Florence van Dyke’s first business was selling bird callers at the Nelson market when she was five. Chloe van Dyke’s first business was selling packs of cabbage tree leaves as kindling at the same market. Fast forward a couple of decades and that entrepreneurial streak is still serving the sisters well, just on a much larger scale.
The Chia Sisters use superfood ingredients and local fruits to produce their range of health drinks and it all started in 2012 when Chloe, a trained neuroscientist, developed a healthier energy drink for her world champion swimmer dad and her triathlete sister.
Florence, who joined the company in 2016, puts a good portion of the initial growth down to the supportive Nelson community.
“Nelsonians love Nelson and because of that, they love to support Nelson-made goods. It’s been great to have that support when we launch new products,” says Florence. “To know as a start-up that you’ve got a group that’s going to have your back and that there will also be forgiveness if you get something wrong.”
When arranging a place to meet for the interview, the sisters choose the Red Art Gallery & Cafe, the first of many cafes in the region to agree to stock Chia Sisters drinks. The first supermarket they were stocked in was the Nelson Fresh Choice, which is also where Pic’s Peanut Butter and Proper Crisps first appeared on the supermarket shelves.
“Mark A’Court, the owner, says yes to almost any local supplier who knocks on his door. To have that type of support is so important,” says Chloe.
And that supportive sentiment and willingness to collaborate even extends to its competitors. During the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the Chia Sisters created a tangible example of that regional collegiality by launching A Box of Sunshine, a collection of Nelson products in a gift box that could be sent anywhere in the country.
“That went really well, whether it was Nelsonians wanting to support Nelson companies or boxes being sent to Nelsonians around the country,” says Florence. “It was great to collaborate with Nelson businesses. Many, including our business was struggling at the time and didn’t know what the future would hold. It created a strong sense of collegiality”.
The success of that scheme showed there is still plenty of parochialism and pride. And they believe there is a perception outside the region that what is produced here is very high-quality.
“There are even supermarkets in Singapore that promote all these Nelson products at the end of the aisle,” says Chloe.
“I think we’ve got an amazing story, from growing apples and boysenberries to making beautiful products with local ingredients,” says Chloe. “It’s such a beautiful location and I think because the region prides itself on lifestyle over money-making that’s reflected in the products.”
Those values certainly shine through in their own business, with its solar-powered juicery, its zero-carbon, climate positive and B Corp certifications, and its charitable efforts.
“We bring our personal values to work. It makes sense and it’s human, even though it doesn’t reflect business as usual at the moment,” says Florence.
“We felt like businesses were responsible for climate change, we have a business, so we better do something about it,” says Chloe. “It’s really exciting to use our business as a platform to enact our personal values. When we think things should be done a certain way, we can try it.”
In keeping with the 500-year Te Tauihu Intergenerational Strategy, they treat the environment as something that needs to be protected.
“It’s new territory but we’re actually going back to the old way,” says Florence. “In the middle, there was a time when businesses got away with doing anything they wanted. But we realise that businesses are responsible for the impact that they have on people and the planet.”
“There’s a real cost [to those impacts] and businesses haven’t included those costs,” says Chloe.
While trickle-down economics has proven to be a failure, trickle-down sustainability is a different kettle of fish and the sisters think their example, and the example of other companies trying to do things differently can create momentum.