Kawiti and Jesse Waetford: From the operatic stage to the drawing board
After international operatic training abroad and mentorship under Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Kawiti Waetford and his wife Jesse made the move back to Aotearoa. Since then, they’ve founded self-care company Modern Rituals, which aims to help people find balance in their everyday life. We spoke to Kawiti and Jesse about their latest project, how they’ve utilised local business assistance to grow, and their hopes for the next year.
Can you talk a bit to your background and how you came to a career in opera?
Kawiti Waetford: I grew up in Matapouri Bay on the beautiful Tutukaka Coast, Northland. Raised by a solo mum with the support of a wide extended whānau, having Te Reo Māori and Te Ao Māori central to my upbringing through full immersion language schooling at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rawhitiroa- music, song and kapa haka was second nature. With a love of classical music instilled in me as a child by my first singing teacher, the late Joan Kennaway QSM, my passion for performance grew. Jesse and I met at Kamo High School for the last two years of my schooling where she actually asked me to be the “Othello” to her “Desdemona” in the Sheila Wynn Shakespeare Festival in Schools National Competition – the beginning of our now 13-year relationship (thanks Shakespeare!). Through pursuing my vocal training at tertiary level from an undergraduate degree in music majoring in classical voice performance from Otago University, to further overseas study finishing a Masters in Advanced Vocal Studies from the Wales International Academy of Voice in the UK, I was mentored and supported by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and her Foundation both her in NZ and in the UK. It’s not an easy vocation to pursue, but the experiences and performances I’ve had to date in pursuit of the love of this artform have been simply amazing.
To what extent do you believe living and learning overseas helped to shape your career?
Kawiti Waetford: For me, living and learning overseas serves to give one a broad and global perspective not only of one’s profession and craft but of where and how one fits as a global citizen. As a small country far removed from the rest of the world, New Zealand produces some incredible homegrown talent and innovators, and it’s not until you’re able to move out into the “big wide world” that you get a sense of where you are on a broader global stage – giving you the necessary expertise, training and experience you need to further develop and grow yourself and craft.
What contributed to your decision to move back to Aotearoa?:
Kawiti Waetford: The universe works in subtle and beautiful ways, especially when the most important things to you in life are allowed to guide and lead you through important decisions. For Jess and I, we both felt the pull of home for us at that time – factors including family, life priorities, and pure logistics played their part – with the universe ensuring that we were well setup when Covid-19 hit us all as a global community at the beginning of 2020. We now have a beautiful one-and-a-half year old daughter, Rehutai, with our family being set up and secure based here in NZ continuing to develop in our journeys, and also creating more ways to serve our communities and higher purposes.
You’ve recently co-founded your latest venture, Modern Rituals, with your wife Jesse. Tell us about it!
Kawiti Waetford: Modern Rituals is the brainchild of my wife, Jesse – I am the supporting hands, head and feet to help carry the load. We are perfect opposites in a lot of ways – she the creative ideas person, me the pragmatic executor – and I think that’s both the beautiful (and sometimes difficult) aspect of working with your partner. Having the Robinsons Duo (Cecilia and James) as mentors who are also husband and wife themselves has provided much needed insight in how to manage roles both as life and business partners. And just like them, as a husband I couldn’t be prouder of the work and accomplishment that Jess has put into growing and developing this beautiful business. I love seeing the thought, heart and passion she has for helping others – especially women – imbued into the fabric and fibre of every part of this business.
Jesse Waetford: Kawiti has been a huge supporter of my vision from the very beginning. His help with the back-end financials, business training, networking, and as a soundboard for ideas has been phenomenal.
One of the first things he did after I shared with him my ideas about Modern Rituals was enrolled us both in the Prince’s Trust NZ Business Program. Because of the level 4 lockdown in New Zealand, it was the first time they had rolled this course out online. Our experience with the Prince’s Trust has been life changing. The different speakers and overall course content were all things we learned at the beginning of our business journey and therefore helped us structure our business plan and vision more clearly.
