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From refugee to entrepreneur: What it takes to build a global business like Kowtow

Posted 2 weeks ago in Small business by Jo Blundell
Posted by Jo Blundell

What does it take to build a global business? Having a global mindset. That’s what worked for Gosia Piatek, founder of Kowtow.

Kowtow is fashion label known for its effortless style. Their mission is to create certified organic, fair trade clothes that are ethically and sustainably made from seed to garment.

Gosia’s experiences as a refugee have given her global perspective and helped shaped her business into an international endeavour – part New Zealand wholesale, part global wholesale, and part online retail.

Fleeing communism to find a new home

Born in Poland, Gosia and her family fled from the crumbling remains of communism in 1987. She was only seven at the time. Unlike today, they weren’t shunned for looking for a new place to call home.

“We were set up in a two-bedroom house in Italy,” Gosia recalls. “It was actually really lovely. Totally different than it is now. Now the world has gone crazy.”

Her family spent two years in Italy while waiting for New Zealand to accept them.

“At the time New Zealand, Australia and Canada were accepting refugees. My dad was a commercial fisherman and he saw a lot of water around New Zealand and said, let’s go there!”

Like father, like daughter

Gosia’s family were well looked after, but when they arrived in New Zealand they only had $200 – and children to feed. Her dad went to work once again as a commercial fisherman. Little did he know the passion for his job would be the bedrock that Gosia would later base her business on.

“My dad was the captain of a ship for Sealord. He saw the devastating effects of commercial fishing on the ocean. He came up with a net that let the baby fish through while preserving the catch.”

But far from being a coup for the fishing industry, the plea sadly fell on deaf ears. At that time the fishing industry just wasn’t willing to change.

Not only did they refuse to listen to Gosia’s father, but the continued overfishing led to far fewer fish in the ocean, which led to fewer fisherman. Her dad was eventually made redundant from the job he loved.

Interestingly, Gosia’s experience in the workforce nearly mimics her father’s.

“I was working for these massive thousand-person companies, and I could see things that needed to change. Things that would make us more efficient,” Gosia says. “But they didn’t want to hear it. They just couldn’t make those changes. It was really frustrating.”

You can see the frustration on her face when she reflects on it. Eventually Gosia, like her father, was made redundant. But she didn’t let it defeat her. Instead, she started Kowtow.

Powering a global startup

Living in Wellington, Gosia applied for a Work Start Grant, a program designed to help startups get off the ground.

“By the time I had finished the course, I had a business,” she says. “It all fell into place with support of the scheme.”

But she didn’t just launch a small, local business. She went global with her business from day one.

“Being an immigrant, my parents always taught me to see the world as a small place. Why wouldn’t we be global from the start?”

Stay tuned for our Anatomy of a Business series as we take you on a deep dive into Gosia’s business, from trips to India to meet the people sewing her clothes, to the trial and error of getting her clothing stocked around the world. Future topics – next up – Building for export and managing high growth.

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