Actions Today and Impact Tomorrow, with Nathan Lovett
This Indigenous Business Month, we discuss listening first, taking action with authenticity, and staying accountable to our commitments.
During Indigenous Business Month, I had the honour of sitting down for a chat with Nathan Lovett at the brand new Western Sydney Startup Hub. Nathan is a proud descendant of the Yuin people and has been working to create employment and education pathways for Indigenous people for almost two decades; from the education system as a teacher, to the world of business in roles at Westpac, the NSW Government and more recently, The National Indigenous Culinary Institute. We wanted to find out how startup founders, supporters and operators can learn from and collaborate with the Indigenous business sector.
So to kick things off, Nathan, do you wanna tell us a little bit about yourself and your story?
The work that I've been doing for the last 16, 17 years has been really targeted towards one - young people, and two - young Indigenous and Torres Strait people. I've taught and worked in schools here in Western Sydney and other places, and have seen the impact of being able to work really closely one on one with young people and in particular, young people from my culture. Everything that I try to stay attached to whilst helping our young people is that economic participation - so the careers, and the employment that is attached to education. Along the way, I've started and ran businesses and side hustles.
Something I've noticed is how diverse that Indigenous businesses are, and the huge array of industries represented. Can you tell us a bit about the Indigenous business sector, how it operates differently to other ecosystems and what makes it unique? Are there any particular types of businesses that you've noticed popping up?
The obvious one is the Indigenous consultant. There’s lots of consultants because there’s a need for more of us to be guiding. The low hanging fruit options kind of lead us to where the low hanging fruit is as well. So as there's funding and specific commitments from companies, particularly in the construction sector, we're seeing a lot of labor type businesses being started. Typically Indigenous businesses have been attracted to the safe boundaries so we're not necessarily getting that large scale and huge capability. I’ve also noticed that the Indigenous business ecosystem is not getting the huge investment that other companies would, for whatever reason - whether it's our capability to sell ourselves or if we have the right skill sets and the development that comes with that, but we are not receiving major investment from the private sector.
So how do we go about investing in and working with Indigenous business, and making sure that it is not tokenistic?
Authenticity always shines through. There's been the same problem in business for ages - we’ve got all white fellas making the decisions. Women and young people have been left out too. Don’t invite us into a room and tell us that you want to engage with Indigenous people, but fail to give us the opportunity to really talk and share and contribute to the decision making and building process. If you're thinking of anything to do with Indigenous communities; whether investing in Indigenous business or hiring Indigenous people, get a representative in the room and give us a voice. Take this same approach with any culture or minority - so at least at the very starting point, you've got the right person to share. The other day I learned that a disabled person is the chair for the Special Olympic community for the first time. I was just speechless. I had no response. Are they not capable? Of course they are. So why aren’t they leading?
Another piece of advice is to work with us quickly, rather than holding us up and putting up red tape. For example at a company I was working for previously, I wanted to get a cake that was made by an Indigenous supplier - but they were overly cautious and it needed to go through the proper channels and not break any rules. Getting the supplier onto the supply chain was such a headache that I ended up paying for the cake myself, along with a $1000 consulting fee for the Elder who baked it to come in and talk (because I wasn’t just gonna buy her cake without giving her the chance to share her journey).
Black cladding is a big issue to consider in this space (when a business appears to be Indigenous, but actually is not). How do we make sure that the businesses we work with are definitely Indigenous owned?
Black cladding often steals the bigger money away. It got started because there were all these RAPS and contracts and financial spend commitments that organisations have got within their supply chain. When money comes into things, people will do the wrong thing and get pretty greedy. You’ll see people get taken advantage of - whether it's by starting a business that is misrepresenting Indigenous business, or by using an Indigenous person for money.
For example, I met this kid not too long ago who was running a cleaning business and told me he was the owner. He was 20 and his mum was saying he had no money, so I was asking how are you doing this all on your own? The kid mentioned his business partner, so I decided to see what’s going on. He introduced me to the guy and he couldn’t have been whiter. We did some research and it turned out that he was being taken for a ride because of the benefits provided to Indigenous businesses. There is lots of money in cleaning - especially during a Covid world. The partner had registered the business in his own name, so that he owns it and has full control. He was turning over 7 figures, but the kid was being paid about 15 bucks per hour to be a cleaner in what was termed his own business, even though it didn’t technically belong to him. And this was happening right here in Sydney.
I think with any Indigenous business you deal with, it comes down to due diligence. You need to get to know the person or the business, because unfortunately there are those who present themselves as Indigenous but are not. I've even been fooled by a business that had received an award for Indigenous Excellence and had Indigenous artwork on their site. I always look at the about section on their website and what they say. Nine out ten Indigenous businesses are probably going to be proud about where they're from and talk about their background, their culture, and where they are. Usually one give away like this doesn't mean it's right, but it helps. You can also contact Indigenous businesses that you’re working with and ask to confirm a few things about themselves, so that you can get to the bottom of anything that seems off.
What percentage of the business needs to be Indigenous owned, for it to be considered Indigenous? And where does equity investment come into this?
