There is a belief amongst many in the community that when it comes to Indigenous entrepreneurship and small business there are not that many out there. In fact, of the 300 Australia based entrehub members surveyed between September 1st and 5th 97% indicated that they did not know of a single Indigenous or Aboriginal owned business in Australia. The 3% of respondents who did reply positively were themselves, Indigenous small business owners. When we ran the same survey for entrehub members in New Zealand (with a small sample size of just 150) and asked the question of whether or not they were aware of a Maori owned small business the response rate was much higher with the positives being 84%. Now, if you were to believe that data then in New Zealand things are much better than they are in Australia – but, the reality is altogether different.
When entrehub ran the Indigenous Economic Development and Entrepreneurship forum in Redfern on July 10th this year the response rate for those wanting to attend was overwhelming. In actual fact the forum ended up having standing room only but if you were guided by the data mentioned you may have expected that only 3% of the audience were from the target group – you would have been wrong. Of the 124 people / organisations in attendance 41 were actually Indigenous or Aboriginal small business owners who majority owned or fully owned their business. The size range of employees was between 1-25 employees. 32 of attendees came from the corporate sector who all had an interest or supported Indigenous business growth while the remainder of participants came from connected community groups and government agencies (both State and Federal). Those from Indigenous business were as diverse as you could get in terms of what they offered from travel and cultural tours to employment, from construction through to cleaning services, from professional services to one little business who had an innovative product for L plates.
The focus of the forum was to really ask two questions. The first was “where are all the Indigenous small business owners at?” and the second “Why aren’t we hearing from them and therefore what are the barriers to growth and development?”
The truth could be confronting for many in the community and the main stream press because the reality is the strength of Indigenous business and entrepreneurship is certainly out there the problem is they are not necessarily connected or on show. One of the attendees asked the question “why do we never hear Indigenous business stories in the mainstream press.” While another said “we always hear the negative stories, we never hear the stories of Indigenous business success.” This in turn, many believed, inhibited growth and stopped some from forming the networks and relationships they needed to be successful. One small business owner argued that he had tried to sell his product to several large corporates but instead of “dealing with procurement because he had a great product to sell” (in his words) “all of a sudden I’m dealing with someone in the CSR and sustainability team (Corporate Social Responsibility); I don’t need there charity I want their business because I have a great product to sell” – this in turn opened the flood gates of people who expressed frustration of always being cast through eye of a social cause as opposed to “I have a great product that we can sell you at a great price.”
This meant that the first barrier we identified was about how Indigenous business is perceived. In fact, and to this point, Minister of Maori Economic Development Te Ururoa Flavell indicated that sometimes we “build things for the wrong reasons” and used the examples of Hubs that had been established in New Zealand to support Maori business growth. He lamented that he didn’t often see the stakeholder group walk through the door and when they did the understanding of the person behind the desk about the dynamics of Maori business didn’t help; or lack of it. Dr John Hewson, former Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, also lamented at how "we often focus on the negative stereotypical examples without seeing the positive stories that are out there.”
New Zealands Minister for Maori Economic Development, Te Ururoa Flavell sometimes we “build things for the wrong reasons”
Many argued that access to capital to fund growth was also an issue because the skills they were seeking to help them build better business plans, sales and marketing strategies were not always forthcoming. One attendee lamented the challenges of dealing with a large corporate who had taken the small business under its wind through its Reconciliation Action Plan “We thought they were going to send us someone who could help specifically with a strategy for fundraising – instead we got someone who had little knowledge of fundraising and came from an IT background. We ended up spending more time with him getting him familiar with our need and we ended up losing time on focussing on the really important things for our business – they felt good but we lost out.”
The common thread was the need for a mindset change away from charity and focus more on “we have great products to sell you!” said several attendees.
In fact when you look at the common barriers the majority are what small business more generally are facing:
Barriers to developing their businesses from a sales perspective:
Overcoming internal procurement processes and understanding the process of procurement at both the Government and corporate end
Connecting with key decision makers / networking opportunities
Overcoming the benevolence barrier and instead selling on both value for money and quality
Too many people seeing the business as just a social investment or some sort of CSR project
Barriers to developing their businesses from a structural perspective:
Access to mentors on the business structure side as opposed to those just interested in it being some sort of social project
Understand and knowing the stories of other Indigenous people in business / from success to failure
Understanding the process of access to capital to fund expansion as opposed to always relying on Government grants
Governance of the organisation in terms of how to fully utilise a board to build the business
Perhaps the most important barrier for many in the room was to get involved in a network of like- minded people who could support each other in business and to be inspired by each other. In actual fact the vast majority of small business owners in the room didn’t know each other which highlights the challenge of where these stories are. Nareen Young, a Director of the Board of IBA and a member of the forums panel outlined this as a major challenge “Our mob have so many great stories to tell the problem is they are very rarely heard because they don’t get coverage in the main stream press” with an audience member then suggesting “Always having the same conversations and it appears there is little in the way of progress is ever achieved.”
Nareen Young: Director of IBA "Our mob have so many great stories to tell the problem is they are very rarely heard because they don’t get coverage in the main stream press”
So, what is the state of Indigenous entrepreneurship in Australia? Well, by a small sample size of a forum in Redfern that attracted participants mainly from the Sydney metropolitan area, the reality is it is alive and kicking but not necessarily “alive, kicking and growing” and since the July 10th forum I have met a vast number of small business start-ups and entrepreneurs from Dubbo and Wagga Wagga to Brisbane, Cairns, the Gold Coast, Darwin and beyond. All tell me the same story of not wanting to be cast through the prism of social enterprise but as real businesses with great products to sell.
But, there are real examples of organisations and corporates who are doing incredible things to support the growth of Indigenous entrepreneurship such as PwC, Allens (the law firm),Across Culture and the Babana Mens Group. In the case of PwC the large global corporate has formed a world first partnership where there is now a majority Indigenous owned practice that has now been operating in Australia for more than a year and kicking some great goals. Allens is another stand-out example where they not only participate in mentoring programs but senior partners such as Phillip Cornwall are at the coal face of supporting the sector from offering advice and insights around governance to being an participant in change. Across Culture is a unique mentoring service that inspires Aboriginal people from across the country into everything from jobs and employment to small business and entrepreneurship. Then there is the Babana Men’s Group based in Sydney who work with Aboriginal men from some of the most confronting backgrounds imaginable and inspire them into new lives.
So, the take away? Indigenous business owners want you to buy from them because they have great products to sell, because they can offer you something that no other business can offer. They want people to see the positive stories of success and they want to be able to share with others how they have overcome barriers to that success, they want to see more stories of other Indigenous businesses and mostly they don’t want your sympathy – they just want your money because they have something to sell you and you may have a need for the product or service they are selling.
If you would like to get involved in what we are doing to run workshops that connect Indigenous business owners or how you can access Across Culture mentoring services please get in touch with us.
About the Author: Matthew Tukaki is the CEO of Entrehub and chaired the Indigenous Economic Development and Entrepreneurship forum held in Redfern on the 10th of July. Matthew is also a former Director of the Board of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce and holds a number of Board roles in both the public and private sector.
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