The importance of connection for Indigenous business owners

9 September 2022

Indigenous businesses are one of the fastest growing sectors in Australia, with estimates that up to 16,000 businesses are Indigenous owned – up from just over 6,000 in 2006.

And with around 2,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students expected to graduate from UQ this year, there’s a good chance many of them will consider starting their own businesses.

When they do, they’ll be following in the footsteps of some impressive Indigenous business owners, including the female business owners who spoke at the UQ Ventures Strong Spirit workshop on 22–23 August.

Held for the first time in 2022, Strong Spirit is a two-day confidence building workshop for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, to help build their entrepreneurial and leadership skills.

Panellists with audience in foreground
'Agency, Responsibility, and Aunty Theory
Panel' with panelists Aunty Roma Pregarc, Professor Tracey Bunda and Professor Anita Heiss AM (L–R).

Throughout the workshop, one of the themes that kept emerging was the importance of connection.

Leesa Watego, director and founder of Iscariot Media, and co-founder Black Coffee Indigenous Network, explored this topic when she spoke at the First Nations Female Founders.

Carol Vale, CEO of Indigenous consultancy Murawin, asked her, “What gaps have you been able to fill in the market with your business?”

“The thing was, people wanted to connect,” said Ms Watego.

“People wanted to talk, and people wanted to know that they weren’t alone.”

It was this understanding of the importance of connection that led Ms Watego to co-found Black Coffee, which runs grassroots Indigenous business networking events around Australia each month.

Aware that navigating the challenging space of small business and entrepreneurial can be even more difficult for many Indigenous people, Ms Watego wanted to build a strong community and support system.

Networking at the Strong Spirit workshop
Leesa Watego, director and founder of Iscariot Media, and co-founder Black Coffee Indigenous Network (pictured right)

The events have grown from humble beginnings in South-East Queensland in 2015, when it was sometimes just Ms Watego sitting in a café by herself.

“Every Friday I would go to a café at 7am and tell everyone on social media. Then I’d just go around the region. If nobody turned up, it didn’t matter, I had my laptop and I’d sit there and work.”

Now Black Coffee events are held in every mainland state, with as many as 100 people attending some events.

Ms Watego also co-founded Indigenous Business Month, which is held every year in October.

“I did the 2015 Murra masterclass at the University of Melbourne, and at the end of the masterclass, you naturally start thinking, well what could we do together? And that’s how Indigenous Business Month started.”

Indigenous Business Month encourages business owners to hold events celebrating their businesses, and the Indigenous Business Month Awards showcase the outstanding achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses.

“It’s an opportunity for the Indigenous business sector across Australia to showcase the amazing work and the impact that Indigenous businesses have in the community,” said Ms Watego.

“It’s hard work to be in business, so having a time when you get to have a bit of a party and say, ‘hey, we did this,’ – that’s nice.”

The power of balance

Other speakers at Strong Spirit emphasised the importance of finding a balance between life and work.

Alisha Geary, director of activewear company Faebella and founder of content marketplace Provvy, said she has to set strong boundaries to stop her work taking over her life.

“You need to be very regimented about your work,” she said.

“I find if you don’t schedule your work in, it’s too easy to keep working.”

Kat Henaway, founder of Women’s Business and Politics in Colour, agreed.

“I remember when I went to university and worked full-time, I was falling over in stress,” she said.

“Most of the other Indigenous women in that degree were also working full-time – they had multiple children and big jobs.

“You have to set hard boundaries for yourself, and be a little bit more disciplined to stop working on the weekends.”

Ms Geary said it’s even important to schedule in time for your hobbies and interests.

“When you start a business, you place all your identity around that business. If that business doesn’t work out, that will affect your personal self-esteem,” she said.

“It’s very important to make sure you still have bits of your identity that’s completely distinct from your business.”

Ms Watego said that while running a business can be challenging, it can also present opportunities for finding work-life balance.

“You don’t have to aim to be the billion-dollar company. Being a small, micro or nano business is a great way for people to be creative, and let women build a lifestyle that’s flexible, that they can work around other family and community commitments.”

Strong Spirit

Carol Vale keynote at podium
Keynote speaker Carol Vale, CEO of Murawin 

UQ Ventures launched Strong Spirit this year with the aim of bringing Indigenous women together to build confidence in themselves and their ventures. The two-day workshop was funded by the Queensland Government, Investing in Queensland Women Grant.

It gave women the opportunity to network with those in the community, and attend panels on topics such as Running First Nations Businesses, Communicating with Confidence, Creating Community, and Agency, Responsibility and Aunty Theory.

Being able to meet other women in all stages of business, from experienced business owners to women just starting out, was one of the highlights of the event for Ms Watego.

“I think it’s always good to listen to other stories about how people have gone one their journey. So you watch somebody, you listen to their story, and you’re then reflecting and thinking about how that then applies to your story,” she said.

“I think it’s really important to create spaces where people can share ideas and communicate.”

If you’d like to get in touch with UQ Ventures about how we can provide entrepreneurial skills to your next Indigenous event, workshop, or program, contact to find out how we can support you.