They said I'd never make it ... but look at me now gallery

Four successful New Zealanders share their stories of triumph despite the lowly expectations of others.

Minnie Baragwanath, CEO of Be.Accessible, says people need to think about what's possible, not impossible.
PETER MEECHAM/FAIRFAX NZ

Minnie Baragwanath, CEO of Be.Accessible, says people need to think about what's possible, not impossible.

Minnie  Baragwanath, 45,  CEO of Be.accessible social change agency

"At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease - a degenerative condition that has left me legally blind. I don't have vision in the centre of my eyes but I have peripheral vision.

Growing up in Palmerston North, I found there to be very low expectations for blind people. I became increasingly aware of that belief system. You have to be pretty resilient not to buy into that.

I quit school in my last year and enrolled at Massey University, where I found it easier to learn listening to lectures. I absorbed a lot by listening.

I got through my BA in three years. It was a hard slog and I was so proud to have got my degree. But not long after graduating, I remember my friend's father saying I might be able to get a job as a telephonist.

Here I was, 19 years old, just graduated with my first degree and he was suggesting this as my career path. He didn't mean it meanly. I'm sure he thought he was being forward thinking even to think I could get a job.

But it would never have entered his mind to suggest this line of work to his daughter.

A lot of people cautioned me around expectation. It was not designed to be malicious; it was probably designed to be protective.

We largely operate in a society where the message is often not very positive about what blind people can do. There was this assumption that blind people, especially women, should not expect to get a job, to be married, to have children, to own your own home, to be socially integrated.

But I refused to be defined or limited.

Despite my poor vision, I did what all my friends were doing through university: waiting tables. I needed a job and money like anyone else.

I used to memorise where the tables were, who was sitting where by their voices, I had the menu committed to memory. But I wasn't very good. Clearing tables, I used to pick up wallets and keys by accident.

Like all my friends I travelled overseas spending nine months in Japan teaching English. This was an incredibly challenging and difficult time and one that taught me a lot about what I could and should not take on.

On my return, I got a job on Kapiti TV reporting and interviewing. I absolutely loved it and realised then that I wanted a career in media so I went back to study, this time, a bachelor of communications at AUT.

I had a lot of support but there were the inevitable naysayers. I recall one woman saying 'You can't work in TV if you're blind. How could a blind person work on television? You should look at other options for your career.'

These kind of moments either make or break you and I remember thinking 'Who is this woman to define my life? Who is the one with limited vision here?'

I believe the most powerful thing to challenge people's perceptions is to model something different. So I did get a job on television. For the next eight years I presented Inside Out – a disability TV series.

After reporting on social change I decided it was time affect social change on the ground so I started working in local government as the first disability advisor on the Auckland Council and through that I started to really explore how to affect social change.

That led to the creation of Be.accessible - a social change agency that aims to make NZ the most accessible country in the world through business, employment,  and leadership programmes.

Unfortunately we do still live in a society where people very quickly decide what someone with a 'disability' can do and it drives me absolutely batty. How dull. Imagine if we all went round telling people the thing they couldn't do.  It's so much more interesting to imagine all the things we can do.

Everything I do in my work is about challenging those beliefs. Every day is about redefining. All the evidence shows that those with some kind of experience with disability are better problem-solvers and more creative and flexible thinkers because every day you are problem-solving and thinking of creative solutions to life.

I think the most powerful message I could give to people living with any sort of disability is to live a full and beautiful life.

And to society? Open your minds and your hearts to possibility. Take a moment to think about what's possible, not what's impossible."

Hell Pizza marketing manager Jason Buckley. In the boardroom complete with rabbit skin billboard. Photo: Kevin ...
Kevin Stent

Hell Pizza marketing manager Jason Buckley. In the boardroom complete with rabbit skin billboard. Photo: Kevin Stent/Fairfax NZ

Jason Buckley, 45, marketing manager for Hell Pizza

"I was always told quite openly by people that I was the 'black sheep' of the family.


