THEY SAY I DREAM TOO BIG.I SAY THEY THINK TOO SMALL
From the day Annah Stretton broke away from paid employment and started her own clothing business, a hunger was ignited within her that remains Olympic-sized to this very day.
Self-employment showed her that the sky really was the limit if you set your mind to it and were prepared to work hard. It showed her that failures were merely a stepping stone to success rather than a signal to give up, and most importantly, it uncovered a capacity and
appetite for learning and taking on new challenges that were truly boundless. What most people find exhausting and overwhelming, Annah finds exhilarating and energising.
With that sort of blood pumping through her veins, it’s no wonder that Annah Stretton is one of the very few New Zealand fashion designers, manufacturers and retailers still around
and still evolving her business 27 years down the track. However, CEO of a fashion group was never going to be the only string to Annah’s bow, and back in 2013, her career took a seismic shift in the direction of social entrepreneurship.
While Annah had always had a strong philanthropic thread flowing through her fashion business, 2013 found her thinking hard about the second half of her life, a life beyond the fashion industry, and that culminated in the establishment her very own charitable foundation. Suddenly the flood gates opened and a whole different level of involvement, energy and potential was unleashed in the social impact space.
“I discovered that bringing my brand and my business acumen to the not-for-profit space, and not just my cheque book, created such a high for me that it naturally became an area that I wanted to invest more of my time in.”
While setting up your own foundation may seem like quite a bold way to begin your foray into the not-for-profit space, for Annah it was absolutely mandatory if she was going to invest a significant portion of her time there.
“I set up my own foundation because I wanted to apply new thinking to a space that was entirely generated and then put into action by me. I didn’t want to work on someone else’s initiative otherwise, I was always going to be constrained by their systems their experiences and their perspective.”
The next challenge was to identify ‘the cause worth fighting for’. Again, Annah was adamant that she needed to carve out a unique space that wasn’t already overrun with a plethora of charities all struggling to survive, all competing against each other for the same limited funding lines.
A chance meeting with the CEO of Te Whakaruruhau Māori Women’s Refuge, followed by one with a small group of women staying at the Refuge, exposed Annah to a version of New Zealand that was very different to her own. She knew immediately she had found her cause; it was time to cross the social divide and start working on eliminating the disadvantage that she had discovered.
“While the Refuge was doing an awesome job in the crisis space, there appeared to be very little on offer beyond that stage that would create a real breakthrough in New Zealand’s intergenerational cycles of abuse, under-education, crime, poverty and disadvantage. I started to think about a model that would offer change through giving choice to the Refuge women.”
However, it didn’t take too long for a major challenge to rear its head; the Refuge women were still operating in crisis mode and therefore not yet in the right frame of mind to begin a journey of change. Annah needed to find a more stable population of women to start working with. Prison became the obvious choice to redirect her efforts towards.
While not a space that too many fashion designers or entrepreneurs for that matter felt comfortable operating in, Annah believed that the women sitting inside New Zealand’s prisons, often mothers and some even the matriarchs of crime syndicates, held the key to
breaking the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage.
From the outset, Annah was convinced that the best way to get traction was to create a support model that fostered hope, purpose and personal growth. Taking a leaf out of her entrepreneur’s playbook, she could see how a period of incarceration could be transformed
into a highly-disciplined, highly-focused curriculum that could bring about a positive shift in offender behaviour and attitude. The key to success would be engaging and working alongside all of the key stakeholders - Corrections, offenders, and external subject matter
experts – to design and build a model that they felt comfortable trialling.
Once again, her reputation and standing in the community as a successful businesswoman paved the way for her to engage and persuade industry stakeholders, business leaders and
members of the community alike to give her enough rope to do something amazing.
Five years on, Annah is the first to admit that RAW’s journey has been punctuated by as many setbacks as successes. Nevertheless remaining resolute in her ability to adapt and evolve her thinking and her model to enable change to happen for a group of women whom New Zealand had largely written off is what has got RAW to this point.
“Once I took off my good Samaritan glasses and discovered that they didn’t need me to be ‘fixing them’, they just needed to be empowered and given the space to discover what a purposeful life could look like for them, everything changed. It was in the walking alongside
and seeing the world through their eyes that enabled their real change journey to begin and mine too. Nothing about us without us.”
Add to that a giant dollop of determination, courage and a mindset locked on ‘can do’, and you can start to see that luck has nothing to do with what has been achieved so far. Annah is not a woman who gives up easily, and perhaps that’s the real secret to her success. You see, RAW isn’t simply a charitable endeavour on the side of Annah’s fashion empire; it’s become
an all-consuming passion and one of the best reasons to get out of bed every morning.
Today RAW’s reintegration model, which incorporates accommodation, education, employment and intensive support and mentoring, is not only a well-oiled machine, but it is also regarded by the NZ Department of Corrections as a breakthrough rehabilitation model with an unparalleled record of success. Not bad for five years’ work.
Never one to rest on her laurels, however, Annah is using all of the understanding and insight that has been built up through the RAW journey so far to push ahead and do more.
“RAW has the ability to reframe the prison culture from one that implicitly supports and encourages all the antisocial behaviours that landed the women into jail in the first place, to one that inspires hope and fuels individual growth. Today many of the women don’t value
themselves or believe they have anything to offer the world, given their life journeys
and offending histories, and that has to change. We need to widen their horizons on what possibilities could exist for them on release, and then give them the skills, support and confidence to go after them while they are still inside!”
In 2018 RAW rolled out a series of lifestyle and education workshops, run by subject matter experts, with the express purpose of developing a culture of hope and ambition for a better future earlier in a woman’s rehabilitation journey.
“During the last month, a wave of positivity has crashed down upon these women. They’re bubbling with excitement and focused on themselves. It’s super cool witnessing the love and support the women are offering each other as a result of the belief and hope you have given
us. It’s huge, these women were so sour, and now they’re so bright.” RAW On the Inside Leader"
In 2019 Annah, in conjunction with Waikato University, has also introduced a stage one entrepreneurial paper inside the prison walls but she is nowhere near finished yet. Her lines of sight are now focused on creating a social enterprise in Auckland that will create a highly supportive and supported learning and earning environment where offending women
can start to build the confidence, skills and pro-social connections to enable them to prosper with purpose in Auckland.
In the rare moment that Annah takes to pause and reflect on her journey as a social entrepreneur, here is what she shares.
“The thing I’m most proud to is who I’ve become. The ‘leader’ that looks back at me in the mirror these days would not have existed without the triumphs and the tragedies that have accompanied my journey with RAW.”
RAW has also just published its first book - The RAW Truth. The book details RAW’s first five years of operation along with the harrowing journeys of the women we work with.
“The memories that each woman has generously shared with us reveal that the journey of birthright is so difficult to emerge from unscathed and creates a huge disadvantage for so many.”
If you are interested in becoming an advocate for RAW and/or are aware of organisations or individuals who could be a great fit as a sponsor or partner for RAW, please email Annah at