Social enterprise sector failing Indigenous businesses
20 March 2023 at 2:37 pm
A new report urges social enterprises to better support and value First Nations businesses, laying out practical recommendations for change.
The Australian social enterprise sector does not reflect the needs of First Nations businesses and must play a more active role in removing barriers to growth, a scathing new report suggests.
It outlines how a number of damaging misconceptions held about First Nations enterprises – including that they are vulnerable, less educated and do not hold a growth mindset – have created a culture positioning the social enterprise sector as the saviour of disadvantaged Indigenous businesses.
The Addressing Indigenous Economic Inclusion in the Social Enterprise Sector report, which incorporates interviews with global Indigenous leaders and entrepreneurs from Australia, Canada and New Zealand, also argues the sector does not adequately value the role of Indigenous cultural practices and knowledge in business.
Indigenous-led investment firm First Australians Capital, which delivered the report, says this experience is the result of the sector being led by non-Indigenous decision-makers.
“What has occurred by this sector being created and led by primarily non-Indigenous enterprises is that Indigenous culture, worldview, experience, knowledge has been excluded,” business advisory associate director Tiarne Shutt told Pro Bono News.
“The way Indigenous businesses are viewed and valued by the social enterprise sector needs to change.
“This sector struggles to see Indigenous businesses as serious economic contributors, which is untrue. They have extracted so much from First Nations people. There are still businesses that are non-Indigenous-owned that profit off our knowledge, and there’s no one holding them accountable. There’s no reciprocity between the communities they’re extracting and exploiting.”
This reflection was echoed by an interviewee, who shared in the report that despite their work targeting First Nations people, the majority of their business conversations are with non-Indigenous entities.
“In those business conversations, we leave our Indigenous identity at the door, because in those conversations, our cultural values and our Indigenous knowledges are not valuable, they are not seen as worthy, only our business knowledge matters. We would love to see that change, because our culture is ingrained in how we work and what our business does,” the interviewee said.
A roadmap for change
Among a range of practical recommendations, the report identifies three key ways the sector can support the success and sustainability of First Nations businesses, and in turn, increase employment and economic growth. This includes:
- Better employing resources, networks and capital to remove the barriers that discourage Indigenous businesses from equal participation.
- Recognising the importance of reciprocity by ceding power, removing bias and focusing on mutually beneficial relationships.
- Sharing resources to enable Indigenous businesses the opportunity to start, grow and mature, which can shift power and make space for First Nations people.
Peak body Social Enterprise Australia said the report was a timely reminder for the sector, both in Australia and around the world, to make space for First Nations businesses.
“It’s important for people in social enterprise to hear that First Nations people experience being excluded, undervalued and patronised, including within the sector itself,” said CEO Jess Moore.
“The global sector has work to do. We all have to play an active role. The report shares what some of this work needs to look like… [It] makes it clear that non-Indigenous organisations must support First Nations businesses to tackle issues that affect their community – not lead the work.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates strongly with Shutt, who suggests that non-Indigenous businesses need to better understand their role within the sector and act to “promote First Nations self-determination and economic empowerment”.
“Indigenous communities have the leadership, we have the skills, we have the entrepreneurial spirit, but what we struggle with is having the appropriate access to resources, capital and networks,” she said.
“My voice and First Australians Capital’s voice can only go so far. We need the B Corps, we need the Social Traders to actually stand up and hold the sector accountable.”
Addressing Indigenous Economic Inclusion in the Social Enterprise Sector was commissioned by White Box Enterprises following the Social Enterprise World Forum 2022 (SEWF22), which included a panel discussing the topics of the report.
White Box Enterprises’ general manager of innovation and business development Dom Bird says the report acts as an important conversation starter between First Nations businesses and the wider sector.
“With over 100 Indigenous organisations represented at SEWF22, we wanted to find a way to capture the perspectives and learnings. Hearing directly from First Nations businesses on their experiences, gives us all a chance to reflect and make more informed decisions,” said Bird.