Story by Adrian Coysh
On the last Friday before Christmas at La Cigale, a French Cafe near the Parnell location of accounting software giant Xero, I was delighted to meet with the fascinating and talented Steff Green.
Steff Green is a published author, blogger, copywriter, illustrator, heavy metaller, alternative wedding celebrant, archaeologist, collector of medieval swords, house builder, lifestyle farmer, brewer of mead, ginger beer and wines...and she is also legally blind. Steff was born with a rare genetic condition known as Achromotopsia and her retina contains no cone cells. She is completely colour blind, and so short sighted she has to read things at very close range, can’t drive, and is so light sensitive she needs to wear dark glasses all the time.
Steff is a Marketing Copywriter for WorkflowMax, an online job, time, and invoice management software system that is part of the Xero Group. It wasn’t the career she predicted as a seven year old girl living in the Central Hawke's Bay town of Waipawa. Back then, Steff knew she wanted to be an archaeologist, and explains, “As a child I was always obsessed with odd things ... prior to my obsession with Ancient Egypt, I was crazy about dinosaurs, and before it was space. I wanted to be an astronaut.”
“The archaeology dream stuck from the age of seven until I went to University, and by the time I went to High School I had already researched the degree I needed and where I needed to go (Auckland University) to get it. High School was hard for me, but I knew I just had to count down the five years until I could do what I actually wanted to do. I did a double major in Archaeology and Ancient History, and along the way I learnt five languages, most of which are dead.”
After completing her honours degree, Steff wanted a rest from University before moving to a Masters degree at Oxford, where she planned to study Museum Collections and Curation. She spent six months trying to find a job that vaguely resembled her studies and passion, however this did not eventuate. “Not only did I have the academic achievements, but I spent my entire degree seeking out work experience opportunities to add to my CV. I volunteered for every single dig I heard about;
I worked in a lab conserving artefacts; I spent a year volunteering in different museums around Auckland and was in fact still volunteering at one institution when the perfect entry level job came up.”
She told the Director she wanted to apply for the role, but was told that she would not be considered as she was a Health and Safety risk. Completely flabbergasted that she wasn’t considered a risk before (when she was volunteering and her time was free), Steff returned home, deflated and upset. "My husband gave me a big hug and reminded me that, if I looked at my life so far, I'd actually done archaeology ... I'd travelled the world on excavations, worked in museums and labs, and I'd even been published. I decided that rather than trying to convince closed-minded people that they should hire me, I would work towards doing something where I was in control of my destiny.”
After some reflection, Steff decided that alongside her other obsessions she had always loved to write stories and read books. "I decided to start looking into how I could make a living as a writer."
Steff initially got a job as a Braille transcriber for the Blind Foundation, as she was sure they would understand her condition and never consider her a Health and Safety risk! In all she stayed there six years, initially full time, and then part time as she started to build a clientele of mostly small businesses who needed her writing services. She started a blog at www.steffmetal.com and taught herself how to create captivating articles, website content and product descriptions. It took three and a half years to build her business up so that she could go full time.
Just to complicate things, at the same time Steff quit her job to be a writer, she and her husband decided to build an off-grid eco house on four acres of land at South Head, near Parakai. Her builder father was able to provide guidance, but they did a lot of the work themselves. During this stressful time, (both financially and physically), Steff was approached with an offer of a full time role by one of her clients. Her determination to be independent had her wavering, but in the end she decided that not having to constantly market her services and chase clients would allow her time to pursue her other creative aspirations. With so many other small clients she was always under pressure to meet deadlines, which meant her spare time was limited.
That business was WorkflowMax and she has now been there for eighteen months. Steff is able to work three days from home and two days in the office. The flexibility and freedom to work from home gives Steff time, when not working, to manage her property and pursue her own creative writing.
