Outstanding Opticians: Steph Cawte

Outstanding Opticians: Steph Cawte

How did you get into optics? What made you consider it as a career, how did you train?

I was interested in optics, along with architecture, from my teen years at school in New Zealand - I clearly have always adored something about ‘frames’! At 18 I when I got my first pair of glasses I walked away from collecting them giggling at the fact I could now see with such clarity the leaves on the trees and street signs!

After finishing school, I initially headed down an architectural pathway, completing an Architectural Intermediate Year at Auckland University. In 1990, I stumbled into optics when I moved to Toronto for a 3-month work exchange, where I ended up staying for 5 years! Which led to working at American Optical Company where I began my optical career. My initial training was ‘on-the-job’. I worked on the shop floor as an optical assistant and onsite as a lab technician. The variety of this role made me consider optics as a future career — I loved the technical side of lenses, the design and fashion aspects of the frames, and helping people. I was also on a national advisory committee for AO, which helped greatly develop my management and strategy skills.

I attained an Advanced Certificate in Optical Dispensing through OTEN, graduating in 1998.

Tell us about your career progression, where did you start, how did you get to where you are today?

In 1994, I returned to New Zealand and became a co-owner of, and dispensing optician, at a general optometry practice ‘The Eyecare Cottage’ in the idyllic Auckland City beachside suburb of St Heliers Bay. In addition to my training to become a Dispensing Optician, I further enhanced my management skills and implemented a growth strategy, which resulted in the practice doubling in size (taking over a neighbouring shop) and tripling its turnover in five years.

In keeping with my passion for design, my next adventure led to becoming a freelance photographer after gaining a Certificate of Professional Photographic Practice at the London College of Printing. I continued in the optics field as a locum and, most importantly, became a mother.

In 2009, I launched Poppet Optics — a specialist eyewear clinic for children aged 0-12 years. I felt that children in New Zealand could be more comprehensively looked after for their eyewear needs. I had over 250 children’s frames in stock and upskilled myself on how to look after families whose children wore glasses, including those with special needs.

For the first 6 years Poppet Optics was dispensing only and in 2015 I found an amazing specialist pediatric optometrist to join me. We grew to become a nationally recognised pediatric specialist brand with children travelling all over the country to see us. Poppet Optics merged with Matthews Eyewear Eyecare in 2017, and I took on the role of National Poppet Project and Business Development Manager.

The merger has enabled me to fulfil a longtime vision of being able to take Poppet Optics nationwide. Children and parents from New Zealand are now benefiting from our specialist pediatric service.

What makes up a typical day for you? How does your job differ to some other opticians’ jobs?

I dedicate two days each week to seeing children in practice and looking after their optical needs.

In my management role, I am rolling out “Poppet Pods” within the Matthews Group practices. I am training staff on the Poppet brand and how to dispense well to children. I also work with our Head Office staff for merchandising, marketing, training, strategy and implementation for rolling out Poppet Optics services throughout the country.

What do you love about your role?

Visual impairment affects how children behave and how they interact with the world around them. Seeing how much of a difference glasses make to a child’s life is especially rewarding. The journey can be more than often be an emotional one for the parents. I love being able to help them through this, so wearing glasses has minimal negative impact on their precious children’s lives.

It’s vital we ensure children have the best opportunity to be carefree and feel great in their glasses. As eyewear professionals we are privileged to have the skills to help them achieve this.

As a mum, it’s also rewarding to see how parents react to the changes in their children once their sight improves.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to specialise in the same field as you?

Dealing with children — often with special needs — requires patience and empathy as well as your professional knowledge and experience. You need to be mindful of how to guide families through this, in a way that is unique to children.

Building relationships with children, their parents, the industry and the wider community is also important.

Ensuring people are aware of the specialist technical and personal care skills required for this niche service is essential. These competencies result in the best possible outcomes for the children and can only be achieved in person.

You’ll also need to be aware of what (if any) government funding is available and help families take advantage of any grants.

I also highly recommend finding someone to help inspire you throughout your career – a mentor, teacher.

Topic: Outstanding Opticians