Tony Sykes never planned to be running his own candle-making company, but then he did not plan to have four kids either.
He started Downlights Candles as a way to support his two daughters who were born with Down Syndrome. When one of his daughters was nominated for an Attitude Entrepreneur Award in 2018, what followed was also unexpected; Seven Sharp ran a story, popular Star Trek actor, come social change maker, George Takei featured the company on his channel and business took off.
Tony was blown away by the people sharing their story; “The amount of exposure that we’ve had has been phenomenal, Disney Digital network contacted us and said we want to do an article, then video production company Everhance wanted to make a promotional video. After they finished the video they came to us and said we have a connection with George Takei of Star Trek fame, turns out he has ten million followers, and the bigger it gets the better it gets.”
Tony and his wife Carolyn first had two children Harrison and Claudia, and were very happy with their family life, so they had two more children.
Their two youngest children Nikki now 21 and Emma, 22 were born with Down Syndrome and Tony has since been doing everything he can to give them the best possible lives.
Tony tells the story of the family’s initial years; “We had four kids in six years and three bakeries, all at the same time, during that period we had just bought our first house which was a wreck and renovated it while living in it, so that was a busy sort of period.”
While Tony and Carolyn were initially shocked two of their children were born with Downs Syndrome, they quickly saw it as a strength and a blessing; “the initial thought was this is just a disaster, but the way it’s actually turned out is completely the opposite, they get on like a house on fire” he said.
In 2007 Carolyn was diagnosed with breast cancer and after a mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy she managed to beat it. But the cancer returned with a more serious terminal diagnosis in 2010, and after another battle, Carolyn passed away.
Tony fondly remembers Carolyn being positive and decided to mimic her attitude; “I wasn’t a particularly positive person at the time and now I live by the mantra of ‘Attitude Positive’ day by day,” the words tattooed on his chest act as a daily reminder.
I wasn’t a particularly positive person at the time and now I live by the mantra of ‘Attitude Positive’ day by day,” the words tattooed on his chest act as a daily reminder.
At the time of Carolyn’s passing Tony was working 70 hours in his cafe and raising four kids. He realised he had to make a change to be able to support his kid’s futures.
Their eldest daughter Claudia, 17 at the time, delayed going to university for a year to care for her two sisters and give her dad a chance to figure out what to do next, she said “I went from being fresh out of school to being a full-time caregiver, so it did make me grow up a little bit faster than I needed to if that wasn’t the situation.”
Tony removed himself from his business as he took on more employees and looked for a way to support Nikki and Emma.
The girls both went to Sommerville Special School in Auckland, but when Emma turned 21 she had to leave and it was difficult for her to find employment.
Since Tony had predominantly been self-employed he decided to make candles as a business to give Emma a job, because he thought it would be “a piece of cake.”
After finding out it was not quite so easy he was introduced to Jennifer Del Bel of ‘Illumina Candles’ to get some advice.
Following the media attention, Jennifer recalls “we sold a candle a minute for two days, so we very quickly developed a business name, a tagline, a logo, all within three or four days.”
‘Downlights Candles’ Tony explained, combines Nikki and Emma’s Down Syndrome and the light from candles, “I definitely wanted to have a connection between Down Syndrome and the name of the company.”
Working at the candle company has given Emma a huge sense of certainty, Tony said “her independence has really blossomed, it’s been fantastic really to see the changes in her, she feels achievement from what she’s doing, the confidence is just growing in her.”
Claudia wants her sisters to continue gaining this independence, “it would be great for them to have dreams and be able to follow those dreams and actually have something that they want to do instead of us going cool here’s an idea, let’s go through with that, I’d love for them to think of stuff on their own.”
Since the initial media exposure, things have snowballed with more coverage about Downlights Candles, creating more publicity and profit for the candle company. As they continue to grow, Tony hopes to employ more people living with Down Syndrome and create an inclusive workplace.
Tony is confident in his decision to do this, he says; “I don’t think I’ve sacrificed anything, I think I’ve just done what all parents do, how is that a sacrifice if you’ve done what you’ve chosen to do.”