When friends Olivia Ediriweera and Eli Bennett started a business earlier this year, they knew from the outset they wanted it to be about more than just making money.
The students, who are both in year 13 at Wā Ora Montessori School in Lower Hutt, decided to combine an interest in making jewellery with a passion for conservation. The result was The Gaia Collection, a company that makes sustainable laser-cut jewellery and donates a percentage of all proceeds towards helping protect one of New Zealand's most vulnerable bird species.
The Gaia Collection is this month's Dell Passion Project recipient. Dell and The Project are recognising passionate people who turn their side-hustles into full-time gigs.
The students started the business in June this year as part of the Young Enterprise Scheme. And though being part of the scheme means they can work on their company during class time, for Olivia and Eli The Gaia Collection is much more than just a homework assignment.
"It's a way to make us excited about school still, since it's so hands-on it actually gives us a way to do something that feels impactful rather than just writing out assignments," says Eli.
Olivia describes it as "a class and a half" since the pair often end up working on the weekend or outside of school hours. She says running the business while also keeping up to speed with their other studies is "crazy, crazy hectic" but all worthwhile.
"It's definitely a big sacrifice in terms of your time, but the reward and the give-back is so much - the impact we've been able to make is just amazing."
The Gaia Collection currently has three earring designs on offer, featuring a fairy tern, a wood rose and a yellow-eyed penguin.
The idea of focusing on endangered species and using the business to spread awareness around conservation issues was always important for Olivia and Eli, who are driven by more than just turning a profit.
"We're all about being sustainable but we thought how can we take an extra step and really make an impact, and that's where our donation comes in," says Olivia.
Five dollars from each sale goes towards Forest and Bird's Fairy Tern Project, which is creating an alternative breeding site for the critically endangered New Zealand fairy tern (tara iti) on the Kaipara Harbour. So far the pair have raised more than $700 for the cause - with the aim to donate $3000 in total.
The earrings, which are mostly sold at local markets and on The Gaia Collection's website, also found their way to Jacinda Ardern - via local Hutt South MP Ginny Andersen. The students say getting their earrings to the Prime Minister was a goal from the moment they launched the company and when they saw a photo of Ardern with the jewellery "we just freaked out".
And while COVID-19 lockdowns have presented a number of challenges for the budding entrepreneurs, they say the overall experience of setting up and running the company has been invaluable.
"We don't have any regrets starting this business - it's been one of the best things that's happened to us," says Olivia.
The Gaia Collection was recently named as Young Enterprise regional champions for Hutt Valley and will go on to compete in the Young Enterprise National Awards in December.
And although Olivia and Eli have worked hard for their success, they are quick to acknowledge they couldn't have done it without plenty of help from their teachers, parents, friends and others in the community who have provided mentorship and business advice.
"It's just been amazing the amount of support we've had this year", says Olivia.
Both students say they "absolutely" plan on continuing the business when they leave school, though they hope the hard work they've put in this year will mean they can step back a little and also concentrate on other things as well when they graduate.
The next step for the company is to expand its product line to include designs incorporating a marine animal and a lizard, and Olivia and Eli hope their earrings will eventually be sold at information centres across the entire country.
In the meantime though they plan on enjoying the day-to-day experience of juggling a business with school work, even if it does keep them extra busy.
"It's incredibly exciting and we're just so proud to see all the hard work is paying off," says Olivia.
This article was created for Dell.