At the recent launch of the Indigenous Business Month, its co-founder, Michelle Evans, spoke about ingenuity in the Indigenous business sector and the many forms it takes.
For me “ingenuity” in the Indigenous business space is not an intellectual or abstract concept related to technology and only operating in the sexy start-up space. As Evans noted, Indigenous businesses “do this every day. We identify a market need or demand and are original in our solutions.”
Over the past few years I have worked with hundreds of Indigenous businesses and in every one I have seen this at play. Ingenuity is a natural part of Indigenous business because often we start from a base of nothing in terms of capital.
The vast majority don’t have intergenerational wealth, investment properties or even homes to leverage business loans to enable them to start a business, let alone start a business big and pretty. I have seen the inventive ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country have bootstrapped the ideas they are passionate about to start their businesses.
While some players in the space have been lucky enough to develop relationships and then manage to leverage the buying power of established “capacity” partners, I am actually more interested in the bootstrappers. There is just something you have to admire about their achievements, even if those achievements are just managing to get something off the ground – from the aunty who was happy to sit at the picnic table in the park to test her idea that there was an interest in cultural tourism in her small town, to the brother who created a business to employ family when no one else would.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
This is one of the key messages that gets repeated over and over in my workshops. This message by Arthur Ashe gives you permission to just start. We all have that cousin who has been waiting years to start his business. And every Christmas for the last decade and a half, he has told you about that one great idea that he is waiting to start one day. Waiting. For. The. Perfect. Time.
That time is now.
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can” reminds us that we have tradable skills and knowledge that can form the foundations of a successful business. It means you don’t need to start a business in debt. Do what is comfortable and practical for you and your family. It’s also a great way to start a business, and you don’t have the pressures of huge loan repayments hanging over you.
Our businesses have natural problem-solving skills and ingenuity because this is how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people adapted, sustainably managed and flourished on this continent for over 60,000 years.
Our businesses need the advice and tools to navigate the complex business systems and processes that have been put in place. Many businesses just need to be given a chance and they will flourish.
In 2016 I was given an opportunity to develop and deliver a business accelerator program in the lead-up to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. The program included workshops and one-on-one mentoring. Overwhelmingly respondents reported improved knowledge and skills needed to tender successfully, an increased sense of community and connection to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses, and increased achievable opportunities and greater confidence to do business. As a result of the program, those 15 businesses reported over $2m in revenue generated. They continue to be an inspiration to their communities and the communities they operate in.
Our businesses are constantly under-estimated and being told what they want to achieve is just not possible (for a person like you?). So many business leaders I work with didn’t take no for an answer, even when they were on the receiving end of significant unconscious bias, policies of low to no expectations or just outright racism.
There’s a saying that I’ve heard a lot over the past few years: “if you can see it, you can be it”. This is especially true for Indigenous business. Where a decade ago there were just a few Indigenous businesses in specific industries leading the charge, there are now an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 of them operating across Australia.
This Indigenous Business Month we celebrate every single one of these businesses. As Evans said: “Our ingenuity is seen in the many Indigenous businesses right around the country from urban, regional and remote locations. It is seen in each and every business owner, working hard to build financial independence. We must showcase our talent and our success.”
• Palawa woman Emma Kerslake is owner of Yolla Consulting. She is a former international lawyer and diplomat, now small business trainer and advisor. She is an active member of the South East Queensland Indigenous Chamber of Commerce, the Gold Coast coordinator for Black Coffee and provides pro-bono support to businesses and organisations across South-East Queensland
• Guardian Australia is proud to partner with IndigenousX to showcase the diversity of Indigenous peoples and opinions from around the country
• Comments on this piece will be premoderated
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