Sparking entrepreneurial spirit in regional Australia

YBI member Many Rivers have been supporting both Indigenous and non-Indigenous entrepreneurs in Australia for over a decade. We spoke to CEO John Burn to learn more about their work providing business support and economic development, and the new activities they have put into practice through our COVID-19 Rapid Response and Recovery programme funded by Google.org.

Can you explain what Many Rivers is and does?

We’re a not-for-profit organisation and our purpose is to positively impact individual and structural disadvantage through economic participation and enterprise. We work with anyone who seeks us out, but we have a special emphasis on Indigenous Australians, who make up 38% of our client base.

What is the situation for Indigenous Australians, from a business point of view?

Indigenous Australians represent about 4% of the population, and there are about 25,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Australia. But on a 4% basis, you would expect about 90,000, which means there is a gap of 65,000 in the number there should be, proportionately. There is great opportunity for more Indigenous businesses to get started and participate in building the Australian economy.

What kinds of support does Many Rivers give to entrepreneurs?

Our team of business coaches work directly with business owners. We also provide business owners with the products necessary to establish a business. One is access to credit; another is access to legal advice to help entrepreneurs establish and set up their businesses. We’ve realised that it’s really important for us to work with somebody for a long period of time. Our work isn’t just about giving something to somebody, like a loan. It’s the journey of the relationship over time which is the critical aspect.

“Our work isn’t just about giving something to somebody, like a loan. It’s the journey of the relationship over time which is the critical aspect.”

October is Indigenous Business Month in Australia. Is there anything you do differently to support the Indigenous community during this time?

The main thing we do is showcase our client stories, which we do through our social media channels. We work with many really exciting Indigenous-run businesses and we share their stories across our network. Many Rivers is very happy to support important national events like Indigenous Business Month and NAIDOC week and the best way for us to do that is to support and encourage our Indigenous brothers and sisters as it’s their time to shine.

As a member of Youth Business International, we already know Many Rivers has a strong focus on youth. Aside from Indigenous and young entrepreneurs, are there any other groups you focus on?

Absolutely. Our client group actually represents all demographics, all the way from 18 up to 80, so we’ve got a couple of clients who are at the other end of the age spectrum. Another segment of our client base that I’m really happy about is that 49% of our business owners are women. On average, only 35% of business owners are women in the normal market context. We are really happy to have a much higher female participation rate then the national average.

Do you provide any particular programmes or specific support for young entrepreneurs in particular?

Our service offering is broadly the same for all age groups, but one thing that we have done for the youngest potential entrepreneurs of all is to establish a pilot programme called Small Business in Schools . Our aim is to support learning in kids as young as eight years old on the basics of how to start a business. This is especially important in regional and remote Australia, because when people leave school, they often have to leave their community because of the lack of economic opportunity. We get children to think about what money is, what a business is, and what business they could do in their community.

“Our aim is to support learning in kids as young as eight years old on the basics of how to start a business. This is especially important in regional and remote Australia, because when people leave school, they often have to leave their community because of the lack of economic opportunity”

Are there any youth-led businesses you’ve worked with that have stuck in your memory – either for delivering social impact or for having a particularly interesting founder?

Two examples come to mind, who actually came out of our Small Business in Schools programme in remote Western Australia. One was a young guy who started a very successful breakdancing business in Port Hedland, teaching kids how to do break dancing after school. The other entrepreneur was a young Indigenous woman who was an incredible artist, who started producing work as a result of our Schools programme. She ended up with a month-long pipeline of people wanting to buy her artwork, which were selling for thousands of dollars.

The stories that resonate with me the most are where people have a chance that they hadn’t before. There’s a story one of our team shared with me just this week about a florist business. The really cool thing was that as a result of their business success, they’ve just got a home loan and have moved out of public housing to their own home for the very first time.

How has COVID-19 affected Australia and the entrepreneurs you work with?

I think like the rest of the world we were caught unprepared, but Australia has been very fortunate to be in quite a good position, relatively speaking. I think we’ve had excellent leadership both at a national level and at a state level. The biggest concern early on was just that we didn’t have enough health systems to be able to support those people that got sick. It was March 23rd when COVID-19 really started to hit Many Rivers and our clients and our communities, and almost overnight, 46% of our businesses were negatively impacted, which was a real kick in the guts.

How has Many Rivers’ work had to change as a result of COVID-19?

We always knew our work was important, but we soon realised it had become more important than ever. We started a systematic approach of connecting with every single operating business. We tried to find out what was happening to each one, how they were doing, and what support Many Rivers could provide – whether that was repositioning themselves or stopping operations completely for a time. It’s been an incredibly intense period of support, and today that 46% [number of businesses negatively impacted] has been reduced to 19%. That’s a pretty incredible outcome.

“Almost overnight, 46% of our businesses were negatively impacted… today that 46% has been reduced to 19%. That’s a pretty incredible outcome.”

You mentioned before that certain communities in Australia, particularly Indigenous communities, live in very remote locations. What specific challenges has that posed for entrepreneurs during COVID?

