Applying an Indigenist methodology using ‘participatory action research’, Griffith Business School researchers wanted to learn how Indigenous business owners have become economically sustainable in running successful small businesses, so that they can translate it into best practices. This has been a life-long passion of Dr Kerry Bodle and for colleagues from the project team, who were the first Griffith University researchers to successfully obtain an Australian Research Council Indigenous Discovery grant in 2017.
The project titled: ‘Empowering Indigenous businesses through improved financial literacy’ aims to compare the level of financial and commercial literacy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous small business owners. It will accomplish this by analysing the financial performance and contrasting the support and resources available to Indigenous and non-Indigenous business owners, in independent and franchised businesses that are in urban, regional and remote areas of Australia.
Dr Bodle from the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, is a descendant of Waka Waka (Cherbourg) First Nation Peoples in Western Queensland, and she explains in Australia Indigenous small businesses are underrepresented with only one percent (20,000, approx.) of the 2.1 million Australian small businesses, and consequently it has been her determination to improve this representation and the socio-economic benefits it can provide for Indigenous people.
An interdisciplinary team of experts has joined Dr Bodle that includes, Professor Mark Brimble (Financial evaluation) from the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, Professor Scott Weaven (Marketing evaluation) from the Department of Marketing and Professor Lorelle Fraser (Franchise Lead) from the University of the Sunshine Coast. Together they aim to collectively enhance the financial wellbeing of Indigenous small businesses and it’s hoped the research will lead to greater levels of financial literacy and prosperity in Indigenous communities.
Dr Bodle has been active within the tertiary Indigenous education sphere developing the first Indigenous business course designed to engage students in traditional learning ways. While she was not focussed on achieving ‘first milestones’ in her career, Dr Bodle was the first Indigenous person to achieve a PhD, CPA qualifications in Australia, and is a member of Indigenous Accountants Australia. She is also an affiliated researcher with Griffith’s Indigenous Research Unit.
“Yes it’s been amazing because I have been on a journey to connect with my culture, as my mother was a part of the stolen generation,” said Dr Bodle.
“The field research has given me first-hand experience that you can’t buy. It’s been priceless for me. Since finishing my PhD, I have been asked to be a keynote speaker at many universities across Australia, for example, Deakin University when they held their first Indigenous Business Forum.”
“I have even been invited to be on several government roundtable and policy decision-making teams, like ASIC and Prime Minister and Cabinet.”
As a strong advocate of education for self-improvement, Dr Bodle encourages others to continue their journey in academia to improve their situation in life. One place where she practices this for Indigenous people, is at Griffith’s Gumurrii Student Support Unit, that offers cultural reinforcement to enhance Indigenous student experiences.
Dr Bodle travelled to Cherbourg West of Brisbane in 2018, to see how the Indigenous business people in this community were operating and assisting the younger generation with practical business training and mentoring support.
“I was taken back to where my mother was born in Cherbourg, and it was fantastic to see how the local indigenous people were being trained how to use the cash register, to set tables, cook and bookwork,“ said Dr Bodle.
“It’s a very successful model. It’s like a training kitchen that is also a functioning café that services the community.”
“At the end of their training they get certificates so they can get work in Murgon which is a bigger town.”
“Some trainees get employment in the RSL and other organisations, e.g. hotels and resorts,” said Dr Bodle.
The research team is currently in the process of examining qualitative interviews and surveys from a range of Indigenous and non-Indigenous business owners – which will then be used for a comparative analysis to determine the drivers of financial performance and sustainability – that will help to secure the intangible aspirations of Indigenous business owners.
“The methodology is all about going to the grass-roots level, where we’re talking to the elders, Indigenous business owners, local community support groups and local government bodies,” said Dr Bodle.
“We are looking at a cross-section of different types of businesses, not-for-profits, sole traders, partnerships, companies, social enterprises, all different types including franchises.”
“We also met with non-Indigenous business stakeholders so we could get comparative data on some of the themes that were coming out.”
“At this stage we have completed Phase One and moving onto Phase Two, which is where we will convert the themes into a nation-wide survey that will be sent out to all businesses in Australia. Phase Two is a more traditional Western-style methodology approach where we examine the survey data using empirical style modelling/analyses,” said Dr Bodle.
One of the key questions being investigated is how do you determine success for an Indigenous small business in a remote area, versus one in a regional area or metro area? And one of the key research themes being employed to assist the project gain traction is ‘reciprocity’ for the research participants and for the Indigenous networks and communities.
“The main underpinning of the ARC project is reciprocity. So our methodology involved making connections with local Indigenous government bodies, like Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSIP) who would introduce us to the local Indigenous business owners,” said Dr Bodle.
“We found this evolved into a more organic relationship building exercise building rapport and further introductions throughout each community.”
“Reciprocity is inherent in indigenous culture. For example, one business owner of a coffee shop in NT told me that she feeds local kids who have difficult home lives and are hungry.”
“And she said, ‘look I can’t turn him away. I’m Aboriginal and I always make sure that if I have got extra I give it away’,” said Dr Bodle.
“I said, do you know that you can record that as part of your business transactions, for example, as a donation and it’s exempt from tax,” Dr Bodle asked?
“She said, ‘I didn’t know that’. So I think that is something I can help people’s business with, in learning how to classify their expenses and to be culturally appropriate.”
Dr Bodle travelled extensively across Australia for the project to interview Indigenous participants and other community stakeholders from Cairns to Melbourne, Katherine (NT) and Kununurra (WA), including into regional and remote areas, to gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing Indigenous business owners.
