Michele Wilson (Ngāti Pāoa, Tainui) is the co-founder and chief executive of AWWA, the first period underwear company in Aotearoa. Previously named I Am Eva, AWWA grew from a Kickstarter campaign that Wilson and fellow founder Kylie Matthews launched in 2018 which received more than $73,000 from almost a thousand backers. AWWA has since grown from strength to strength and was named a Fast 50 Company in Deloitte’s 2022 index, at number 32. Before co-founding AWWA, Wilson spent eight years as a senior solicitor at law firm Morgan Coakle and then another three running Frankie Apothecary, the skincare company she founded, which helped her to reconnect with her Māori roots. She says she “fell into” business after creating a natural solution – kawakawa balm – for her daughter Frankie’s eczema. Wilson grew up in South Auckland and still lives in Auckland with Frankie and older daughter, Eva.

I had a wonderful childhood, with loving parents who are still madly in love with each other today – which is amazing. I had a very adventurous life, and although my pāpā was in the business world and worked really long hours, when he did have time off, we were always having adventures – we grew up sailing. He had a very adrenaline-driven personality, much like I do now. I do think this explains my being an entrepreneur.

Our weekends would be spent sailing on the open waters and swimming with the dolphins and just being really out in the wild. Or we'd be spending time up north on our land in Mangōnui, living completely off-grid, swimming with the eels. When the food ran out, my cousin and I would just jump in the river and as soon as we’d finished swimming, we'd take, like, eight eels out of the water.

That was just normal for us. But those are among my happiest memories – and they're memories I always try to recreate with my own girls now because they had such a big impact on me.

Regular childhood trips on the family yacht led to a lifelong love of the ocean. (Image: Supplied)

When I was young, I wanted to do a few things. One was joining the Navy, because of my love of sailing. Another was to do something to help women. Growing up in South Auckland, I saw a lot of disadvantages from a young age for women, particularly Māori and Pasifika. I didn't know how, but I always knew I wanted to do something to help.

In primary school, I was very shy. I came out of my shell at Manurewa High School. As soon as I started drama there, it was like I found another side of myself – the acting, being silly. At high school, I knew I wanted to get a law degree. Towards the end, I taught myself my curriculum because I had so many relief teachers and they didn't inspire me at all.

I always did really well at school, but I didn't love it because I wasn't challenged at all and was very bored. As well, I always felt like an outsider. But school for me was a means to an end as I knew that I wanted to go to university. 

I studied law and art history at Victoria. By then, I wanted to be either a lawyer or an art curator. I had an incredible time as it was the best place to study. 

Once I did my bar exams, I travelled around the world by myself for about 18 months, which was the best thing I've ever done. It left me with such great memories. I particularly loved going by myself and having the choice to see what I wanted to see, instead of missing out if no one else wanted to go.

That trip definitely changed the person that I am. I started in Asia, then London, before going to Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. I ended up getting an internship in New York at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. That was incredible. After that, I went back to Denmark and stayed there for about a year before returning home just before the global financial crisis hit. 

I grew up outside my Māori heritage, and after the death of my grandmother, it really became apparent to me that if I didn't do something to reconnect with it, it was going to be completely lost, because my daughters don't have the opportunity to grow up with their nanny. So I studied reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa while I was on maternity leave with my second daughter.

Michele Wilson with models wearing AWWA's period-proof underwear. (Image: Supplied)

I love starting up brands and creating them. I just get these ideas. You know how a lot of people get ideas and they don't know where to start? I realised that I know exactly what they need to do. I really love it.

My parents taught me as a woman to be independent, follow my passion and work hard – but never forget about joy as well. As adults – and I certainly have been guilty of this from time to time – you can work really hard, but you always need to fight for your joy as well.

They really taught me about the importance of family and making sure I am taking time to enjoy my children and my family and my purpose. Finding and living your purpose is so important.

I'm a very spontaneous person. I'm an introvert by nature, although a lot of people think I’m an extrovert. It's because of the way I talk and put or portray myself in a situation. I can do it, I can work a room, but then I'll come home completely drained.

I don't like small talk. I like to go deep really quickly and have very deep connections with other people. If those connections are not deep, I'd rather just be spending quality time by myself.

I celebrate success by taking holidays with my children. We have a tradition every year where we go somewhere different together. Before the pandemic, we went to Europe and Thailand. We've just come back from Fiji, and right now we're planning next year's holiday.

On holiday in Fiji with daughters Eva, left, and Frankie. (Image: Supplied)

I rely on the ocean a lot. If I am failing or have failed at something, I make sure I take time to process that. I guide myself into the ocean and try to clean myself and forgive myself for any mistakes I may have made. 

I certainly have failed from time to time, but not trying to get through it on my own is the biggest thing I've learned when it comes to coping with failure. I talk a lot and meditate a lot and rely on the ocean, my ancestors, my family, and also my friends. I reach out to people who can help guide me through it. Having a good therapist who can help me put things into perspective is really important.

By far the best advice I’ve received is that I can do anything but I cannot do everything. That's helped to shape a lot of the decisions I've made in life. 

My passion and my purpose have evolved over the years. I always come back to, are you living your purpose and are you still passionate about what you're doing? Things can evolve, and it's okay to pivot to do something different. I started as a lawyer, then I went into a skincare business, and now AWWA.

I say to my kids, "What are all the different things you want to try?" But I also say, "You don't need to worry about money. I want you to do what your biggest passion is." I truly believe that if they're doing that, they'll be able to financially take care of themselves.

I really want to find ways of supporting other Māori and Pasifika wāhine in business. I would love to pivot my career on top of business to help them as much as I can to grow. 

When AWWA was named in the Deloitte Fast 50 Index, I was acutely aware that it looked like I was one of the only Māori there. It’s my dream to help as many Māori businesses as possible so that we can have more representation on that Fast 50.

As told to Ella Somers.

This interview has been edited for clarity.