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Women in Indigenous business sector - growth spurs hope

25 July 2018

Carol Vale 1

“The Indigenous Business sector has grown exponentially in the past few years, with an estimated 12,000 known Indigenous owned and run businesses,” according to Westpac’s State General Manager, SA & NT Commercial Bank, Suzi Hullick.

During Indigenous Business Month (October) Ruby thought it made sense to review the work of organisations like Many Rivers and Murawin, umbrella organisations supporting Indigenous owned and run businesses to excel.

Many Rivers is a not-for-profit organisation supporting aspiring business owners with microenterprise development support and access to finance through corporate partners, donors, foundations, other Indigenous corporations and government. Many Rivers’ clients include marginalised Indigenous and other Australians and is working with more than 1500 businesses, seven Indigenous communities and has provided 1615 loans totalling $8.4million. Looking at Many Rivers national achievements program for 2017, 45 percent of business people supported are women.

Murawin is an Indigenous owned professional services consultancy providing cross-cultural engagement among other services. Carol Vale is Managing Director and a Dunghutti woman. Carol grew up on a mission in east Armidale and her career began almost 30 years ago working in government in Aboriginal Affairs, education, housing and Child Protection developing and writing policy. In 2014 she took the leap into business ownership cofounding her professional services firm Murawin – a Dunghutti word meaning ‘to be educated’. Carol has since become a serial entrepreneur, running her for profit consultancy to finance four other not-for-profit initiatives in the areas of education, healing and business development.

Recently, we met in the foyer café of a large international up-market hotel for coffee and a chat. Carol immediately wonders why an Indigenous company couldn’t own and run the establishment in which we are sitting, and also asks why, at the very least, there aren’t Indigenous designed napkins being used rather than the plain black on offer? She also wonders where the Indigenous made cakes and biscuits are? After all, produce such as this would contribute to a uniquely Australian experience for the café’s clients.

Carol is passionate about building Indigenous business and opportunities and believes that empowering women to begin their own businesses in their communities is an essential step in redressing inequality.

Recently, she launched her Morning Sky project to meet the needs of Indigenous women beginning businesses. Morning Sky supports women in the start-up and development phases and is building an online platform for women in business to discuss challenges and successes, creating a support network of Indigenous business women.

“Eventually,” says Carol, “Morning Sky will support Indigenous children through scholarships, mentoring and other education related opportunities. Education, overseas travel, owning a home, working – these were not ‘givens’ when I was growing up but they are for my children and my sisters’ children, and I intend to ensure that remains the case for all our Indigenous young people.”

Over the next year Murawin is identifying Indigenous women micro business opportunities, which will be outlined in a book.

Carol says, “The stories chart the movement from living in a position of oppression, poverty and disadvantage, to thriving in a place of empowerment - economically, culturally, spiritually and educationally. They will be used to inspire Indigenous women across the country and inform our Small Business Incubator Program. This initiative consists of skills development workshops, as well as mentoring, and business and entrepreneurship pitching opportunities for Indigenous women.”

Carol believes the business growth in Indigenous communities is closely aligned to the introduction in 2015 of the Commonwealth Government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP).

Every year the Government spends billions of dollars procuring goods and services. The IPP leverages the Commonwealth’s annual procurement spend to drive demand for Indigenous goods and services, stimulate Indigenous economic development and grow the Indigenous business sector.

Government regulation is often criticised as a barrier to business success. In fact, a recent Westpac and Deloitte study found 48 percent of respondents saw the cumulative impact and constant change in regulation as the major barrier to business success.

But Government regulation has its upsides: supporting business to grow by providing structures and systems, safeguarding consumers and, in the case of the IPP, helping Indigenous owned businesses grow and develop, empowering the communities in which they operate, and closing the gap on Indigenous inequality.

In the first two years since the IPP began, 2015 to 2017, Government figures reveal 4880 contracts were awarded to 956 Indigenous-owned businesses with a total value of $594 million. The contracts were awarded across all industry sectors and to Indigenous-owned businesses in all states and territories.

It’s at least a step in the right direction and away from the days of the missions and Certificates of Exemption issued by government through the Aboriginal Welfare Board to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of “mixed blood” releasing them from the provisions of the Native Administration Act, 1905-1947.

These certificates, still being issued into the early 1960s, conferred on Indigenous recipients citizenship rights that they otherwise did not possess, yet which were enjoyed by the non-Indigenous majority of Australian society. Rights that included the ‘privilege’ to vote, attend school, go into hotels, and be exempted from the restrictions of state protection laws. The certificates, Carol tells me, were known as “dog tags”. According to various sources, the certificate came at a price: Aboriginal people had to relinquish family connections, give up their traditional culture, including connection with Country.

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