Aboriginal entrepreneurs hope to change perceptions

Deb Nelson
Image caption Deb Nelson says she hopes she is helping to change opinions of Aboriginal Australians

Deb Nelson, an Aboriginal Australian, wants more members of her community to set up their own businesses.

At the same time, she says many still do not consider it to be a viable option.

"[Becoming an entrepreneur] is really a tough ask for people who forever have been told we're not as good as everyone else," says the 52-year-old.

Yet despite the barriers that indigenous Australians like Ms Nelson feel they have to conquer, she is herself a successful small business owner. And she is far from alone.

There has been a surge in Aboriginal ownership of small businesses in Australia over the past decade or so, according to official figures.

Indigenous Business Australia (IBA), a government agency charged with helping Aborigines forge their own companies, says there were about 4,600 small firms run by Aboriginal people in 2001, compared with 13,000 in 2011.

Among new indigenous business owners are accountants, restaurateurs and gym franchise owners. Meanwhile, IBA says that other productive areas have included the construction, tourism, retail and mining services industries.

With the unemployment rate for indigenous Australians still more than three times higher than the national average, Pastor Ray Minniecon, chairperson of the Sydney Anglican Indigenous People's Committee, says continuing to forge such entrepreneurship is vital to help reduce poverty and welfare dependence in his community.

"The ways in which we now go forward in trying to get businesses going, or getting into good jobs that will help us to participate in the market economy a lot better, is of the utmost importance," he says.

"If we don't do it we will be continually under the welfare system, which I think just kills the spirit."

Image caption Pastor Ray Minniecon wants Aborigines to lessen their dependence on welfare

'Hand up' help

As traffic roars through the Redfern district of Sydney, a spiritual home for Aborigines in the heart of Australia's biggest city, Deb Nelson talks about her company, Yarn'n, an employment agency which helps people in her community find work.

A former public servant, she took the plunge and set up the business eight years ago. She has the calm, decisive air of a businesswoman who is on a mission to make a difference.

"There are nine of us who work here, seven of whom are Aboriginal people, so we have a really strong cultural base in what we do and how we do it," she says.

Yet although her company continues to be a success, Ms Nelson says it was tough to begin with, pointing out the need to reduce the bureaucracy and business jargon that are a hindrance to Aboriginal start-ups.

Chris Fry, chief executive of IBA, says most Aboriginal bosses are like Ms Nelson.

"We are dealing with people who are very driven, motivated and entrepreneurial in their make up and their background," he says.

IBA supervises government loans given to indigenous start-ups, and its figures show that the average annual turnover of such firms totals 850,000 Australian dollars ($786,305; £465,941).

This is broadly equivalent to non-indigenous firms, while the IBA adds that the companies it helps have a higher survival rate.

Offering a "hand up" and not a "hand out" is how one firm assisted by IBA describes the organisation's work.

Countering the cynics

Image caption Paul Newman is behind Australia's first indigenous business magazine

Fifty-three-year-old Paul Newman was the first indigenous business graduate from the University of Western Sydney.

He runs several companies including a management consultancy and BlackBiz, the country's only online magazine about Aboriginal commerce.

Plans to expand his digital publication to encompass radio and television features are, he says, well advanced.

Yet he adds that he has had to stare down the cynics who still believe that Australia's first inhabitants do not have the capacity to be their own bosses.

"I have always had to be able to demonstrate that we [indigenous Australians] have the qualifications, the ability to be able to do business and compete with the mainstream," he says.

Changing views

Back at the Yarn'n recruitment agency, Ms Nelson hopes that her efforts and those of her contemporaries, are changing opinions.

"I think we are all smart, innovative people," she says.

Image caption Deb Nelson says stereotypes about Aboriginal people still exist

"If we have more Aboriginal entrepreneurs out there, who were taking up the challenge, then it would just change the way non-Aboriginal people perceive us, and continue to perceive us.

"I would like to say stereotypes and racism don't exist anymore, but they obviously do.

"But if we have more people out there who were using their inherent skills and talents, and just doing whatever it is that they do, that is what is going to change people's attitudes towards us, and towards our kids and their future."

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