If your community is reliant on things like tourism, or businesses where people physically have to come in to the community, then you just can’t operate. Two key activities that we’ve done with these communities is to make sure that their balance sheets can manage through the COVID experience and provide them assistance to continue business on a digital platform. But there were a couple of communities where we were brought in really quickly, like one community in particular which had no food security. We were brought in to support them to establish a shop to enable a local food supply, because when the community got locked down, people couldn’t go in or out. A lot of this is not rocket science; this is about very hands on, practical solutions.

What new activities have you been able to implement through YBI’s COVID-19 Rapid Response and Recovery Programme funded by Google.org?

The programme arrived at the perfect time. One of the challenges that we’ve been working on for a while is how to scale up our work with businesses from the hundreds to the thousands. There’s only so many clients that an individual business coach can work with. The two ways we’ve been thinking about it is, firstly: how do we spend more time upfront identifying and communicating with potential clients? Secondly, we’ve been thinking about is how we can supplement the in-person business coaching journey with really strong tools and content that enables business owners to explore topics themselves.

The Google.org-funded programme enabled us to address both those points, which we weren’t resourced to do before. As recently as last week, we added a brand-new Resources tab on our website. It contains video resources providing advice on some incredibly important topics for entrepreneurs, both in terms of technical skills and soft skills. This is an open resource available to everyone.

Another area that I think is really important, which we’re just getting ourselves organised for, is creating a technology library. In many of the communities we work with, some clients don’t have access to laptops or video conferencing technology, for example. Our system will be a bit old school, just like going to the library and borrowing a book, but with technology. I believe that scalability and simplicity equals success, and I think these tools are building the scalability of our simplicity.

As part of the programme, Google employees are giving support to participating organisations. Are you already receiving support, or is that in the pipeline?

It’s about to happen. Google employees will be delivering some training sessions with Many Rivers’ business coaches. Creating your online marketing presence and optimising your online channels is something that Google obviously knows way more about than us! So what we’re planning is to build our technical skills competencies inside our business coaching, then support our clients in that.

What’s next for Many Rivers?

I feel that the resources we’ve been developing with the Google.org-funded programme will really help us further our strategic priorities: one of which is around growth and broadening our impact. When micro-businesses progress to small businesses, and progress to medium-size enterprises, they create revenue. Then they can provide more goods and services in communities to generate employment, which means more people can have jobs. If we can help redirect economic flow into some of the most remote regions of Australia, that will provide more revenue-generating opportunities for communities. So, while business development work is required to support people at a structural disadvantage, what we do isn’t why we do it. The reason we do it is to increase people’s self-worth, self-esteem and self-determination.

How do you work to support Indigenous business owners specifically?

Indigenous or non-Indigenous, it’s about the opportunity a person has. So, in one sense, the way we work with Indigenous peoples is exactly the same as our work with any other person. There are particular challenges that Indigenous people face when wanting to start a business, but they’re often related to factors like geographical remoteness.

If people are living in a remote area, you’ve got challenges in terms of creating an economy. You’ve also got challenges like the cost of service, if it’s very expensive to transport items in and out of the community, that means it’s difficult for your offering to be competitive. In a lot of the places that are most disadvantaged, there are no jobs, so you have to think about how you would create a business and how you would connect that business to mainstream economies.

I think the challenges for Indigenous communities are much more aligned to the language and understanding the legal systems that you have to operate in, as a business in Australia. If English is not your first language and commerce is run off English law, that’s a barrier. Then there’s the question of Indigenous lore, the traditional system of law that many Indigenous people follow. One thing we actually learned really quickly is that as long as Indigenous lore sits on top of corporations law in the way that the business owner thinks about the priorities of their business, they actually work very well together.

In fact, three of our five largest businesses, which are now generating revenue of more than a million dollars a year each, are run by Indigenous entrepreneurs. People often say, “Oh, wow. That’s really amazing.” But it doesn’t surprise me at all. Our Indigenous clients are as capable as anyone else.

“Three of our five largest businesses, which are now generating revenue more than a million dollars a year each are run by Indigenous entrepreneurs.”

How do you work with Indigenous communities in remote areas?

In a lot of remote Australia, the community structures are obviously very strong, so creating an environment with lots of individual business owners isn’t always the strongest structural solution. So about five years ago we started to develop our Community Economic Development programme specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Whereas our Microenterprise Development focuses on working with individual business owners, the community economic development approach looks at the leadership group within the community and through the corporation structure that exists within the community, helping them think about developing economic opportunity and business offset. Before COVID-19 we were working with 17 communities through the programme, and now we’re working with 28. We continually engage with communities to make our support available to them when they are ready.

So, 5,000 adults now have access to the economic benefits of those communities, and we’re still in the early stages of growing that programme. To give you an idea of how important that is in remote Australia, as of 2019 there’s about 853 Indigenous land holding entities –in Australia. We’re already working with 28 today. There’s another 38 that we’re actively discussing and engaging with. And there’s over 150 that have approached Many Rivers for our support. I think it’s a really interesting and exciting programme.

Learn more about Many Rivers’ work at www.manyrivers.org.au

Learn more about Indigenous Business Month at www.indigenousbusinessmonth.com.au

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