Tonga Robertson – Paving the Way for Pacific Women Entrepreneurs in the Trades Industry

Tonga Robertson, Director of NEST Interior and Design is helping to pave the new norm for Pasifika Women in Business, most notably in the Trades industry. This week, we had the pleasure of sitting with Tonga to learn her story, insights into the challenges she faces in business, the challenges she faces as a woman in the trades industry, and tips and tricks she can share for other aspiring women wanting to enter and thrive in the male-dominated industry.

Her story into setting up her business

After graduating with a Diploma in Interior Designs, Tonga was disheartened to find she could not get a job in her field. She had a few interviews but was unsuccessful every time. The reason? Employers could not see or believe that she could work fulltime and raise a young family at the same time. At the time, Tonga and her husband had three young children.

Disheartened, Tonga did a bit of research and knew that construction was booming in Hamilton and that there was 10 years’ worth of work forecasted to come in the infrastructure industry across Waikato. If there was two things Tonga was passionate and certain about, it was helping people and doing something creative, and interior design allowed her to do both. With that in mind, Tonga decided to set up her own company and give it a go.

“Owning my own business was the ultimate goal. Not being able to get a job just pushed me to start a little earlier” Tonga shared.

“… initially I really wanted to work for someone else and learn those skills before I went into business. It would have been easier to make mistakes under someone else’s guidance and learn under people who had experience and knowledge to share. I wanted to learn; I just didn’t get the opportunity.”

Tonga is a first-generation entrepreneur in her family. Her business NEST Interior and Designs specializes in building, renovating, decorating, and fitting out residential and commercial spaces across the Waikato.

Her first client was picked up from her time as an intern for a building company back in University, and from there, her clientele grew organically through networking and referrals.

Did you have a Mentor and how important was that in your journey?

In her first year of business Tonga had an acquaintance in Auckland who had 20 years of experience working in commercial design. Tonga reached out to her and from there, she became her mentor.

“We only ever had a couple of conversations, but those conversations were pivotal because she schooled me on what to look out for, what to avoid, how to plan my process and all sorts of things” Tonga shared.

Throughout Tonga’s journey, she always tried to surround herself with other business owners and really learn off them. Every time she met other contractors on site, she took that as an opportunity to really engage and further learn. As a creative, this helped her broaden her knowledge and skillset of what she can really do in design for new spaces. This also helped her learn faster and fill up her toolbelt of skills.

“Its important to surround yourself with the right people who you can trust” Tonga shared.

What advice would you give to women wanting to enter the Trades industry?

Find some good people who will support you because there are a lot of good people who will, and they will also become your biggest cheerleaders. There are not many women on sites, so Tonga makes it a point to say hi every time she sees other women and connect with them. By doing this she hopes to build and normalize having women working on and leading site projects. As well as creating a safe environment that caters to women’s needs.

“If I am in a position where I can influence the culture on site, then I will ensure that men are also behaving appropriately. And its just the small stuff like, please don’t urinate all over the portaloo’s because there are women who needs to use them too” Tonga shared from one of her experiences.

Its the small stuff that makes working on building sites really challenging for women, like not having sanitary bins and more that needs to be highlighted. Because it has been a male-dominated industry for years, it is a long game, as there is still so much work to do.

“I know of a lot of young women getting into trades all over NZ, but there is still a lot of shift in change that needs to happen onsite”

What do you think Organisations, or the Industry need to do to encourage more women to enter the Trades and feel comfortable?

In general people undermine and undervalue the trades. Shift needs to work both ways. Women are generally encouraged to follow a typical pathway of going into University and studying a “female-based role”. Traditionally it was always men in the trades where there are still some assumptions that women cannot handle the workload or handle the physically side of things, but I have seen women do it they just need the opportunity and the same support men are given overtime and build those skills to be able to work alongside men.

There needs to be consideration into what it means to be a woman and a woman’s needs to allow more women to see themselves in the Trades. For example, having a family, being pregnant or going through their menstrual cycle on site. When there are portaloo’s, there’s no sanitary disposal women can use.

“I’ve seen women have to leave site and drive far just to use a public toilet. It’s not the nicest thing to talk about, but it does need to be highlighted” Tonga shared. 

“We just need to make it normal having women onsite. And normalizing that women do have the skills and capabilities to manage a project. Through marketing and early education too. I get so many interesting reactions when I turn up onsite and people find out I’m project managing” Tonga shared.

“At first, I wouldn’t get the best reactions, people would undermine me but through building genuine relationships and trust, we eventually build great mutual respect for our different roles. I create a sense of team and give clear communication of expectations – we are all working towards one goal and this sets the tone from the outset.”

Tonga even goes the extra mile of bringing coffees or snacks onsite which always works to break the ice.

Why did you choose Interior Design?

Tonga shared that she had always wanted to help people and had always been really creative.

The initial plan was to go to university to become a nurse to help people, or an artist to create. But the former wouldn’t really allow her to be creative, and the latter didn’t really allow her to help people. Being an interior designer gave her a strong tug because it met both needs and gave her the right outlet. This was the best of both worlds.

You are Project Coordinator for the Renovation of Four Pacific Churches in Waikato, what does being part of that project mean for you?

Its like a bucket list, on my bucket list are a list of jobs I really wanted to do. One of them was to design and build a church, the other one was to design and build a medical centre, and the last one was to build houses in the islands.

The church project ticks off a bucket list wish. Even though we don’t necessarily get to fully design something brand new, we get to help renovate our local churches which is massive for me.

“I grew up going to the Tongan Church (One of the churches being renovated), so I can understand how they use the space and what it means for them to have their spaces renewed”

If you could pinpoint one significant moment in your career, what was that and why?

I can’t pinpoint one pivotal moment but being a dreamer and creator by heart and seeing those dreams become a realty is pretty exciting. Especially when I don’t come from a business family. I have a clear vision of where I want to take my business, it’s scary, because of all the risk, but it’s also really rewarding seeing those visions come to life.

What is the ultimate vision for your company?

To grow and become a design team, not a one-man band, but a team of diverse creative people who understand how Maori and Pacific people live and use spaces; and become industry leaders for all things Maori and Pacific design. To be real specific designers to and for those spaces.

“I want my people to feel like they have access to these types of services, and that these services are not just reserved for “those who have money”. The cool thing is, our Clientele is your everyday person that has just worked really hard.”

What is your vision for women in business?

For the few of us that are in the game, let’s make ourselves available to other women entrepreneurs. Tonga personally would make herself available for anyone that wishes to connect and pick her brain. 

If you could give someone one piece of advice, what would that be?

Give it a go. It is better to do something and fail, then live a life of regret that you didn’t give it a shot.

We look forward to following the next milestone to be hit by Tonga in her pursuit to grow her business and be a role model not only for her kids as a first-generation Business Owner in her family, but to others wanting to become a successful entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry.