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Culture meets commerce: These Indigenous businesses are embracing both

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

The Smarter Team is made up of business and technology journalists who write to offer insights to small and medium businesses about technology, business know-how and emerging trends.

Smarter Writer
Smarter Team

The Smarter Team is made up of business and technology journalists who write to offer insights to small and medium businesses about technology, business know-how and emerging trends.

These four Indigenous businesses – NAISDA, Purple House, Bush Medijina, and Mainie – combine commerce and culture. Find out how business works for people by Telstra Smarter Business.

NAIDOC Week celebrations are held each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. To mark the occasion, we take a closer look at four successful Indigenous enterprises that combine modern business with culture, and in doing so foster positive change.

Here, four leaders in Australian business – Kim Walker of NAISDA, Sarah Brown of Purple House, Britt Hollingworth of Bush Medijina, and Charmaine Sanders of Mainie – tell us how they’ve combined business with culture. 

Meet the four leading businesses that are making a difference

From the remote Northern Territory, 2018 Telstra Northern Territory Social Change Maker Award Finalist Bush Medijina’s vision is to be a sustainable, independent enterprise that supports local Warningakalina women, their culture, community and future. Bush Medijina produces beauty and wellbeing products from bush botanicals, using ancient recipes passed down from generation to generation. The business is governed by an all-Indigenous board. Of the team, 80% are Indigenous, and 100% are women.

Purple House, 2018 Telstra Northern Territory Business of the Year, is an innovative Indigenous-owned and run health service operating from Alice Springs, providing 16 remote clinics and a mobile dialysis unit called the Purple Truck. The business’s ethos is based on getting patients back home to their families as soon as possible. Purple House has changed the way these essential health services are provided throughout the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia.

Mainie, 2019 Telstra Queensland Small Business Award Finalist, is led by managing director Charmaine Saunders, a descendent of the Gunggari people from South West Queensland. Mainie is an ethical, Aboriginal-owned fashion label that makes garments featuring works by traditional artists. The business supports economic development opportunities for women artists and their families in isolated and disadvantaged Aboriginal communities in Central Australia.

NAISDA, 2017 Telstra New South Wales Charity Award Finalist, lead by Kim Walker, is the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association. Established over 40 years ago, it is Australia’s national tertiary Indigenous dance training organisation with a proud tradition of producing the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers. This not-for-profit is driven to share cultural learning through dance.

‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’

All four businesses agree on the importance of NAIDOC Week.

“It’s about celebration. It’s about survival. And it’s about how incredible our culture is,” says Kim Walker, executive director of NAISDA. “It’s very important to us as a college.”

Sarah Brown of Purple House shares the excitement for celebration: “NAIDOC Week is a great opportunity to celebrate Indigenous culture, language and resilience.”

But there’s more to it for Purple House, too. “For us, it’s a chance to share good news stories and bust some stereotypes,” Sarah says.

Bush Medijina’s Britt Hollingworth and Mainie’s Charmaine Saunders share a historical sentiment for observances like NAIDOC Week. “It’s an opportunity to reflect upon the achievements of my Gunggari ancestors,” Charmaine says. 

For Britt, too, it’s a time to think about Indigenous people’s journeys: “We love celebrating NAIDOC Week in community. Events like these are a wonderful and important time for us to reflect on our culture and our achievements.”

Combining business success and positive change 

Many businesses are built on deep beliefs, whether that’s a unique idea or influencing a change in society. And owners might ask themselves: ‘Is it possible to have business success and make a difference? Can I really achieve both?’

The short answer: Yes. But it depends on the business.

These four businesses show, by virtue of their ongoing success, that it’s possible to have a sustainable business changing lives for the better. A business that’s not just for profit, but for people, too.

“I think it is [possible to have both]. Our business success is not measured in monetary terms, although we have to be sustainable, otherwise we wouldn’t be a business,” Kim says.

 Sarah agrees: “It is absolutely possible to have a well-run business that stays true to its people. Our success comes from having strong governance and being clear on what we’re trying to achieve.”

Mainie builds positive change into processes by embracing fair-trade ethics and a commitment to supporting the economic empowerment of women living in remote communities. The company invests in Aboriginal-owned and controlled art centres in remote communities, providing much-needed opportunities for earning income.

 All the designs of the fashion collection are ethically sourced and acquired under licence in accordance with the Indigenous Art Code, while the artists retain copyright to their original artwork and receive royalties from sales.

“It’s these challenges that make the rewards, impacts, investments, and outcomes so much more worthwhile.” 

Britt Hollingworth - Bush Medijina

Nobody said it was easy: Facing the challenges

As Kim says of NAISDA, a business needs to be sustainable, otherwise it wouldn’t be a business.

“Our model is to bring in the right funding and run our business as a business, so we can empower young people to use dance and culture as a career aspiration.

“It’s always challenging mixing business, creativity and culture.”

And funding is fundamental: “It’s a constant struggle to bridge the gap. We continually work on our funding streams and our business model.”

Bush Medijina’s challenges are brought by geography, and the humble dollar, too. “The not-so-basic nature of operating our business enterprise from a remote island community means our challenges are many,” Britt says.

Overcoming logistical challenges like barge cancellations, wild weather and power outages is a uniqueset of hurdles for any skincare company to overcome – a product of running a venture in an incredibly remote part of the world.

And that’s before financing pressure, like facing up to “a shortage of seed funding for our enterprise to survive until we’re strong enough to generate sufficient revenue from sales”, Britt says.

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For fashion house Mainie, success itself has become a challenge. It has around 80 stockists across Australia and growing demand.

“One of our main challenges now is ensuring that we hold sufficient inventory levels to be able to fulfil large-volume orders,” says Charmaine, who is also expecting further growth.

“It will mean more customers, more stockists, more employees and many more opportunities for Aboriginal women artists from isolated remote communities to earn a sustained income from their own work,” she says.

Keeping connected to Culture

All these businesses have
unique success stories and different challenges, but they all share a belief in
one thing.

“It’s extremely important to stay connected to culture,” says Britt from Bush Medijina. “It’s one of the main purposes of our social enterprise.”

The concept of culture in an Indigenous context isn’t as widely known in Australia or as well understood as it should be in broader society. Culture, as an Indigenous concept, goes deeper. It’s worth exploring.

At Purple House, Sarah says, culture is key. “Our directors provide cultural leadership and ongoing learning. Everything from the geographical location of our services, to the way they are designed, to the staff we employ and the services we offer, they all have culture at the centre.”

For NAISDA, Kim says, it’s a no-brainer. “We’ve been a cultural organisation since day one, so it’s an intrinsic part of how we do business.”

While Charmaine hopes to take her fashion label into the future with an eye on the past. “Mainie recognises the importance of our mission to keep alive these time-honoured stories and age-old art designs and share them with the world,” she says.

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