My three siblings, all a lot older than me, were big academic achievers and have gone on to have very successful careers but I was not in the least bit academic and failed just about every exam I ever sat. There was a lot of expectation to achieve at school by teachers who had taught my brothers and my sister but I didn't measure up.

I had a speech impairment as a kid, too, and that, along with underachieving at school, led to all sorts of bullying.

Even teachers would smirk and snigger when I talked.

In my form two (year 8) report one teacher wrote 'Jason will never amount to anything.' That still breaks my mother's heart. She cried when we talked about that the other day.

Looking back, I recall a few really amazing teachers who said I had the gift of a great personality and the ability to help people and that was the biggest endorsement I ever got at school. But there were other teachers who called me a loser and a failure and said I'd never leave the small town where I was growing up.

Even then I saw the irony that these teachers were still in the town they said I'd never leave.

I left school at 17 with no academic certificates behind me and trained as a hairdresser. My speech impairment was still a millstone around my neck. It as like a bad tattoo, I knew I would be prejudged in any kind of job interview.

I quickly realised I would have to make my own way in the world and rather than try and work for someone else I opened my own salon at the age of 20.

I cut hair till I was 30. When I started to feel the onset of OOS (occupational overuse syndrome)  I decided to buy into the Hell Pizza franchise and for five years I ran two in Hawke's Bay. I then moved to Wellington where I bought the Cuba St shop. I managed to increase sales by 50 per cent and it became the busiest Hell store out of 66 in New Zealand.

A turning point in my career was getting to know Hell Pizza owners Callum Davies and Stuart McMullin.

I'd decided at the age of 40 I was ready for my first 'real' job. I'd gained confidence running the shops and one morning I woke up and said to my wife Amanda, I'm ready to work for someone else. As Callum and Stu had been so supportive of me in the past I asked them for a job at their Wellington headquarters.

They offered me a marketing apprenticeship which I gladly accepted. After three years I was in charge of their national marketing. These guys had faith in me and that was a real novelty to me. My parents and siblings have always been my biggest supporters but for someone outside the family to give me a chance, to go out on a limb like this when I had no qualifications, was pretty awesome.

With every cruel jibe I have encountered in my life I maintained I wanted to be a better person and help others who are up against it or disadvantaged in some way.

In this light I have engineered, with Stu and Callum, an ethos of community support with my work.

Satan's Little Helper was set up to help people going through hell. One of the initiatives was setting up the ACTIVE programme - putting IHC adults through store training for eight weeks to give them work skills. In the past two years we have also become involved in getting Kiwi kids into reading.

When I discovered my kids were getting bullied for going to the library we got involved with Library and Information Association of New Zealand pledging rewards for kids who reached reading targets. More than 400 school libraries are involved and we have issued more than 100,000 reading cards where kids aim to read eight books to get a pizza or a book bag.

It gives me huge satisfaction to see these kids going to the library and realising that it's cool to read.

Katie Appleyard, neuroscientist and fashion blogger.
Stacy Squires

Katie Appleyard, neuroscientist and fashion blogger.

One of the most important things anyone ever told me was that when someone says something cruel about me, I must remember that it is their opinion and that opinion doesn't matter to me. That has served me well in life.


Katie Appleyard, 29, scientist, fashion blogger

"I struggled with maths and science as a student.  Now I am a neuroscientist.

I wanted something so much I was prepared to put my all into getting it and defy the naysayers along the way.

NZSO 2nd violinist Sharyn Evans
David White

NZSO 2nd violinist Sharyn Evans

Academic achievement didn't come easy to me. I had to work hard for it. Early on in life I was a lot more creative than academic and I don't t think my academic intelligence kicked in till later on in life. Once I found that thing I was super passionate about it was easy to become a master at it.

That was my attitude, but if someone who is a bit vulnerable is told early in life they are no good, they might carry that through into their adult life.

