Our People: Julia Charity Rotorua Entrepreneur

Posted in News, Press Room
Published: 22/03/2014
Our People article - Julia Charity founder of Look After Me Hosted AccommodationIf Julia Charity was a doll she'd be one of the double-faceted kind. On one side she'd appear as the consummate scientist, turn it around and she'd be seen as an entrepreneur.

The analogy's not ours but hers and she's spot on.

For more than a decade she was a Scion scientist, initially working in the contentious field of genetic modification.

Other complex forestry-related roles followed until 2011 when she discarded her lab coat in favour of power suits and founded the nationwide company Look After Me, a home stay network that's proved so successful it carried her into last year's Rotorua business awards as a finalist in the emerging business category.

Venturing from boffin into the commercial world hasn't been an easy ride.

"In the early days I got absolutely ripped off by an Auckland-based web company, they promised me a Ferrari what I got was a Morris Minor, it nearly bankrupted me."

A woman with confidence oozing from every pore she refused to be daunted, picking herself up and starting over again.

To solve her problem she advertised in this newspaper's sister publication the Rotorua Weekender for 10 people to work free for 20 hours a week.

The strategy worked. Thirty responded and the chosen few primed the company to soar into orbit.

Who then is this person blessed with supreme self-motivation? Scientist and bold business adventurer apart she is, by the definition she gives, a solo mother, creative writer and performing poet "my work appeals through the spoken voice".

She delivers it via the Mad Poet's Society.

Her creative writing's a work in progress.

"I have a burning desire to write ... fire in my belly ... I want to create a legacy in literature and I suspect this will take most of the 40 years left in my life to become one of New Zealand's top writers."

This goal's the yet-to-be unveiled third face of her theoretical doll.

She's entitled her first book Unlikely Entrepreneur, but has no idea how it will end.

"I'm writing it as I go, it's about building a saleable, scalable enterprise."

Grandparents are the role models she's emulated.

"As a child you don't realise how highly achieving your grandparents are; both my grandfathers have left legacies that's made New Zealand a better place."

Her paternal grandfather, Mick Connolly, was variously minister of finance and police in the third Labour government. Her maternal grandfather, Raymond Walker, founded the New Zealand Bakers' Society.

"Grandmother Eunice Pilkington was a very spirited woman. She had so much influence on my life I founded my business on what would have been her birthday to honour her memory."

By the time the then Julia Connolly was a 7th former her sights were set on becoming a biology technician.

"But my biology teacher said I didn't strike him as the type who'd take orders from other people, that my life was more suited to being in charge of science programmes."

She enrolled in Canterbury University, graduating with a BSc before transferring to the Australia National University in Canberra where she acquired her PhD, plus a prestigious University Medal for her work in plant sciences.

Julia rubbishes our suggestion that she's a brain box.

"I was an A+ student never an AAA+ one."

Iain Charity, her boyfriend since they were 18, followed her to Canberra. They married after five years "togetherness", parting amicably in 2009.

"We had 20 good years . . . we quit while we were ahead."

They share the parenting of daughter Alice, now 7.

In 1997 the Charitys put down Rotorua roots, Julia lured by the Forestry Research Institute (now Scion) to develop genetically modified pines. She admits to being "very much involved" in the heated GE debate this project generated but in her typically forthright manner took it on the chin.

Five years after joining FRI she was awarded the women's service organisation Zonta's national science award, presented by then Governor General Dame Sylvia Cartwright who in the early 1970s was instrumental in establishing Zonta in Rotorua.

Inspired by her award Julia joined the club, leading the science committee and serving a term as vice president.

Her Scion career continued in various areas until redundancy's axe struck in 2009.

"I think one has to have a certain amount of grace to accept redundancy and I'm always proud how I handled that."

However, she wasn't out of the Crown Research Institute's loop long before being contracted as a projects manager.

By then her ambition to run her own business had begun to gestate.

"I knew exactly what I wanted. . . . to create a legacy of my own."

Enter the Look After Me concept. The name was a true Eureka moment, conceived while Julia was lying in a bath at a boutique home stay on the edge of the Otago Rail Trail.

"It had been a hard day's riding [cycling], dinner was made for me, I felt so welcome, so looked after it was during that time in the bath I knew I wanted to create a whole network of beautiful home stays around New Zealand."

She studied business management via night classes at Te Wananga Aotearoa.

"It took me a year to learn how to run a business."

With her initial website disaster behind her the business began to take shape.

"It was a kitchen table concept that's gone global. I was very bold, starting with five properties, my home, my mother's in Christchurch and three Rotorua friends'; in two years that's grown to 180 . . I'm living my dream."

Born: Christchurch, 1970
Education: St Bernadette's Primary, Villa Maria College, Canterbury University, National University of Australia
Family: Daughter Alice, border collier Luca. "I've a new partner but it's early days yet."
Interests: Writing, performing poetry, running (completed 2003 Rotorua Marathon), travel, Zonta
Self-evaluation: "Charismatic, tenacious, enterprising, a person of integrity, happy, successful."
Personal philosophy: "Love well, live well."