Jennifer Del Bel - The More The Story Gets Told
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Catch the conversation here: The More The Story Gets Told
Sometimes we come across people who immediately make us stop and think ‘imagine if more people thought that way’. On ONEOFTHE8 we count ourselves extremely fortunate to meet more of those people than most, people like the exceptional ‘Caniwi’ whose story we’re excited to share with you in this episode.
Firstly, to answer your question, ‘Caniwi’? Well, it’s the creative description that our Canadian-born, resident of Auckland, New Zealand, gives to herself. Spending time at the University of Otago as an exchange student studying history and English some 30 years ago, Jennifer Del Bel simply ‘fell in love with New Zealand’. She loved it so much that she has now been a resident for some 20 years.
As you will soon discover, this is a story in which candles play a highly significant role, however our guests’ early career had little to do with soy wax, wicks or jars. Jennifer first spent time as a personal trainer, before moving on to become a Yoga instructor. It was to be Yoga, and her desire to create something for the Yoga studio, that led to making candles.
‘It was something that I never expected to do, I always thought I would carry on doing what I was doing with health and fitness because I loved it.’
Suddenly creative and entrepreneurial flames were burning bright, and after visiting a trade show and putting in hours and hours of research, solo mum of two Jennifer spotted ‘a gap in the market’. Setting about manufacturing a range of luxury candles, using soy wax that was 100% biodegradable, non-toxic, with no GMOs, and using wicks that had no lead or zinc in them, Jennifer launched ‘Illumina’.
‘The idea of creating something from absolutely nothing, with no experience in that area and doing well from it, just was a complete and total business buzz for me.’
As the ‘Illumina’ business grew, and even began to export for a while, it became an extremely steep learning curve for Jennifer. Yet even that was nothing compared to what would come next, following a meeting with Tony Sykes and his daughter Emma, and a day that would change her life.
‘The day that I met him and Emma for a coffee, it just changed the course of where everything went for my business at the time.’
During a school fund-raiser with ‘Illumina’ a friend mentioned Tony. She told Jennifer how Tony had lost his wife to cancer, and how he had two daughters Emma and Nicki, both with Down’s Syndrome. She also told Jennifer how Tony wanted to speak to someone about making candles for one of those daughters, Emma, to take to a local market.
A shy girl who stuck to Tony’s side when they first met Jennifer for coffee, Emma had applied for over 20 jobs and sadly not one organisation had even bothered to reply. As a solo mum, hearing this really affected Jennifer, and even though she had some concerns about whether it would work she made the decision to help Emma make some candles for a local market. It was to be the beginning of an incredible new chapter.
‘I’m not the kind of person who can turn my back on someone like that. I wasn’t raised that way by my family.’
Initially the concept of making for local markets was ideally suited to capacity, as well as helping Emma to grow socially, boosting her confidence and a giving her a much-needed sense of independence. Illumina also meant Emma and Tony had access to fragrance, wicks and wax at cost price. Work began and ‘Downlights’ was born, but things were about to change again.
‘Downlights’ was becoming a fabulous story, and when local TV station ‘Seven Sharp’ decided to tell it, the brand was suddenly ‘catapulted’, so much so that the story reached the ears of the mighty Disney Corporation. A disbelieving Jennifer took a call from their parenting blog ‘Babble’, more local newspapers and magazines covered the story, and the actor George Takei – Star Treks Mr Sulu – did a video on Downlights that had 1.4 million views in just 24 hours.
‘I hung up because, you know, you get a call from someone saying they’re from Disney, you think ‘yeah, right.’
Suddenly in the ‘global public eye’, Downlights sold a candle a minute for the next 48 hours.
Jennifer had to create a tagline, source enough glassware, do all of the product testing, set up Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. With no time to create a website, Downlights piggy-backed onto the existing Illumina site – and all in just four days.
‘There was no time to go slow, literally for four nights I didn’t sleep.’
