By Jill Tengco
When most people hear “Indigenous business” they probably think of services in tourism or art. But recently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander entrepreneurs are thriving in the STEM, mining, culinary and cosmetics sectors, to name a few. It’s all thanks to channelling their Indigenous heritage to change the mindsets of both Indigenous and Non-Indigenous society.
Covered head to toe in mosquito bites, the 10-month-old girl was sick, itching away and struggling to go to sleep. Her mother had asked her good friend and amateur bush medicine maker, Josie Alec, for help.
“Try that,” Josie replied, holding out a bottle of homemade natural baby oil. Just two hours later, the baby was sound asleep and healing.
This moment inspired Aboriginal Josie Alec to quit her job as a music teacher and put her knowledge of bush remedies, which was passed down generations, into full force.
“I just paved the way in a new industry on my own,” says Alec. With a fear of what the community will think of her, and with no funding, she stepped out from the Pilbara into the world of business with her natural cosmetics Jummi Factory.
Alec isn’t the only Indigenous Australian paving their way into the entrepreneur scene. According to the Business Council of Australia, Indigenous businesses have become the fastest growing sectors in Australian economy, growing four times the rate of non-Indigenous businesses.
More and more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are drawing from their culture to start businesses, seeing a positive future for finally “closing the gap”.
“My core values were to heal,” says Alec. “But also to create value and empower our people to be able to do what we do best.” She uses her business to inspire the Indigenous community to use their historically marginalised culture to their advantage.
She is joined by over 12,000 Indigenous business owners in Australia, and her Jummi Factory is just one of the 600 new Indigenous businesses being founded every year.
Many in both corporate Australia and the Indigenous community accredit the Indigenous entrepreneur increase to the federal government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP). For the past three years, the IPP has been pushing more Indigenous employment in corporations, and the Indigenous market has grown from earning $6 million to more than $1 billion.
Dr Michelle Evans, Charles Sturt University’s Indigenous business entrepreneur and leadership specialist, says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are “at least twice, if not higher, more likely to work for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Aboriginal business all around Australia”.
“So, we think that investing in the development of individual entrepreneurs is a way to encourage greater economic participation across Australia.”
Such investment seems to be working as Indigenous businesses are proliferating and diversifying – from graphic design companies like the Jumabana group, to Bush Tucker fusion catering companies like Kallico Catering, to the first Indigenous bottled water business, Yaru Water. These are only a few of the many Indigenous entrepreneurs that are drawing from their rich heritage and knowledge of the nation to develop businesses.
Such entrepreneurs have turned the Indigenous culture that has constantly been subject to, what Dr Evans calls, “historical structural oppression and racism in the country,” embraced it, and used it to achieve a fast-growing Indigenous business sector.
Back in her cosmetics farm in the Pilbara, Alec reminisces on how her return from the Stolen Generation led to her native knowledge. “I came back after 11 years,” says Alec. “And then my mum passed on all the traditional healing to me, and showed me all of it.”
All the way in Sydney, Mitchell Ross, another Aboriginal entrepreneur, was humbled by the “economic issues and not great home life” that his extended Aboriginal family and friends faced.
With a determination to be “in a position where I could give back and help other [Indigneous] people,” Ross founded his workplace supply provider company, Muru Group, now in its sixth year.
“It was important to wear it on my sleeve and be proud of the fact that I’m Indigenous and I’ve got a business,” says Ross. “Because if I can create a business, then I can prove to some of the people who may not believe that we can do great things, that we can actually do great things.”
Ross voices the collective aim to break down stereotypes that Indigenous businesses are merely rural, unstable providers of services confined to either arts or tourism. For Ross and many others, they can, and will, pave their own way for a better life for future generations.
“We’re not just welfare people that are dependent on welfare,” says Ross. “We can actually create really successful businesses and have some amazing achievements.”
“Take that government welfare mentality out of the picture and everyone will be making their own futures.”
Josie Alec has a similar perspective on the government funding which she says are trying and failing to live up to expectations of “Closing the Gap”. “It’s like they’re a fallacy,” says Alec. “They’ll say yes, they’ll help you, but they never put their money where their mouth is.”
For Alec, past incidents of numerous Indigenous businesses and property being taken away from their owners still worries her as she thinks of her business. “You have to have that trust that the government’s not going to pull the pin on any given time, and a big company’s not going to come and take your products,” she says.
Similarly, Ross he says he channels his people’s losses of culture, traditions and language when he runs his business. “It made me want to do as much as I can to create jobs and opportunities and bring people up because it’s left a lot of scars,” he says.
Another entrepreneur, Liam Ridgeway, is a proud descendant of the Gumbaynggirr and Wakka Wakka people. Just from the names of his digital agency, Ngakkan Nyaagu, and his STEM community organisation, Indigitek, it’s apparent that Ridgeway is using his business to bridge the gap between his traditional culture and today’s technological world.
With a familiarity and pride in his culture, he says starting a business means taking the opportunity to promote that culture. Like Alec and Ross, he aims to use his Indigenous businesses to change the prejudices against Indigenous people in the corporate and general society.
“This journey is a shared journey,” says Ridgeway. “At the end of the day, given that we’re all different nationalities and different backgrounds, we’re all the same. So, it’s about how we try and contribute and prove what we call the Australian way of life, and share our journeys.”
Mindsets are changing, says Ridgeway. A positive future towards reconciliation may be in the works if this continues to be combined with the IPP, which Dr Evans says is unprecedented for bringing “a lot of visibility to excellent Indigenous businesses who are out there doing really, really well”.
Ross echoes these high hopes for the future of Indigenous generations. “The country’s still growing,” he says. “There’s so much building infrastructure happening around the country that I definitely think there’s gonna be a lot of work in the future. It’s gonna continue to grow.”
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