Following the course, they connected us with an incredible power couple, James and Cecilia Robinson, who have continued to support us as business mentors. Following the Prince’s Trust training we were lucky enough to take part in the Ka Hao i Te Ao E-commerce Programme, run by Te Whare Hukahuka. This 12-week online course awarded those fortunate participants with a $7,000 scholarship which covered the cost of the course. This was another incredible opportunity that taught us the technical aspects of running an online store, and brought some inspiring indigenous and non-indigenous entrepreneurs from around the world to speak virtually to the students. Both the Prince’s Trust NZ and Te Whare Hukahuka gave us skills that we didn’t have and helped get us to where we are today with our business.
How did Modern Rituals start?
Jesse Waetford: The Modern Rituals journey started at the beginning of 2020 when the name tapped me on the shoulder one night before bed. I had previously been trying to dream up a name for another business idea, but when Modern Rituals came calling, I knew I had to take her hand instead.
When I first became a mum, I quickly found how easy it was to get caught up in the busyness of life, struggling to find time for ‘self care’. Spending each day with a newborn isn’t easy and any down time would come in the form of a nap or someone else taking a blissful moment to hold our baby – even if it was just enough time for me to shower and put on a fresh set of clothes. Over those first few months, my entire concept of self care shifted and I really saw how important it was to have that time to love on yourself; not only does it make you feel more human and less robot, but it nourishes you from the inside out.
The intention behind Modern Rituals is to provide simple yet stunning self-care products that help remind one of their magic and inspire people to honour themselves every single day. We hand make all of our products in small batches which are infused with different types of botanicals, essential oils and crystals. Our vision for Modern Rituals is to help people, especially women, to slow down and take more meaningful moments of self care through the ritual aspect of our products.
Now more than ever connections and community has been playing a significant role in the growth of New Zealand businesses. Is there a particular connection that you’ve made that has amplified your career or business?
Making connections with other business owners has been so important to us, especially in highlighting the importance of supporting other small NZ businesses. As human beings our humanity comes to the fore in times of adversity, and NZers are especially known for banding together in times of need. We’ve made many important connections – a lot of them highlighted above. Someone whose advice we couldn’t have done without is another powerhouse of business woman entrepreneurship, Rachael Negus from eKo NZ clothing and homeware, who also happens to be Jesse’s mum. Businesses like hers have helped kickstart us through wholesale orders that also provide valuable marketing promotion in different parts of the country.
What has been a surprising challenge?
Jesse Waetford: The juggle of mum life and running a business has definitely meant that there have been some challenges along the way. The toddler stage definitely requires your care and supervision 100% of the time, so working while she is home is almost impossible – plus I want to make sure I am always present when we are together and not working all of the time anyway.
Our daughter currently attends a local daycare 3 days a week, which has helped to add structure to the work I can put into the business. However, I do still find I have to work late at night when she is sleeping, especially if we can’t send her to daycare because she has a cold or a tummy bug – each week is so different.
Another challenge for me is doing (mostly) everything myself, including all of the branding and labelling for products. I guess I wanted to prove I could do it all, but it certainly wasn’t as easy as I anticipated – alas I got it done, and I think I did a pretty good job.
What have been the most useful resources that have helped Modern Rituals achieve growth?
Jesse Waetford: The use of Social Media, especially Instagram and our online shop platform, Shopify have definitely been two resources that have helped with the growth of the business. Our generation are all using Instagram to shop these days, so it was a no brainer to focus our marketing through the app.
The other things that have helped us was creating automated emails for when people place orders, or sign up to our newsletter. Having a welcome and nurture sequence is a great way for people to get to know you and your brand.
Goals for 2021 and what the future might hold for us?
Our goal is to continue to bring forth different products that inspire empowered self care to the people here in Aotearoa and eventually expand into other markets, such as Australia. Now more than ever, with the global pandemic, self care is a crucial step in maintaining ones mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. We aspire to do this while also caring for the earth in a sustainable manner, ensuring our products have little to no impact on the environment.
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