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In the Bag: Sarah Wickens

Words by Yu Mei

Sarah Wickens in her Wellington residence

Sarah Wickens is a formidable force in business and in philanthropy. She is an entrepreneur, art advocate and worldly woman of Wellington. We discussed the making of a home, what giving back means to her, and why one should always prioritise fun.

Walking up the manicured stone steps to the imposing door of Sarah Wickens’ stately Wellington residence I couldn’t help but feel a mix of excited nervousness. The woman behind our Sarah Tote had invited us over that afternoon to chat, drink wine and browse her expansive art collection.

Sarah, with her expert eye for curating her revolving collection, is neither pretentious nor showy about her assemblage. We glide into the lofty foyer and through to a sitting room in the rear of the house, past a not-insignificant row of Max Gimblett’s miniature brass Quatrefoils — editions of the 7,000 that were created and sold to raise funds for the restoration of St David’s Soldier’s Memorial Church in Auckland. This is the intersection where Sarah’s passionate appetite for art converges with her equally zealous philanthropic spirit. “That was the most effective and ingenious fundraiser idea ever” she muses of the 2015 Art of Remembrance project.

Sarah’s is the sort of startup story synonymous with Silicon Valley: humble beginnings from the garage (or in her case, the garden shed); a slew of prestigious accolades recognising her entrepreneurial spirit; and an eventual sale that consolidated the efforts of almost a decade building a leading global brand. Established by Sarah and her sister in 2002, Trilogy became a pioneer in natural skincare when the duo identified an opportunity in the emerging category of organic products.

These days, Sarah’s focus has shifted her focus to charitable endeavours, acting in an advisory capacity to two social enterprises, Will & Able and the Wellington City Mission. The former create jobs for people with disabilities through its range of cleaning products, while the latter’s community-focused vision is committed to making a difference to Wellingtonians in need. What these two enterprises have in common — aside from their shared business advisor — is a core tenet of inclusiveness, building up and empowering people from all walks of life.

Startup strategy is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of her favourite and most rewarding skills, and she now lends her services pro bono to those she believes have an important mission or set of values. She came to be involved with the Wellington City Mission after meeting the Missioner and staff at a charity auction. “I was really impressed by them, their foresight and vision for the whole of Wellington to be homed,” she explains, and I loved the people who were driving it.” This speaks to both her emphasis on individuals and her razor sharp intuition — when she believes in a person or cause, she is compelled to support by whichever means necessary. It's clear that Sarah herself is governed by an authentic desire to do good.

When probed about what giving back means to her, Sarah replies simply that it has always been in her nature. “At this stage in my life, I get more reward from seeing enterprising, socially responsible and charitable organisations getting ahead” she states. When I ask how she reconciles the commercial and social aspects of enterprise, she’s at once pragmatic and philosophical: “At the end of the day the commercial aspect is important because that’s what’s required to stay in business, however it’s always a balance of the two,” she says .“It’s becoming increasingly obvious now that we need a circular culture. We need socialism and capitalism to meet in the middle — this combination is what will make the world successful.”

When we arrive in the tasteful sitting room, I’m prompted to sit in a textured cream chair of bouclé weave. The revelation that it’s a new piece does little to quell my fear of begriming the sculptural structure, as I’m handed a glass of blood red pinot. The chair is positioned in perfect proximity to a roaring fireplace that’s almost as warm as its host: Sarah implores me to lift my feet — shoes and all — onto the pristine matching ottoman. Again, I’m reminded of her inherent down-to-earthness as she explains that her house is made to be lived in; her furniture made to be sat on and enjoyed. It’s an idea that extends also to her art collection as she’s constantly moving works around, finding new homes for them within her larger home. Sarah makes the distinction between a place that feels like a home and not merely a house. “Art brings that personality out and adds so much to a space. Guests don’t have to like my art but they can always appreciate where and how I’ve placed it.” Her pieces are displayed together in a thoughtful manner, becoming more than the sum of their parts. With art hung everywhere from her pantry to the powder room, it’s a creed Sarah lives by.

Coal Wheel by Andrew Drummond

One final work captures my attention on the way out, a suspended kinetic ferris-wheel sculpture titled Coal Wheel by Andrew Drummond. As we move past it she pulls on the spokes, setting in motion its perpetual rotation. Her assessment of the piece, “this one’s a bit of fun,” reminds me of an earlier conversation where I asked what advice she would offer to budding entrepreneurs. Without skipping a beat, Sarah rattled off her five cardinal P’s: Profit, Patience, Persistence, People and crucially, ‘Party.’ For a woman with a noble métier in philanthropy; a collector of intellectual artworks, and one who has enjoyed a successful corporate career, Sarah Wickens is refreshingly genuine without taking herself too seriously.

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