Three courageous Indigenous women share how they do business differently

By Dawn Lo  Monday, 30 November 2020  Features

Left to right: Carole Vale, Shantelle Thompson, Ashlee Donohue.

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"Growing up in a small town in New South Wales, you're either black or white – you weren't both," says Shantelle Thompson, also known as the Barkindji Warrior.

Ms Thompson grew up in Dareton, NSW and is still strongly connected to her country and the community of Sunraysia. She has created Kiilalaana where she delivers keynote speeches, works with corporates and not-for-profits as a health and wellbeing ambassador, and runs workshops for various education, youth group and program providers.

Speaking as part of Indigenous Business Month @ UNSW, Ms Thompson says her driving purpose is to fight for those who are unable to fight for themselves and to be a voice for those who do not have a voice.

"My life has always been a rollercoaster of one trauma to another. But I had to make a choice to be my own warrior. I had to learn to help myself before I could help others. My parents did the best they could, but they were a product of their circumstances. This is not something that I understood growing up. But it's something that I've sought to understand so that I could heal, stop blaming my parents and better understand why things happened the way they did," she says.

After narrowly missing out on selection for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Ms Thompson is now preparing to qualify for a spot on the Australian Wrestling team for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

"My nan has never let me play the victim. She never let our circumstances stop us from doing what we needed to do… I have always wanted to be a leader, but I was never given the opportunity. So, I learned how to shout. Because if I didn't shout for myself, no one was willing to listen."

In 2016, Ms Thompson was told to choose between having a job or pursuing her dreams, and she chose the latter. Her greatest motivation is to make sure her family is sustainable.

"I know what it is to survive, and I want to set up my business so that we're sustainable. Because the more sustainable I am, the more my family is and the more capacity I have to give back to others."

But Ms Thompson explains that in her own personal experience, it can be quite dangerous to "try and light a passion in people without the right resources".

"It's important to know your tax obligations, legal obligations [and] insurance obligations when starting out as an entrepreneur," she says.

"I have three levels to my business and it's still unfolding. I started off as a sole trader, as a speaker working in schools, wanting to help young people. And then I moved into running trauma informed self-development: life skills programs and helping people understand how they can find their own voice and their own power to overcome whatever is holding them back."

Advice for those looking to go into business

Before going into business, Ms Thompson says it is important to ask yourself about the what and the why of the business: not just what you want to give, but what you actually want to get out of the business.

"The second thing is asking yourself: what are the things that I have to know in order to set up a solid foundation, so I'm not setting myself up to fail? Thirdly, you need to find people who can support you in this journey," she says.

"Find out who you can look up to, people who are maybe five or ten years ahead of you in this business journey and find out what you would do differently."

Also speaking as part of Indigenous Business Month @ UNSW was Carol Vale, a proud Dunghutti/Gumbaingirr woman from NSW.

Ms Vale is the Managing Director of her own business: Murawin Pty Ltd, a specialist inter-cultural consulting and facilitation organisation that specialises in working with a range of clients to enhance organisational capacity by undertaking social research, community consultations, stakeholder engagement and evaluation services.

Through her company, Ms Vale works with the government and industry to increase productivity and be more authentic with Indigenous Australians. She is also a professional facilitator, social researcher and policy analyst with expertise in Aboriginal issues, public policy and stakeholder engagement across a range of sectors.

Ms Vale says no one can speak to your business as strongly and passionately as you can, so you have to back yourself – but it is also about staying humble.

"Your humbleness or your authenticity will come through, but shame has no place in your work. If you allow shame to come in, then you are doing a disservice to yourself, and to our people," she says.

It's also about researching the area that you want to place yourself in.

"You have to position yourself within the market that you want to be in, really refine the industry that you know and believe that you belong and position yourself there.

"Your Indigeneity brings an added commercial value that your non-Indigenous colleagues and peers in that arena do not have; there is a price to that. So, make sure that you commercialise that," she says.

Ms Vale also runs native food business Game Enough?, a majority owned Indigenous business that promotes access to the unique tastes of Australian game meats and native plant-based foods. 

She also founded Tiddas in Business, a platform where Indigenous and non-Indigenous women come together to share their experiences, skills and insights into building businesses with impact.

"It's about all of us looking to see what is it that we have, that we can monetise or commercialise, so we can create income-generating opportunities for us, which then contribute to economic empowerment for our families and breaking cycles of poverty," says Ms Vale.

"It's an amazing time to be in business as an Indigenous person in this country because of the Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP). I think that the Commonwealth level as well as the jurisdiction at the state levels, is about us understanding the elements of the IPP and how we can work with our clients and others to really understand how they can also by accessing the IPP along with us," Ms Vale says.

Addressing anti-violence and anti-racism

The third speaker of the same Indigenous Business Month @ UNSW session was Ashlee Donohue – a proud Aboriginal woman from the Dunghutti nation, born and raised in Kempsey.

"I had two babies by the time I was 25 and did not get my first degree until I was 40. I'm 52 this year and now it's my turn to give back and come forth with other young women.

Ms Donohue is an educator, speaker and advocate for anti-violence and anti-racism towards Indigenous women. She provides a range of training packages through her business, Miss Ashlee enterprise.

Ms Donohue is the Co-ordinator of the Mudgin-Gal Aboriginal Corporation-Women's Centre, Chairperson of Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women's Legal Centre, and sits on the 'Our Watch' Aboriginal Women's Advisory Board and City of Sydney's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory panel.

Through her consultancy, Ms Donohue has presented at the UN Status of Women Forums in New York six times. She works to create safe spaces for Aboriginal women, providing platforms for sharing lived experiences and developing strong networks. She has also conducted a lot of training around anti-violence messaging as the lead writer for the NRL voice against violence – a training package for every rugby league player across Australia.

"I think that there's so much that needs to be done now. I don't think we have the luxury of having another generation having to deal and face the issues that we had to deal with," says Ms Donohue.

"The shift has to be now. And I think that we can all stand in our power as a collective to make that shift happen."

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