That’s when Jennifer realised she quickly had to step up as Managing Director and Creative Director of the company, and look at changing up everything they were doing. She wanted Downlights to support people with other disabilities as well as Down’s Syndrome, and she wanted to get that right ‘for the people that Downlights is advocating for’. That meant investing a lot of time in ‘learning the language of the disability sector’.
‘Honestly, it’s been such a massive learning curve for me as a business-person, and also as a woman, as a mother, as a human to go on this journey about inclusion and diversity.’
Since this incredible whirlwind of a beginning, so much has happened at Downlights. Working with the ‘Recreate’ organisation, they became one of only two businesses helping to pilot a programme called ‘Moxie’ – meaningful opportunities crossing into employment - leading to four ‘crew members’ coming in each week to be taught how to make soy melts. This is something that has continued with ‘crew’ from local colleges and schools gaining valuable work experience with the business, helping them build their resumes and get new skills.
‘Really start to see what they’re capable of doing, and what they’re interested in doing, so that they can go out there and go for it.’
In 2020 Jennifer also developed a charitable trust, allowing Downlights to make a monthly donation of $1 from every candle manufactured to beneficiaries such as Recreate New Zealand, New Zealand Down Syndrome Association and the Living Wage Movement.
‘That’s something I feel very proud about, for Downlights to be able to make an even bigger social impact.’
In New Zealand the disability rate for unemployment is double the rate of those without a disability, and whilst someone with a disability will stay 2.5 years longer in a job than someone without a disability, they’re paid on average a little under $100 a week less. The challenges that inclusion and diversity pose for big businesses are clear, yet Jennifer has proven that it is possible to be ‘altruistic and capitalistic at the same time’. She determinedly poses the question ‘how much profit do big companies need to make?’ and points out that a large portion of Downlights profits go to buying the specialist equipment required or to hiring another supervisor.
‘We could care a little less, do a little less, for the people that work with us, but for what? Just for the sake of a little bit of extra money at the end of the year? I guess that’s just not how I feel society should be.’
Imagine if more people thought that way.
Go getter, entrepreneur, business founder, public speaker, solo mother of two – Jennifer Del Bel is a real force of nature, inspired by the work ethic and sacrifices made by her own parents. Yet she has been taught one of her most valuable lessons by Emma, the young woman with Down’s Syndrome who changed the course of Jennifer’s life and with whom she developed a very special bond.
Due to a lengthy and tiring commute Emma is no longer in the business, but her powerful legacy is permanent. It’s taught Jennifer to think laterally, to communicate with everyone, and made her a ‘more articulate busines woman’.
‘The patience I learned working with Emma is something I’ve never lost, I’ve carried that through with me, with every person I work with.’
Downlights, a business with the tagline ‘illuminate, care, change’, sets a shining example for other employers in New Zealand with the opportunities it offers. It is Jennifer’s hope that this will ‘pave the way for change that leads to greater acceptance for people with special needs to be placed and valued in today’s growing workforce’.
A challenging, important and inspirational story, Downlights has seen Jennifer’s already impressive levels of stickability and determination grow, along with her compassion and her patience.
‘I wasn’t just fighting for me, I was fighting for other people, so I think I realised how much drive I have when you’re trying to do something to make a difference.
We finish this story with two examples that Jennifer shared with such pride. The first is that of her own two daughters and how, through their experiences with Downlights, they have become increasingly loving and accepting of inclusion and diversity – something she describes as ‘one of her greatest rewards’. The second is that of Jack and Kirsty, who in their mid-20’s and 30 respectively, joined Downlights as their first employment. Both learned how to commute on public transport, and both have ‘grown and grown’ in confidence, happiness and independence.
You can hear Jennifer tell her powerful and inspirational story on the ONEOFTHE8 podcast.
‘The more people buy the product, the more the story gets told, the more impact we’re making and the more awareness we’re creating about diversity and inclusivity in the workforce.’
You can also discover more about Downlights and the organisations they work with and support on the following links.