Date posted: 20/03/2018

Meet the 18-year-old CEO: OLelei’s Matt Billington

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After many hours of hard work, this is the reality for Matt Billington and his OLelei business partners who won the 2017 Lion Foundation Young Enterprise Scheme (YES) National Awards and now stock shelves with dairy-free products all over New Zealand.

First participating in the scheme in 2015, the team noticed a gap in the market when lactose intolerant friends and family were left without dairy-free options. Matt says the drive to provide options to all people is what keeps him motivated today.

"Inclusion is one of our core values. It doesn't matter who you are, what you eat, where you're from, what nationality you are, what race you are, what you're allergic to, our products cater for everyone. We want to make sure everybody feels included."

Matt and his team created an almond milk product "AL-MILK" in the first year of the YES programme and from there the business took off. OLelei have since followed up with almond milk yoghurt "AL-YO" and ice-cream "AL-ICE" offerings - even turning the by-products of the process into dairy-free flour "AL-FLOUR", making OLelei proudly 100% sustainable.

Three years later, OLelei products are winning tradeshows and receiving media attention both nationally and around the world, but Matt says it was the YES programme which provided the framework needed to get the business off the ground. The scheme is designed to provide a window into the business world and inspire confidence in students with no business experience.

YES national awards 2017 Olelei
The Lion Foundation Young Enterprise Scheme Company of the Year 2017 - Olelei | Henderson High School

(L-R) Buster Milani, Marion Noovao-McCamish, Matt Billington

"When we started we were 15 and none of us had taken any commerce subjects. None of us had any experience with commerce, with units around business, we didn't really know what business was and didn't know how to get into it," Matt says.

"The process taught us that it doesn't matter who you are, where you're from or what you started with, you can build anything you want as long as you've got that passion and drive."

Now 18-years-old, Matt has already accomplished every entrepreneur's dream - turning an idea into a commercially viable business. Despite this success, Matt recognises the hundreds of people that have helped this school project become reality, including his teacher.

"Our teacher, she was probably one of the largest mentors to us. We worked with her every day but she was also out there with us on the weekends and things like that. She went above and beyond for us."

Matt's teacher introduced the OLelei team to a business advisor who reinforced the skills they gained through the YES programme, putting them into real-life situations of dealing with supply chain logistics and networking. It was here, Matt says, they learnt the emotional intelligence required to understand audiences and build partnerships - a crucial skill for success in the business world.

"I think the biggest one for us is definitely that the YES programme teaches you those top skills that you're not taught in any subject throughout your whole life in standardised education. So, you're networking, you're understanding people, who they are, how to deal with them, managing people, and that sort of thing."

Before the YES programme, Matt wanted to become a lawyer. Now, it appears he's got his sights on kicking his entrepreneurial spirit into second gear.

"I'm attracted to the idea of working for myself, creating something new, the opportunity that comes with building something up from nothing, that whole kind of reward of 'I did that, I'm not working for somebody else' and offering opportunities to others."

To students attempting the YES programme, Matt says it can be the opportunity of a lifetime - you just need to commit to the hard work, passion and drive it requires.

"Find your passion and don't let go. For me, I'm not passionate about food, but I'm passionate about inclusion. So, OLelei is a way of me giving back that passion of inclusion. Just do everything you can to find that one thing that sparks your interest."