Date posted: 6/03/2018 5 min read

Indigenous business - A sleeping giant awakes

Indigenous enterprise is rapidly becoming big business in Australia, but more Aboriginal accountants are needed, speakers told a recent CA ANZ university forum.

In Brief

  • Indigenous-owned businesses in Australia generate more than $1 billion each year.
  • Only 37 accountants identify as Indigenous in Australia.
  • Education is key and universities are at the frontline, mentoring and supporting Indigenous students.

The Indigenous economy is a “sleeping giant” because of the hidden potential lying beneath the surface, says Mark Jones, Project Director of Chartered Accountants ANZ (CA ANZ) Indigenous Accountants Australia (IAA). “Some of this potential has become evident in more recent years as the giant has stirred.  But it is not yet fully awake.”

Indigenous enterprise is rapidly becoming big business in Australia. Between 12,000 and 16,000 Indigenous-owned businesses are generating more than $1 billion each year, with revenues increasing on average by 12.5% a year, according to Australia’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. 

Growth has been strong in the last decade, with 8,000 new businesses added to the market. Indigenous procurement policies in both the public and private sectors have accelerated growth – in less than a year following the launch of the federal government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy in 2015, government spending on Indigenous business leapt from $6 million to $156 million. This, in turn, supports job growth. Total employee numbers have also swelled from less than 7000 in 2007–08 to over 12,000 now. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet estimates that by 2026, a further 73,250 Indigenous Australians will be in the workforce. 

These numbers suggest that Indigenous business is growing fast, but there is still much work to be done. 

(Pictured: Mark Jones) 

The need for Indigenous accountants

For Jones, the key to awakening the giant is Indigenous accountants. As businesses grow, financial literacy and good governance is critical. Currently, Indigenous Australians are under-represented in the accounting profession, with only 37 accountants identifying as Indigenous in Australia. Indigenous Accountants Australia, a joint initiative of the professional accounting bodies, aims to change that. A key focus for the project is supporting Indigenous students to choose accounting as a career.

Universities have a role here to develop engagement and promotion, coupled with support and mentoring for the Indigenous community. However, despite the combined efforts of universities, Jones cites a worrying statistic that less than half of the 26 Indigenous Australians currently studying towards a professional accounting designation are likely to see their studies through to successful completion. How can universities do better and what can the profession do to support them?

The Indigenous economy is a sleeping giant because of the hidden potential lying beneath the surface.
Mark Jones Indigenous Accountants Australia 

CA ANZ university forum

To explore this question, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand recently partnered with The University of Sydney Business School’s Ethics Collaborative to learn more about enablers and challenges to Indigenous business in Australia. This partnership led to a forum in December at the University of Sydney Business School in which Indigenous academics and entrepreneurs shared their experiences.

(Pictured: Kerry Bodle)

A keynote speaker at the forum was Kerry Bodle, a Senior Lecturer at the Griffith Business School. She knows well the challenges faced by Indigenous people in accessing education and opportunity.  As the daughter of a member of the stolen generation, Bodle has experienced disadvantage and racism first-hand. A single mum at 16, at the age of 38, she began her academic career, studying accounting at Griffith University. With the support of Griffith’s Indigenous Support Unit, she was able to fulfil her potential and was awarded her PhD in 2013. 

Bodle is passionate about supporting Indigenous students because, she says, she understands their journey. While at university she suffered from “imposter syndrome”, she says, the fear that she was not good enough. But Bodle is also on a mission to develop curriculum that engages all students in learning about Indigenous business. She aims to extend graduates’ knowledge about the cultural realities of Australian First Nation’s history and culture and to help students understand cultural diversity, a key attribute for graduates. 

Bodle encourages students to look inside themselves, to ask: “what’s my story”? The value of storytelling is central to her teaching, based on the belief that connecting stories to business means students become equipped with language and communication skills to deal with a range of perspectives. Says Bodle, “students’ stories become part of the circle of learning”.  

Remote connection

Similarly, The University of Sydney Business School is helping students to create their own stories. The University has a number of programs aimed at increasing the participation of Indigenous Australians in business. One of these is the Remote and Rural Enterprise Program (RARE), which connects students at the University of Sydney with remote and rural enterprises across Australia. It focuses on student engagement, as well as developing Indigenous communities through social entrepreneurship. Students work collaboratively with enterprises and academic staff to deliver action-research projects that solve real world challenges, creating enormous value for entrepreneurs and their communities. 

Jared Harrison is the Entrepreneurship Programs Manager at the Business School and manages the RARE program. He has found that although Indigenous businesses are rich in ideas and innovation, they frequently face challenges that inhibit their capacity to develop strategy and business plans, leading to a lack of funding. So these businesses often face recurring struggles, such as issues with capacity building, sustainable revenue and distribution and logistics.

While businesses gain access to fresh perspectives and resources, students also benefit from their involvement in action research; they learn by doing and develop real world skills outside the classroom. Students are selected for the programme based on their enthusiasm for community development and social entrepreneurship and many return from their immersion in a rural community with a fresh sense of cultural competence, an increasingly valuable attribute in the 21st century’s diverse workplace. Students not only become more employable, with deeper critical thinking and problem solving skills, but develop an ongoing and meaningful relationship with the rural community in which they were immersed. 

(Pictured: Leanne Atkinson and Jared Harrison)

Successful case study

An example of the program’s success is the partnership between students and Eden Tiny Homes. When the Southern NSW town was featured in the Dropping off the Edge report, which highlights entrenched local disadvantage, the Eden community created the Tiny Homes project, a multi-faceted approach to dealing with challenges relating to unemployment, access to education and housing. The Tiny Homes project’s innovative solution was to construct very small, fully functioning houses for commercial sale built by programme participants. This creates a sustainable social enterprise and clear workplace training pathway in construction, design engineering and management, and brings together students from the University of Sydney with local Indigenous organisations. 

Eden’s Community Training Partnerships’ business development manager Leanne Atkinson says limited skills and no funding meant her organisation could not pay for  services needed to develop a strategic plan. Students in the RARE program rose to the challenge, engaging with homelessness workers, community advocates, local Aboriginal organisations and the Chair of Bega and Pambula Bendigo Bank. They “gained invaluable experience and an understanding of the challenges faced by a rural community in establishing a social enterprise”. 

Despite the challenges, there is tremendous optimism about Indigenous business. Overcoming the challenges starts with a recognition that we all have a part to play. According to Mark Jones from Indigenous Accountants Australia: the fact “that the professional accounting bodies, typically fierce competitors, work together on this initiative, speaks volumes about its importance to both society and the profession”. Let the sleeping giant awake.

Related: Indigenous Accountants Australia

A joint initiative of CPA Australia and Chartered Accountants Australia and NZ.

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