Don’t be afraid to step out of the shadows: advice from two Indigenous women in business

By Ebony Stansfield  Monday, 9 November 2020  Features

Wiradjuri woman Cheryl Penrith says the days of people thinking that you want to be white because you want to start a business: "them days are long gone."

Ms Penrith is a Wiradjuri woman, who also has cultural connection to the Yuin and Wotjoboluk nations and she is an Aboriginal business owner, a connector, a mentor and a coach.

Speaking as part of Indigenous Business Month @ UNSW, she explained that her passion is the revival and reinvigoration of cultural practices such as weaving, language, possum skin cloak making, and women's cultural business.

When her husband died, Ms Penrith says she could have stepped back into the shadows – but she knew he would not have wanted that.

"I thought: 'I'm gonna take this opportunity to live my life the way that I wanted to live it' … I think it's, the middle turning point in your life where you can go this way or you can go there."

The pandemic has caused the world to change, and she is thinking about how to style up a different future for the current generation and others to come.

Ms Penrith says she is interested in building women up because of the incarceration rates and the number of women that experience domestic and family violence.

"If we can build your self-esteem and confidence and through the use of cultural knowledge and cultural practice, face a pathway out of us becoming a statistic," she says.

"It's going to be really important for all of our community, not just the first nations community, but our relationships with employment and training and how people transition from school to work, and how we practice our culture, on our terms."

In starting a business or any venture in life, Ms Penrith says it is vital to surround yourself with people who love and support you.

"I've got a mixture of elders and friends and family. And I think that's really important."

However, for a lot of people who work in the community, Ms Penrith says they share their networks and tips on how to work with communities for free.

Ms Penrith says that while she does this for the community, others might need to think about getting paid for sharing their knowledge and tapping into networks.

Also speaking as part of Indigenous Business Month @ UNSW was Debra Beale, an emerging and multi award winning Aboriginal female designer maker stemming from the Gamilaraay/Wonnarua and Wiradjuri/Boonwurung/Palawa/Yorta Yorta nations across Australia.

Ms Beale has an artistic practice focusing on fashion design, jewellery, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, ceramics and textile design.

Her studio is located in Warrimoo, formally known as Karabah (Where Eagles Land), in the NSW Blue Mountains (Darug Nation).

"I'm passionate about bringing my Aboriginal art and culture into life using contemporary media and traditional things," says Ms Beale.

"My business is about supporting family and our next generations to come.

"It's also a healing journey, allowing me to express my lived experience through experimenting and we've decided sustainable and natural materials for my mother earth."

Ms Beale says she expresses a spiritual connection to country and a spiritual connection to her inner deep self.

"My experimental practice allows nature to speak to me through my process of thinking and making."

Ms Beale says it is important to never lose sight of the light and the ancestors will guide you.

"That's what I've done… throughout my life. That is the wisdom and knowledge of an elder Aboriginal woman.

"Follow the signs, and it'll come to you, those signs will come to you like they have for me."

Ms Penrith echoes this insight and advised against being afraid to step out of the shadows and into the light.

"This does not have to be your final destination, and the days of being shy and being afraid to stand out in the crowd, they're long gone," she says.

Debra Beale is currently studying at UNSW, embarking in honours in 2121. In 2019, UNSW Business school commissioned Debra Beale to create a design that celebrates the longevity sophistication and evolving business practices. She named this 'Trade Connection'.

"Prior to the invasion of Australia, First Nations communities had established a chain of trade routes all over the continent. The exchange of goods and services was also practised between neighbouring language groups as well as other language groups across the continent," Ms Beale said.

"Trading was vital to First Nation Peoples as it improved their quality of life. Trading objects such as food, seeds, stones, ochres, tools, weapons was not only a method of sharing resources but was a form of social control and lore. It was a way of honouring each other's rights, boundaries, and cultural differences.

"Many tribes developed good relationships as they respected shared stories of their journeys and narratives of the Dreamtime. Trade was not only linked with materialistic objects but included songs, dances and art, stories, rituals and ceremonies which connected First Nations Peoples to Land, Sea and Sky."

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