The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 — Choose to Challenge — has the life and times of Annah Stretton written all over it. So we have taken this opportunity to both celebrate and share what sits behind one of New Zealand’s most enduring and colourful brands.
Defying the Odds
Annah is first to admit that no one expected her to survive the first year, let alone 30. No-one, that is, except for the single most important person: Annah herself.
“My initial focus was simply to survive," said Annah. "But next year the Annah Stretton brand will be 30 years old, with a strong succession plan and an ambitious growth plan in place, which is no easy feat in the fashion industry.
“The key to my survival has been to buck the trend of wanting to fit in and follow the latest trend. Success has been in acknowledging the power that sits within “pretty”.
Gorgeous, colourful, ageless styling that embraces and enhances a diversity of body shapes has proven to be an enduring and winning formula for us.”
Challenge goes with the territory, any territory
Of course, fashion hasn’t been the only area where Annah has chosen to challenge conventional wisdom. You only need to look at what she has achieved with her three charities (RAW, Kia Puāwai, and The Good Collective) to see that determination to find new answers to old problems playing out.
“Each of my three charities reflects a new way of thinking through change models. It is never easy to pioneer in a new space, especially the charitable sector, which relies on grant funding to advance in any meaningful way. Getting funders to understand and embrace models that are vastly different from the norm takes time, endurance and perhaps most importantly, passion.
“RAW’s very existence challenges institutional and colonial thinking every day. Here I am, a woman that doesn’t fit and hasn’t been trained within the correctional sector endeavouring to re-navigate the pathway of intergenerational disadvantage through a change model rather than a crisis model. It defies logic, but it’s working!”
Women leaders are different; we get that, but how so?
As founder and CEO of the Stretton Group with a mostly female workforce, we asked Annah, and her daughter Sami who oversees the business day to day, what’s different and unique about a female-led business.
“Women are quite simply different. We think very differently to men, and we respond differently," said Annah.
"As an example, consider the approaches taken to COVID containment throughout the world; female leaders have, in general, experienced stronger success. Women are generally good communicators, and we bring strong empathy to the table.
"We demonstrate the five traits of great leadership more readily; communication, vision, empathy, gratitude, accountability — and really ‘get’ that our people are our power," said Annah.
“A woman leader’s power comes from her passion, her can-do attitude and her ability to get a lot done at the same time," said Sami. "We're basically multi-tasking legends. I think women also bring empathy into a business world that is often trying to make everything black and white.”
What’s in the secret sauce at Annah Stretton?
When we look at a highly successful and enduring women-led business, it begs the question: What sits at the root of their success?
“Self-belief, passion and embracing not resisting change. I honestly still love what I do, so nothing ever feels like work to me, and change is always exciting and never terrifying,” said Annah.
“Opportunistic is probably the other stand out attribute. Being wholly tuned in to opportunities that present themselves and then acting on them immediately. I have a huge appetite for taking calculated risks. Some work and some don’t, but they are just the odds that you work with, and I never take that personally.
“I back myself 100% and pair that with a huge work ethic and determination to push through and get the job done. I never get exhausted with the prospect of what is in front of me.
“I’m also entirely comfortable with being a “jack of all trades”. I don’t need to master any one thing when I can surround myself with experts. I’m also a life-long learner, which is critical, particularly as we are all getting older. Keeping the mind active is so important to our mental agility," concluded Annah.
"This year, my focus is all about getting the business humming from a process and cohesiveness perspective," said Sami. "If there’s one thing that 2020 taught us, it’s that change doesn’t happen by staying in our comfort zones. We didn’t really need a global pandemic to teach us that lesson, to be fair!”