Last November, as Dunedin teenager Georgia Latu headed to support the Black Ferns in what would be an incredible win over England, her nana Lagi sat beside her and cried "happy tears" throughout the game.
It wasn't about the rugby, though. The 60-year-old was simply overcome with emotion seeing thousands of fans twirling poi – ones which were hand-made by her remarkable granddaughter's thriving business.
At just 17, Georgia is CEO of Pōtiki Poi. It's the world's largest manufacturer of poi, which supplies not only New Zealand, but also Australia and Japan. But she knew she had cracked the big time after being asked to make more than 30,000 poi for the 2022 Women's Rugby World Cup.
"It was surreal," smiles Georgia, who is of Kāi Tahu, Ngāpuhi and Samoan descent. "At first, I was asked if I could make 200 poi. Then it was, 'Can you do a thousand?' It kept going up and up, until they said, 'How about 30,000?' I was like, 'Woah!' It was the craziest time and took our whānau around two months to complete the order.
"Then seeing our taonga [treasure] being recognised and uplifted on a global scale was the biggest and best moment of my life. From there, I got a contract to create 11,000 poi for the FIFA Women's World Cup, as well as supply over 30 Countdown supermarkets."
Georgia and her mum Anna, 45, are chatting to the Weekly over Zoom from Tahiti, where the talented Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Ōtepoti student is on a school leaver's trip.
It's an exciting time for her, especially after being named as a finalist in the Enterprise category at the Impact Awards.
Georgia was only 12 when Pōtiki Poi began as a fundraiser to get to a wānanga [place of learning] in Rotorua. Within three days, she had successfully raised $1000 through making and selling poi on Facebook.
That pivotal moment led to co-founding the business with her mother (Anna is also a senior lecturer in Māori health at Otago University) and the pair quickly learned how to upscale production.
"It made me realise that making poi was more than just a fundraiser. It was a business opportunity not only for me, but for my community and my whānau."
Another motivation was her younger brother Api, who was born with Down syndrome in 2019. Inspired by her "cheeky, adventurous" brother, now four, Georgia wanted to make sure that when he was old enough to work, Api would have a business that would pay him the living wage.
"We started Pōtiki Poi for Api – pōtiki means youngest child," shares the teenage CEO.
"He's my little buddy who loves poi and even though he's non-verbal, he can tell you what he needs in his own way. He's grown up with te reo, Samoan, Tokelauan and English being spoken around him. Sometimes we joke that he's probably overwhelmed with languages, so he chooses to speak none!
"I'm so proud of my mum doing this with me, too. Everyone in our whānau plays a huge part – because without them, our company wouldn't happen. Right now, my nana is running the online shop and orders while I'm away. We're all problem-solvers who have always liked working together."
What originally started in the family lounge – "We had my nana come over, my aunties, uncles, everybody just making poi and watching TV" – is now a bustling factory that employs 40 staff and fills two former dance studios.
Georgia says her company was founded on being eco-friendly, so they try to use as many second-hand materials as possible to make their poi.
"We source as many of our items as possible from op shops, like wool and materials. At the end of every year, we get a trailer and collect hundreds of pillows from university halls of residence to stop them from going into landfill too."
Last year, Georgia also launched a dance academy called Kura Poi, a combination of dance and poi, which ran for three terms for those who couldn't access funding or the opportunity to learn.
"One little girl told me she slept with her poi under her pillow because she said it was her kaitiaki [guardian] and she wouldn't get bad dreams. That was amazing to me – to see that poi has an impact on people of all different backgrounds."
For now, the question that the young entrepreneur gets asked the most is will she go to business school?
"I've never actually seen being in business as my main desire," she explains. "Growing up, I always wanted to be either a dentist or tā moko [traditional Māori tattoo] artist. So next year, I'm attending Toihoukura Māori Visual Arts & Design in Gisborne to study for a degree in Māori Visual Arts."
Adds her proud mum, "Georgia didn't know what her future looked like five years ago, or grasp the impact she would make or how massive her life could be.
"If you had told her then, that at 17, she would be sitting in Tahiti, running a business, her poi being sold internationally and winning multiple awards – she wouldn't have believed it.
"She's very humble, but I believe she has the skills to be the CEO of any company in the world."
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