What are the challenges faced by Indigenous women in business, and how can we better support those women? The following reflection is by IPS Business Adviser Susan Lee.
The traditional ways of delivering business support to Indigenous people is from a place of risk adversity. It's evident this creates barriers and serves very few people - least of all women entering the small business field, which is where I mostly work.
I can report very low numbers of female entrepreneurs coming forward for help: 6 in 70 approaches from three states, SA, Vic and Tas. Many women are silent and watch the first movers before they spend their energy somewhere it will not return. I think they are out there, watching and making decisions about where to put their time and energy, which for women, is more scarce than for men.
Small businesses give more opportunities for learning business skills and growth, and as there are more of them than big businesses it is where Aboriginal women can really make great gains (notwithstanding other barriers around winning the job, cultural workplace issues and just being a woman in the private sector).
Most Aboriginal business support we see today is targeted at bigger business: policy makers are more comfortable understanding what is more visible, and funding that because they are seen as less risky. We are more familiar with the language of big business than we are with small business.
The paradox is that the process to get help is not attractive for many large businesses, and small business owners are not generally understood by funders as necessary eco-system 'feeders' to grow more sophisticated enterprises - so the opportunities for Aboriginal women in small business (and possibly later big business) remain closed.
More opportunity is needed for women, and double that opportunity for Aboriginal women. More all round. And do it differently. Really differently. Why?
Because it's a time thing. A lot of Aboriginal women are flat out looking after others' needs and not their own, so it will take a lot of shifting in the community and social aspects of Aboriginal women's lives to make the room for them to put energies on starting and running business (true for most women).
Saying that, I think the skills women develop in looking after others gives them great empathy to respond to others' concerns without being defensive, to connect with markets, to problem solve, get focused and manage time, and ultimately get paid well for it. Adversity is a great teacher but poverty is not romantic.
I don't think we have even begun to scratch the surface in finding new, innovative, creative ways to engage, support and teach Aboriginal women business skills, and the great thing is, it can be done and it is being done in other countries.
We can draw on Aboriginal culture’s complex history of international trade and exchange to excite and inspire people to uncover something that already exists. Additionally, all the social benefits of women's grass roots involvement in small business through Grameen Bank is that women can become role models. My dream is we get to a place where women running business is normal, and kids learn that business is just a way of operating, not a gendered choice.
There is a lot of potential and opportunity, but to support Aboriginal women in business I believe modes of delivery, support type and assessment processes need more flexibility to accommodate womens' worlds and cultural needs, while also giving those in power comfort that their money is well spent.
Because most people know more about AFL than business, we have a long way to go to teach decision makers about how being in business is all about the stuff they avoid - risk.