“One of the best stories that came out of this in terms of the reciprocity, is when we got out to Daly River. We met an elder, Miriam Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, who has been given an honorary doctorate for teaching philosophy,” said Dr Bodle.
“She is a teacher in the community who not only teaches language and the normal educational things, she also indigenises it for the Aboriginal community.”
“We had already taken big bags of bouncing balls and colouring pencils, and after chatting with her we asked her if there was anything we could do for the Miriam Rose Foundation or even for the community,” Dr Bodle asked?
“Initially she said they just wanted Lego for the kids, she also wanted donations. We have now raised a couple of bags to send up to her.”
“When I came back I spoke to the director of the Gumurrii Centre, who organised all the sales of T-Shirts on Harmony Day at Griffith University, with the money raised ($2,900) being sent to her foundation,” said Dr Bodle.
One of the challenges Dr Bodle had to overcome was the barrier of being accepted and trusted by Indigenous business networks in order to facilitate participants for interviews. Even for an Indigenous academic, this was not easy in the beginning but eventually the barriers came down when the goal to assist Indigenous people in sustainable self-employment was explained, and this was commissioned by the Australian Research Council.
“The indigenous way is you only get those connections when they see that you are authentic and you’re championing them to tell their story of success to help others,” said Dr Bodle.
“Our first research site was on North Stradbroke Island. We attended a Black Coffee event created by South-East Queensland Indigenous Chamber of Commerce (SEQICC).”
“Here we ended up meeting a couple of business owners who took us back to their home for a coffee and were happy to be interviewed.”
“I interviewed the president of SEQICC who introduced me to some more Indigenous business owners,” said Dr Bodle.
“This triggered a number of contacts with owners around South-East Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne.”
“The next visit was in Cairns, where I found I had to adapt the methodology by calling the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSIP).”
“It’s a government organisation that connects Indigenous businesses with mainstream businesses,” said Dr Bodle.
“I ended up with eight interviews over a period of three days, and from that I got people to refer me on and it has gone from there.”
Dr Bodle has a conviction to assist Indigenous people to undertake transformational change and become sustainable through education and self-employment, that is unbreakable. And a major part of this involves developing new ways to train Indigenous business owners in financial sustainability.
“The other side of the service industry is training and development. Because there is a need for businesses to be able to go somewhere and learn computers and the accounting software or other things that they need to run their business,” said Dr Bodle.
“When I went up to Kununurra (WA) I visited the Wunan Foundation, which houses an accounting firm to help Indigenous business owners, as well as housing services, financial counselling and a motel next door. Accounting firms go up there for six weeks at a time to do pro bono work.”
The preliminary findings are looking positive and there are many Indigenous entrepreneurs who are very resilient and internally motivated for self-employment in small businesses.
“From the conversations I had, some of the business owners did have some level of education and came from families who had had some prior business experience,” said Dr Bodle.
“Interestingly, we have to see that Indigenous business owners have an amazing entrepreneurial ability.”
“Notwithstanding there was some evidence of atypical communities, such as drugs and domestic violence and alcohol abuse.”
“But there were many more pieces of evidence on those that had risen out of these conditions and have made successful businesses,” said Dr Bodle.
“I interviewed Julie-Ann Lambourne the CEO from enVizion Group Queensland, who is an example of this. Her organisation helps students who have experienced severe trauma to transition into employment.”
A key question was asked to the Indigenous and non-Indigenous small business owners that was central to the research problem, how do you define and rate success?
“The non-Indigenous people talk about the savings and the profits, and the ability to be able to expand. And the monetary and tangible things,” said Dr Bodle.
“Whereas Indigenous people, talk more about intangible things like what they could provide to their family, their kids, and being role models. And that is the strongest findings I can tell you.”
One spin-off initiative that might come from engaging the research, is for Indigenous financial literacy training centres in regional and remote areas. The question of who can fund these centres, e.g. will it be government, franchising or the accounting industry, is still being investigated?
“Like what we found in Cherbourg and in other remote areas, small businesses that accidentally popped-up, how they have thrived, what works and what doesn’t work, and their financial training needs,“ said Dr Bodle.
“Such as Apple Genius Bars, we could have them manned by accounting professionals so that business owners could just come in and ask questions, one day a month. These people could be paid by their firm ‘in-kind’ or they might be government-funded Indigenous consultants.”
One area impeding Indigenous self-employment is the historical disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians when seeking grant assistance or business finance for startup businesses.
“A lot of Indigenous business owners, don’t know where to find funding and struggle going through the applications and filling out the paperwork,” said Dr Bodle.
“Maybe the pop-up Genius Bar funders could send out grant writers to help them with grant applications.”
“Another option is to have manned virtual online assistants funded by the government. I think this would get a pretty big buy-in Australia wide.”
The team is investigating a franchising aspect that may help to amplify successful Indigenous small business models and deliver sustainability with the support of the franchise community training systems and infrastructures. This involves an Indigenous training program discussion with philanthropic-minded franchisors, at an international franchising conference later this year in Vienna, Austria.
“I am there as more of an observer, rather than a presenter. I am curious to see if our research on franchising could be extended for Indigenous people on a global scale,” said Dr Bodle.
“I’m also examining whether our findings can be translated into some future policy recommendations.”
To learn more about empowering Indigenous small businesses through improved financial literacy, or to see what networks and resources are available for financial training and support, please contact Dr Kerry Bodle.
Feature Image: Barkly Street Arts in Tennant Creek – by Carol Henshaw