I think it should be 100% - but that's a personal opinion. I can only speak based on my experiences. If I was going to supply to the NSW government and advocate for myself being an Indigenous business, I would want it to be 100% Indigenous-owned.
If you’re a not-for-profit, are you able to access loans and grants? If you're wanting to run a business, you start talking about investment and giving up equity stake. And does that affect ownership? Yep. So it impacts that capability to say, I'm a majority owned, or I am 100% Indigenous-owned. I haven't operated at that scale so don't know how that feels (we get corporate sponsorship and grants). So I don’t know. And that's a part of why we haven't gone to that next stage yet, because we're trying to figure out what it’s meant to look like.
The Dream Venture Masterclasses were all about empowering Indigenous Australians who've been quite successful in business to invest back into their community and build generational wealth. Do you think that's an opportunity?
I would love to see Indigenous businesses investing in Indigenous community. Michael O’Loughlin is a good example. He runs a really successful cleaning services business and employs a lot of people from community. He’s also got the Go Foundation - so there’s a nice balance in what he does. Indigenous people need to be running more businesses and less not for profits. When you're not for profit, you only have what you receive. When you have a business, you have the ability to grow your wealth and your equity and your financial capabilities.
People like Michael, Adam Goodes, and some others that I know have used their sporting careers or their platforms to grow businesses, which is important. Charles Prouse too - he's out doing amazing consulting work and operates at a high level. There are plenty of Indigenous people out there running really good businesses, and it just gives our younger generation capability. We can do it, and we can do it effectively.
There are so many incredible Indigenous business leaders. How do we find and connect with them?
It's not as easy as just jumping online and searching - “find me an Indigenous business”. There's Trading Blak which is a new up and coming database of Indigenous businesses, and pretty cool. Here in NSW, there is the Indigenous Business Chamber (NSWICC) and down in Victoria, there’s something similar and even bigger called Kinaway. There are some really great, innovative things coming through for Indigenous community and business in Victoria.
It is Indigenous Business Month and the slogan is ‘actions today, impact tomorrow.’ How do we make sure our work is actually being effective?
I would like to see research on the effectiveness of all the Indigenous programs and commitments, and whether we're actually doing the right thing. I advocated for this and almost did it as a doctorate, but no university would pick it up. We need to ask - is our work having a huge impact? Is it making the change that we claim it has? Is it the right vehicle to have the impact, and is it happening at the right stage? Being a teacher - my pedagogical approach is that to significantly make an impact on things like literacy, numeracy, attendance rates and the connectivity between our community and education, it’s got to start earlier and at a younger age.
How can you help a year nine student who's already 30 months behind in literacy and numeracy skills? You're trying to catch them up and at the same time, taking them out of class to do so. Right now I've got my twin boys in kindergarten and they both have reading difficulties. So they're already starting behind the ball and are working on trying to fix that before they go in year one. So we've got large amounts of disparity in that education piece and need to make changes earlier on.
Before our chat, you asked me where we are on this journey? Are we doing well or not? Some days you feel really good and you see great things happening. Then you see things like Rio Tinto and they destroy 30,000 year old caves, and a 15 year old kid gets racially abused, murdered. It can be up and down. It can be good, it can be bad.
The commitments are there, but there’s a huge disparity between these and actually making them work. The Indigenous community has a responsibility on our side to hold the person who makes the commitment accountable. We need to be knocking their door down and going, “hey, you've made these commitments - where is the action?” In 2019, I think it was 12 CEOs of CBA, Westpac, KPMG, PWC and more who stood up and said - we're going to commit 3% of our supply chain span to Indigenous business. Who's going to evaluate it and say, did they achieve this?
After Indigenous business month, I’m making it my own mission to find out what happened to all the supply chain commitments. What are all these CEOs doing within their businesses to honour the public commitments that they made to the community? I didn't see anything from these companies during Indigenous business month. So I want to see what they’re doing, and am going to hold them to account.
Finally - I feel like there's a lot of good intentions and a lot of goodwill, but people are often a bit hesitant about how to take action in this space. So how do we overcome any fear, educate ourselves and actively listen to the Indigenous community in order to run programs and to invest and hire?
A lot of great accomplishments come from mistakes first. It's okay to make mistakes as long as you're genuine about it - as opposed to misrepresenting this or trying to hide it. Just learn from it and let us help you.
Quite often you see a company try something and they can get absolutely berated for it. As the Indigenous community, we need to not do ourselves a disservice when mistakes are made because at least they tried. I know people and some businesses who have tried to reach out to and consult Indigenous community, but don’t hear back - and they say now they’re getting in trouble for something that they’ve gone ahead with. When you have made the effort and can show this, it's okay to make a mistake - as long as you're not eliminating our involvement. It’s easy to tell if you're just doing it for the sake of it, or if you're doing it authentically and because you believe in it and you tried and you couldn't get the right people to help guide you.
So as much as possible, make sure that what you’re doing is Indigenous-led. When you’re listening, you usually can't go wrong.
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