Initially, Steff’s efforts were focussed on transforming the WorkflowMax blog to make it a powerful content hub containing useful articles for small business owners, WorkflowMax customers and their advisors. Once the blog was up and running, her next phase was to work with the team in developing the new WorkflowMax website which turned out to be more than 400 pages.
The WorkflowMax website is fully customer centric. It clearly identifies and addresses the challenges small business owners face using beautiful videos, case studies, and detailed feature pages to highlight how WorkflowMax can help make life easier. Now, Steff is working on creating a series of downloadable ebooks designed for creative agencies and architects – two industries who love the WorkflowMax product.
The extra freedom working for a Company, rather than working for herself, has allowed Steff headspace to do things outside of work, which utilise her creativity; in 2014 she published two novels (one of which has been nominated for a Sir Julius Vogel award) and a smaller “novella”, together with some short stories. Steff and her husband raise animals on their lifestyle block – currently, their menagerie includes 10 sheep, some chickens and two cats. She likes doing crafty things, paints a little, and loves home brewing - including fruit wines and ginger beer.
The work/life balance is amazing and I am incredibly grateful to WorkflowMax for giving me the opportunity to thrive in this role. I am very happy, but a lot of that happiness comes from knowing how hard I worked to get here. Many people believe I just got lucky, but luck only tells half the story. In order to get lucky, you have to show up and do the work, and I'm no stranger to hard work. Throughout the history of every published book are years of hard slog and countless rejections by editors and agents and reviewers. Writers have to have a tough skin, and we have to be resilient.”
Tell me about living and working as a blind person.
Steff commented “Using "Health and Safety" as a reason for not hiring someone is a cop out, and anyone touting this excuse has a poor understanding of how people with disabilities manage in a work environment. Studies have been done showing that people with disabilities are actually safer than their "normal" colleagues. Why? We know our own boundaries, and know what we can and can’t do – I have been very aware of my limitation my entire life!” She laughs “it is not an issue. If I am blind I won’t be looking for a job in a factory with things flying around your head or chopping your hands off.”
“When people try to imagine what blindness is, they close their eyes and stand in the middle of a room and think about how confused and lost they feel. Where is the door? Where's that table? Being plunged into darkness causes feelings of panic and hopelessness. But this is not the way blind people think; we are not lost, we just have another way of navigating and getting around, and centering ourselves.
"I always carry an iPad, and utilise Google Maps so that I can get around the city easily. I don’t have to look for bus numbers anymore as the city transport app tells me how far away my bus is. And my map tells me when to get off. I used to rely on the bus driver to tell me the correct stop if it was a route I'd never used before, but if they forget – and they often did – I could have a very long walk through an unfamiliar suburb! If I'm going to a restaurant, I can find their website and read their menu ahead of time – this is great, because specials written on a blackboard behind the counter are impossible for me to see.”
“The advancements in technology in the past 5 - 10 years have been astounding.”
Did Xero have to physically do anything to help you with your work?
“Xero already had a fantastic set up – they provide employees in our new Auckland office with a sit-to-stand desk and a screen on a pivoting arm – this means I can place the keyboard at the right height and the screen is right in front of my face. They gave me a larger-sized laptop and a large computer screen. These are signs of a fantastic employer.”
“I do not need a special computer reader system, as I invert the colours so that I read white letters on a black background - this eliminates glare and can be easily switched off if someone else wants to read my computer screen."
“They also asked me what I needed to come on board and mostly it was flexibility and the ability to work from home so I didn’t have to travel in each day. I do two days in the office and three days at home, all my systems that I use are in the cloud, the flexibility goes both ways. It was super easy.”
As I drove away, I thought “what a fantastic (amazing) person Steff is”, and that Xero/WorkflowMax is lucky to have her and she is lucky to have a company that has supported her career journey. It is going to be interesting to see what she does from here in a company that hasn’t defined her by her disability or put judgment or limitations on her. I certainly will be watching, supporting and cheering from the sidelines.
Read Steff's bio here.