My theory of social change for the MURRA Indigenous Business Masterclass program

Below is a speech that I gave this week at the Indigenous Business Australia staff conference:

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this beautiful place nunawal land, their ancestors and members of the nation today who continue to speak for country. To all the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the audience I acknowledge you and all of our ancestors past, present and our young people as we will all be the ancestors of the future.

Second please let me thank IBA, specifically Kirsti McQueen, for the invitation to speak tonight and have dinner with such a vibrant group of people – IBA has been a critical sponsor of the MURRA program, something I will spend some time speaking about tonight, and for that we at Melbourne business school are very appreciative of.

My name is Michelle Evans, I am a koori women born and raised in the hunter valley of NSW. My home town is Cessnock where my sisters and niece and nephews still live, my parents are in Newcastle and my extended family scattered between the central coast and the hunter valley.

I trained as an improviser and theatre maker in my undergraduate on the land of the wiradjuri nation in Bathurst at csu. I credit this training for a lot about how I approach situations with a mind that is open, tries not to block offers and opportunities, takes risks and invests in building relationships.

Today I work for the Melbourne business school as the program director of the MURRA indigenous business master class program and as a research fellow. Tonight I will outline the MURRA program and how it’s being experienced by Australian indigenous entrepreneurs; talk to you about the research I and my colleague Professor Ian Williamson are conducting on Australian indigenous entrepreneurial leadership; and I will finish with a few tips that you as IBA staff can think about when working to support and develop indigenous business in Australia.

There is power in the words we use and the ways we describe our activities in the world. This is really the foundational research interest I bring to this space, and let me explain why. Using the word leader, leading, leadership signifies a whole range of ideas, people, activities and values about individuals and organizations. In fact if I were to ask you what is leadership the diversity of thoughts and definitions we would hear would be so interesting. If you google leadership you get 67.5 million Web hits, the academic literature on leadership is immense, the public domain is obsessed by it (especially here in this delightful capital city) yet perhaps we don’t really know what this ‘leadership’ is.

What we do know from the literature, I am betting from your personal experience, is that it is about influence and it’s seen as a relatively positive thing, it’s about power and it’s something that happens in between people – it’s relational. So bringing words like leadership and entrepreneurship and speaking about Australian indigenous business people as leaders and entrepreneurs really does signal a different conversation.

This conversation is founded in the values of high expectations and being possibilitarians (N.Nissley) by claiming or being granted this roles I have noticed that indigenous business people are conceiving of themselves in ways that challenge the tall poppy syndrome and constraining indigenous cultural norms. Hence the tension and challenges indigenous people in any profession face when they step up and back themselves and their work.

MURRA is about developing individuals business acumen (their human capital) as well as expanding their social networks (social capital). Through six two day master classes in strategy, marketing, finance, human resource management, negotiations and leadership individuals develop a language for the experiential know how they already possess – they encounter the theoretical knowledge acts as a scaffold for their experience. This is powerful stuff. Imagine you are sitting there and a professor starts talking about the research and theory of hiring people and you can not only see your experience reflected you get a process for going about doing hiring that will more powerfully achieve your goals of hiring excellent personnel – this can change the landscape of a small business.

We have noticed that there seem to be three, possibly four models of Indigenous business in Australia – those businesses that trade from a cultural knowledge base; those that broker information and resources between indigenous and non-indigenous spaces; and those that are purely commercial entities. There is possibly a fourth, a truly indigenous business model – a commercial business that has a culturally embedded business model like those that base their annual cycles on the seven seasons for instance.

So as you work together tomorrow on building the foundation of a great IBA team I want you to consider what is your theory of social change and how do you see it impacting future generations? For me, the theory of social change around the MURRA program and the research I do can be summarized in five key steps:
• By enhancing the business acumen (human capital) and the networks (social capital) of Indigenous entrepreneurs/organisations/leaders
o They will be more successful at recognizing and exploiting opportunities for their businesses/organisations
• This will lead to greater business/organisational growth
• This in turn supports Aboriginal job creation, wealth creation and economic security
o Which over time increases in the overall wealth of the Aboriginal community leading to greater economic independence

We need to grow our businesses, we need to diversify our businesses and we need to reinforce a high expectations culture as the norm. Thank you.

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