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In the traditional school system if you're failing in one area it can affect your self esteem. That happened to me. I was good at writing but really struggled with maths and that made me think I was not very bright when in actual fact, I was.

Growing up in Christchurch, I recall one particular interview where my high school chemistry teacher told my parents 'Katie will never be a chemist. She struggles with the subject too much.' Now I have a chemistry degree.

When I finished my undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology I decided I wanted to study neuroscience. My grandmother had Alzheimer's disease and I became really interested in the brain.

But when I went down to Dunedin one of the professors said to me 'this is probably going to be a bit too tough for you without doing any undergraduate neuroscience.' Initially I let this discourage me but at the last minute I decided to go for it. I ended up getting a distinction for that year and got to skip my Masters and embark on my PhD looking at the role sleep plays in child development.

Sometimes when some one discourages you it can actually help you succeed. It's only then you realise how badly you want it. There's a voice inside me that says well, I'm going to do it anyway because the thought of not doing it is really sad. I'd rather try and fail than never try at all.

Everyone is going to have an opinion about what we do. There's always going to be someone who might want to discourage you. For me, it's been about learning not to be influenced by other people's opinions and to try and work out what  I really want from my life, what I'm willing to work hard for, therefore anyone's opinion about what's good enough or not shouldn't matter.

My advice is, rather than worrying about the opinions of others, look inside yourself and see how badly you really want to reach your goal and if you want it enough there should be no stopping you. And whether you reach it or not does not matter, something unexpected and amazing might come out of that journey.


Sharyn Evans, 63, second violinist with the NZSO


"From the age of  6,all I ever wanted to be was a violinist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. My parents and my grandfather were musicians and I made up the family quartet with the violin.

My parents used to take my older sister and I to NZSO concerts when I was  3 years old. I remember sitting in the front row and being in awe of these musicians.

My passion for playing the violin never wavered. And so, after years of lessons, going to music holiday programmes and playing in youth orchestras I finally got  into the NZSO trainees in 1969 and three years later I became a fully fledged member of the orchestra.


I had realised my dream. I'd made it. I remember being on stage thinking 'I can't believe I'm being paid to do what I love, what I'd worked so hard for for so many years.'

But in the October of 1988 a car crash put my career in jeopardy.

I was out with a friend on a shopping trip when our car collided with another at 100kmph. As the passenger, I took the brunt of the crash. My injuries were severe; broken pelvis, smashed foot, ripped tendons, but the injury that I feared the most was my left arm.

I was trapped in the car for 50 minutes and I remember being aware that my arm was very badly hurt. I recall telling the people cutting me out of the car, the medics, that I was a violinist, that I needed my arm. But I knew I was in trouble.

The arm was badly broken and is now three inches shorter than my right arm. I needed two plates and 13 pins.

As I lay in my hospital bed the physio told me I would never be able to be a full-time musician again. She suggested I retrain for another profession. She probably thought she was being realistic but I just did not accept what she was saying. That was just not an option for me. I had worked too hard to realise my dream of becoming a musician. I loved my job too much to blindly give in. I absolutely knew I would be back and I told everybody as much.

Six months later I went back to the orchestra. I was longing to get back to work. I wanted to be back with my husband Gil Evans, who was a trumpeter for NZSO. But I only lasted until morning tea. I found it too difficult to sit down for any length of time. I struggled with the vibrato. I was told to take more time to recover so two months later I tried again. But once again, I found I was not physically ready.


A year after the accident I returned to the orchestra and this time, after a lot of hard work, I was ready. I remember that wonderful sense of belonging when I was back on stage with the other musicians. They are like a family and it felt good to be back in the fold.

I never for one moment considered an alternative career. I think if you want something badly enough, you can do it. And if you don't, at least you tried. My advice after what happened to me is not to preempt an alternative until you have pursued the thing you really want."

 - Stuff

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