One hundred ways to learn

With open learning, knowledge is available at any time and any place.
Karen Murrell, founder of Skinfood

Knowledge is power, but new studies suggest these days experience is just as powerful: if not more so. When it comes to our careers, many of us still follow a linear path from high school to university to employment. But in a job market where we’re likely to change careers many times, research shows we’re finding new ways to train that don’t necessarily involve formal study. And rather than being at a disadvantage because there are no letters after her name, the dropout is just as likely to outperform the graduate.

Zeal pays off

Melisa Beight was no dropout; she was a university-educated, highly successful senior litigator who ran multi-million-dollar cases in Auckland and London. But while she enjoyed her 14 years in the legal profession, her heart yearned for a position in the wine industry. So when Beight was made redundant last year, the 38-year-old decided to follow her passion. Initially she considered doing an MBA but was daunted by the workload.

On the advice of a friend, she hit the networking trail and asked anyone with connections to wine production out for coffee. She admits it wasn’t a comfortable experience, but she was determined to find out whether there was a shortcut into an industry that had captured her imagination in a way law never had.

“I had spent five-and-a-half years at uni and I didn’t want to retrain,” she says frankly. “So I started talking to people in the industry to decide whether I needed to do an MBA or marketing degree. The feedback I got was: ‘You need someone to give you a chance so you can get training on the job.’”

Her networking paid off – big time. During a conversation with Simon Toneycliffe, general manager of Whitehaven Wines, Beight’s enthusiasm and drive shone through, and he offered her a newly created role as marketing manager: her dream job. In April she moved to Blenheim to start a new chapter.

“I remember putting on my Facebook page: ‘Dear universe, I really really want a job in the wine industry.’ And in a month or two I had one!” she says, with unabashed joy.

Still, it hasn’t been an easy transition. Although Beight had completed a short course at the New Zealand School of Wine late last year which, over a few weekends, gave her a wine overview, she didn’t have any formal marketing training.

“Every weekend since I started I’ve been reading all about the industry, who our competitors are, where we sit, all about our branding,” she says. While the scale of what she still has to learn is immense, she doesn’t feel disadvantaged without qualifi-cations. “I think you learn a million times faster on the job. I’ve learned so much already. Even just talking to the wine-makers I’m absorbing stuff constantly.”

A beautiful lesson

Lipstick maven Karen Murrell says her learning journey is ongoing. The 41-year-old’s path from aimless high school student to beauty baroness has taken a series of turns as colourful as her vibrant lipsticks. After dropping out of school at 17 with a vague idea she “wanted to be Coco Chanel”, Murrell enrolled in fashion design at polytech. “I did really badly,” she admits.

She finished, but didn’t pass all the papers, then worked as a nanny and in retail. A job as a machinist at Bendon offered promise but “I didn’t turn up on the first day”, she says, laughing. Towards the end of a two-year diploma in marketing at Waikato University, a chance encounter launched her beauty career.

“I walked into a pharmacy in Hamilton with a girlfriend and started putting makeup on her and telling her what she should buy. The regional manager of Clinique was in the store and she asked me to apply for a job, which I did, and they offered me a job at the beauty counter at Smith & Caughey in Queen Street.

“Working on the beauty counter was the best education I could have had because it gave me hands-on experience with lots of different skin types, and I learned how to sell – that’s such an important thing.”

After two years behind the beauty counter – followed by stints at a pharmacy, a button and zip company and doing television commercials – Murrell started Skinfood, a natural skincare company she no longer owns. It was her enduring love affair with lipsticks that inspired her to start her eponymous natural lip colour brand.

Everything that has helped her succeed, she says, is a result of her vast and disparate experience. “One thing I did when I started both my businesses was write a list of all the things people I’d worked with had done right, and all the things they’d done wrong,” she says. “Out of that I’d do another list of what I was going to do myself. The more good people and bad people you’ve worked with, the better your list is going to be. It’s not until you’ve gone through the rigours that you can say, ‘This is what I’m going to do in my business’.”

Fate takes a hand

Matakana’s Sophie Carew is another entrepreneur who learned on the job. The 30-year-old started Carew Kitchen, a raw almond milk company that’s generating a buzz in nutrition circles, a year ago – without meaning to.

Originally she’d had her heart set on a career in fashion, but interrupted her studies to take up a nannying job in LA that was too good to pass up. When she returned home she went into retail, aiming to work her way up to assistant buyer then fashion buyer. But after landing a plum job in Sydney as brand manager for footwear label Beau Coops, Carew’s life was turned upside down by a car accident which she was lucky to survive.

Suffering major injuries, including seven broken bones, she was in hospital for three months and returned to New Zealand to be looked after by her mum. Her rehabilitation – in which she learned how to walk again – took two-and-a-half years and involved six operations. “It was a horrible, unexpected event that changed my career path, and my whole life, really,” she says.

When Carew was ready to return to work, health was top of mind. “I’ve always been interested in eating well and being healthy but more so after my accident; I learned if you don’t have your health you really have nothing. I still love fashion but the health and wellbeing industry is so much more rewarding than looking at clothes all day.”

A naturopath had put her on a gluten- and dairy-free diet to manage her skin’s adverse reaction to the morphine she was on, but she struggled to find foods that ticked both boxes. Almond milk fit the bill, but she found most brands were full of preservatives and contained less than 3% almonds.

“In LA I’d seen some people making their own so I did some research and tried making it myself. What I made was a million times better than the Tetra Pak ones and so much better for you. I thought, ‘this is too good not to share with other people.’ I wasn’t seeing it as a business but I took it to the Grey Lynn Farmers’ Markets and the response from everyone blew me away. I thought, ‘Wow, I think I’ve got something pretty amazing here’.”

Through social media and word of mouth Carew’s almond milk – still handmade by herself and her mother – gained traction in a society taking the health and wellness message to new heights. It’s now sold at Farro and several health food stores, and used by 20 Auckland cafés and restaurants.

Carew completed a short small business course last year but has no training in nutrition. “I don’t feel that’s held me back,” she says. “I’ve worked with food technologists and had my product tested in the lab so it’s got the correct nutritional information.”

Changing times

It’s women like Carew and Murrell who are at the forefront of a movement towards on-the-job training. It’s a trend that’s making universities sit up and take notice. AUT’s Desna Jury, dean of the Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies, says the institution emphasises industry-focused training with work experience, credit-bearing internships and work-based research programmes.

“It’s true increasing numbers of students want to be self-employed and run their own businesses,” she says. “Many of our students are contractors and many hold a portfolio of work while they are studying.

“We’ve made some innovative changes to what we offer our students, from formal developments like having a design major in our business degree to offering students competitions in business venture development, and ideas and innovation workshops with entrepreneurs.”

Words by: Trudie McConnochie

Photos: Emily Chalk

Hair and makeup by: Sharon Laurence-Anderson

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