The rise and rise of Australian Indigenous business

Sunrise over a pier photo
Chris Sheedy By Chris Sheedy, CA Today

9 August 2018

Today (9 August) is the UNESCO International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. We look at how a major change in Government policy is helping Australian Indigenous businesses on their way up.

Earlier this year, Liz Kobold attended a breakfast at Parliament House with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The event was organised to celebrate Indigenous economic success in Australia and Liz, a business advisor with Indigenous entrepreneur consulting firm Yerra, has played a central role in helping those businesses grow, often from start-up.

“During the breakfast, the Prime Minister said that in 2012 the Federal Government gave contracts worth just six million dollars to Indigenous businesses,” said Liz. “Last year the Government gave one billion dollars’ worth of contracts to Indigenous businesses.”

Changing perceptions on business models

“There’s a perception of Indigenous businesses that they’re purely cultural,” she said. “So, we organised a local trade show at the end of the last round to show people that Indigenous businesses could look like a highly cultural business but also could look very mainstream - accounting, law, construction - and everything in between.

Indigenous businesses are closer to Asian businesses, in their behaviour.

“That was a great opportunity to educate people in procurement and people in business around the fact that Indigenous businesses, from fresh start-ups to businesses that have been around for 15 years, could look like everything across that spectrum.”

Working with Indigenous businesses, though, can be a culturally challenging experience, Liz commented. Trust and respect, as opposed to the ‘watertight contract’ that non-Indigenous businesses tend to rely on, are central to the success of the relationship. In this way, Indigenous businesses are closer to Asian businesses, in their behaviour, than traditional ones.

The importance of family and connection

“Just as important as trust and respect is an understanding of the motivations of the person who is running the Indigenous business,” added Liz. “It’s important to understand their connection to family and community. To a degree, I would say that’s applicable in mainstream business too, but it’s probably number one for Indigenous entrepreneurs.”

Of course, this development of trust and respect can slow down the development of the original business relationship, which can be mildly frustrating for managers of non-Indigenous businesses. But as one of Kobold’s Indigenous friends once commented, “Time is a white man’s concept”.

Another common tripping point for those from non-Indigenous businesses is the use of common buzzwords, such as ‘innovation’, ‘disruption’ and ‘synergy’.

“These terms don’t resonate well in the Indigenous community,” she warned. “They will hear the words and just automatically disconnect.” What can CAs and accountants do to support continuing development?

We’re actively engaging accountants in our start-up programs and we have the support of a couple of local accounting firms.

The majority of these businesses, said Liz, are very good at doing what they’re passionate about but tend to “muddle through the accounting stuff”.

“Often, 18 months in to their business, they finally decide it’s time to see an accountant,” she smiled. “So, often the job for the accountant is to bring the business up to speed in terms of books and reporting etc.

“We’re actively engaging accountants in our start-up programs and we have the support of a couple of local accounting firms to support some of the young entrepreneurs. I’ve also been speaking with a local accounting peak body to work out what we can do together.”

Further growth is expected as the critical mass of Indigenous businesses builds over the coming years, meaning that relationship between accountants and Indigenous businesses should only grow stronger.

CAs and accountants interested in finding out more about connecting with Indigenous businesses can contact Liz Kobold.

About the author

Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning HeraldVirgin Australia VoyeurThe Australian MagazineGQIn The BlackCadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.


  • Business
  • Australia

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