner trays at Wellington Hospital. She now lives in New York and her clothes are sold in 40 countries.

You might expect they'd be children of privilege, taking on the world armed with the best education.

Far from it. The 39 prominent and successful Kiwis profiled by former journalist Chris Mirams for Made in New Zealand are largely bound by childhoods on Struggle St, fighting to be noticed in big families of small means.

REBECCA TAYLOR Fashion designer, 43

Victoria Ransom
VICTORIA RANSOM: ''I just took opportunities and ran with them and worked really, really hard from day one.''

Far from the high school high achiever, Rebecca Taylor scraped School Certificate and failed sixth form. "The second time I did sixth form didn't go so well either."

She cleaned at Wellington's Plaza Hotel, cleared dinner trays at Wellington Hospital and demonstrated cosmetics at a pharmacy. It was only a dole requirement to attend a work programme that saved her from a lifetime of menial work. Having been fascinated by clothes since the age of 4, Taylor jumped at the option of a one-year costume design course, with mentor Deb Cummings. "When Deb showed me how to make a pattern everything fell into place in my life."

She was turned down for Wellington Polytechnic's design course but her big sister petitioned the head of school and they eventually relented.


The day after she graduated, Taylor moved to New York with her boyfriend and $600. "We were scared witless. It was 1991 or 92 and there were some very dangerous areas to avoid. We walked around with our passports down our knickers; we were too scared to go on the train and would walk 80 blocks instead if we had to."

Undeterred, Taylor jammed a foot in the design door and now distributes her self-named label in 40 countries.

She credits the Kiwi can-do attitude - as a girl Taylor wanted roller skates but couldn't afford them, so she took an aunty's 60s skates, swapped out skateboard wheels and painted them with white house paint.

VICTORIA RANSOM Software entrepreneur, 36

''If you want to be a teacher, why don't you be a professor,'' - that was the attitude of Victoria Ransom's asparagus farming parents when she was growing up in the tiny Rangitikei village of Scotts Ferry.

Parewanui Primary School had two classrooms, one for the little kids and one for the older ones. But the cosseted upbringing certainly didn't limit Ransom's world view. In seventh form at Wanganui Girls' College, she won a scholarship to New Mexico's United World College - home to 200 children from 80 countries.

Ransom never meant to be an entrepreneur. She was going to be a psychologist but ended up an investment banker. She was looking for a learn-to-surf holiday but only found party trips aimed at university kids.

So she founded her own adventure travel company. And when that company needed specialised software, she and her business partner built it.

Then came an MBA at Harvard, and more software - a Facebook application to promote one of her trips, which became Wildfire Interactive. Ransom last month sold Wildfire to Google for a reported $310 million to $490m.

She believes technology, in particular social media, is creating a world of opportunities for the next generation of Kiwis and the country should be working to promote technology, science and maths careers.

''The way I look at entrepreneurship is I always ask: what's the worst that can happen? Well, the worst is that you fail and you go get a job.

''While the success is nice, I don't see myself as anyone special. I just took opportunities and ran with them and worked really, really hard from day one.''


When his father died when he was 4, Kightley's mother brought him from Samoa to New Zealand and he went from spoilt only child to one of eight children in an adoptive family. His adoptive father worked as a machine operator and managed the local billiards saloon, where Kightley would pick up empties and cash them in for milkshake money.

The cricket ball was a lemon wrapped in tape; the bat was a bit of four by two. The church got money before the kids and when his form 3 maths teacher told him he needed a new $30 calculator, Kightley didn't even bother asking his parents.

"It was a struggle, but it wasn't Angela's Ashes. Sometimes you went without, but there was enough . . . School was like holiday camp because it was so much more fun than home."

Kightley learned his love of comedy early and grew up loving Billy T James and David McPhail and Jon Gadsby. Panned for attempts at serious political plays, he found comedy a more effective way of getting across Pacific Island issues.

"The shortest distance between two people is laughter. It can also keep the world away. I learnt that at school when I was about 6 years old. The teacher was doing earthquake drills and she clapped hands and everyone ran to their desks and sat up straight and I ran to the desk and got under it thinking she was starting the drill. All the kids laughed and in that moment something subconsciously happened."

PITA SHARPLES Maori Party co-leader, 71

Pita Sharples talks as if it were nothing. "My father had a violent streak, " he says. Sometimes, the beatings would be so bad he could not attend school for several weeks, until he healed. He's never returned to Himatangi Beach since the day he watched his father give his mother a hiding there.

By anyone's reckoning, Sharples' Hawke's Bay upbringing was tough. The son of a European father (Paul) and Maori mother (Ruiha), Sharples was raised as a Maori. They lived in a shack in tiny Takapau, with no electricity or running water. Sharples slept outside on the veranda.

Life revolved around the marae but the adults only spoke Maori among themselves so he grew up without his native language. The shame that brought spurred him to champion Maori immersion pre-schools and schools, despite angry opposition.

"I got hate letters, was accused of apartheid, death threats and all that kind of rubbish. People drunk at 2am ringing me up, 'You effing prick, you black bastard'.

". . . Thirty years ago, if you asked any politician to name three tribes, they'd be hard pressed to do that. Now, tribal leaders can ring the prime minister and say, 'Let's meet tomorrow'. That's how far we've come."

 - Made in New Zealand by Chris Mirams, photography by Ross Land, HB, Hodder Moa, $79.99.

The Dominion Post