It’s late Sunday afternoon, and people in matching shirts and lanyards are rehearsing a speech outside the Queensland Arts Gallery. Walking past them and into the river-front Edge building, I see more groups scattered at booths, roundtables and on the main stage in the final minutes of preparation.
The last evening of Australia’s First Indigenous Startup Weekend is about to kick off. Ten teams, formed less than two days prior, will present their startup ideas to a panel of judges, a packed room of peers and a live-streamed online audience. Many of the teams were strangers before Friday night; 54 hours ago, many did not possess the skills they were about to publicly put to the test.
The team from outside end up sitting at my table: they’re breathing heavy with panic, they’re wide-eyed, and they occasionally break into bouts of hysterical laughter. One of them whispers “I’m not ready, I’m not ready” while staring at a palm card. Events, of course, do not wait for nerves, and within moments the facilitator, Sam Birmingham, is introducing the first presenter.
Filmed by Indigenous media company Carbon Media and powered by Google for Entrepreneurs, Advance Queensland and a host of other sponsors, the Indigenous Startup Weekend ran from August 26th to 28th at The Edge, the State Library of Queensland’s resource hub for all things enterprise. Attendees ran the regular startup gamut; they pitched ideas, formed teams, spent the weekend developing and validating startups, received mentorship, and were finally judged and awarded prizes.
But while AFISW follows a long line of vertically-themed Queensland Startup Weekends, which have included “Youth,” “Women” and “Health,” it remained wholly unique in its focus on Indigenous issues and assortment of Indigenous experts. It was the first of its kind, and, along with a recent World Science Festival panel, is one of Australia’s first events highlighting Indigenous innovation.
Speakers included the co-founder of service business Message Stick, Michael McLeod, and Queensland’s Minister for Innovation, Science and the Digital Economy Leeanne Enoch, who, as a Nunukul/Nughi woman from North Stradbroke Island, became the first Indigenous woman elected to Queensland Parliament in January 2015. Likewise, judges and mentors came from a diverse range of Indigenous-run companies, from business directory Supply Nation, to recruitment and labour hire firm Ochre Jobs, to not-for-profit Indigenous Women in Business.
— Joshua Gilbert (@GilbertJoshuaM) August 26, 2016
Organised by Kamilaroi and ex-Air Force man Dean Foley, the event addressed a lack of attention paid towards Indigenous entrepreneurship while fostering ideas that sought to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
“It’s important because these are not-for-profit events that are run by local community members, which are solely focused on helping Indigenous people gain the foundational entrepreneurial skills in a fun and supportive environment,” Foley said. “Helping build strong Indigenous communities by developing capacities for aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs to take their current idea or the next much further than they think that they are capable of.”
“We want to create that flow-on effect and we want participants to go away and keep building a business that would benefit their communities.”
An Inspiring Weekend
Foley’s credo was a strong thread throughout every presentation. Featuring quad bikes, calming apps for children, men’s activewear, governance compliance software and, in the case of winning team Realty Checks, real estate checks, each business concept kept communities and sustainability in mind while incisively targeting gaps in the market and arguing their case for financial success.
Despite the frantic pace the weekend required it was clear – even to someone who had just walked in the room – that the participants had a positive and rewarding experience. The buzz and excitement of the night was palpable, and the respect, warmth and support granted to each presenter by the judges remarkable.
Presenting teams included The Cookup Mob, a business seeking to break the monopoly of shops in remote communities, and thereby address overpriced, low-quality goods and accessibility to fresh fruit and vegetables. Co-founder Tamara Whyte, who lives and works in Redlands, Quandamooka country, said she loved the experience.
“It was energising, and it was just a great process, regardless of the outcome,” Whyte said. “I would have been happy not to pitch, but I understand that it was for a purpose. But just the process, the mentors, the people were very genuine with their time.”
“That idea of having the concentrated 50-something hours… in retrospect, for some people that’s three years of just tapping away by yourself,” she said. “You have the human resource pool to get an idea that was fairly easy-going, talking over the phone with someone, to a stage where there was someone saying yeah, we really think that’s good we’d like to help you take that further.”
— angela dahlke (@AngelaViaTweets) August 28, 2016
Another Cookup Mob co-founder, Semah Mokak-Wischki, was also quick to praise the weekend, and spoke to the importance of an event that encouraged representation and support.
“It was exciting to hear that finally we have entrepreneur startups for Indigenous people,” Mokak-Wischki said. “And it was inspiring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could come together to talk about some of their dreams and aspirations and business.”
“It was well planned, the organisers planned and supported people really well. And, you know, the collective feeling of support in the room was wonderful. I just felt, after the presentation, that people supported us and they could hear us loudly. That’s what I felt. And that was good. Just to be heard, that would have been enough.”
Closing the Gap
The weekend was successful in providing not only a platform for intensive skill development, but a place to fuse innovation techniques with engagement and support for Indigenous communities.
“I think it was great to be able to think about the behavioural change, and what you can do for your society as well,” Mokak-Wischki said. “Your culture and your people, you know. And I think really we were bringing awareness to a lot of people in the room who were black and white, who didn’t have that understanding of remote areas.”
— ilab accelerator (@ilabaccelerator) August 28, 2016
— angela dahlke (@AngelaViaTweets) August 28, 2016
Nickeema, a contemporary Indigenous artist from Woorabinda and winner of the “Upcoming Indigenous Entrepreneur” award, drove this home while discussing her idea to combine rural Indigenous art with fashion.
“I want to change the world. And the world for me at the moment is I’m living in a community in central Queensland,” Nickeema said. “We’ve got ninety percent unemployment rate, we’ve got big issues, there’s lack of economic opportunities, and there’s no work available. There’s a lot of issues and it’s so isolated.”
She went on to highlight the importance of connecting communities with appropriate resources, notably the internet, as well as the untapped potential that this lack of opportunity creates.
“It’s kind of like putting the spotlight into places where they’ve never got light. We don’t have internet where I live, it’s two hours from the shops where I live. But there’s worse communities out there. We’ve got these creative amazing people that are really innovative but they’ve never had the opportunity to study or learn these skills, and I think some amazing stuff would come out of it.”
The future of Indigenous startups
Organiser Dean Foley is currently working on a Cairns Indigenous Startup Weekend for later this year, and a Sydney Indigenous Startup Weekend aimed at early next year.
“Anyone can run a Startup Weekend,” Foley said. “But my hope is that Indigenous Startup Weekends are organised by other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who are passionate about helping and creating opportunities for aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs to develop and grow businesses that will benefit the Indigenous community.”
Minister Enoch, who has also spoken about the need to support regional and Indigenous entrepreneurs, announced a new Indigenous STEM program on the eve of the event and is currently organising consultation workshops across the state for Advance Queensland’s Regional Innovation Hubs Network. The network will include $6 million in funding for regional hubs and a further $1.5 million for the hubs to foster a network between themselves.
People should not feel they need to move to Brisbane to get the support they need to turn good ideas into commercial success. #qldpol
— Leeanne Enoch MP (@LeeanneEnoch) September 1, 2016
Back to the teams, The Cookup Mob’s Whyte and Mokak-Wischki are planning to continue their business with help from mentors they met during weekend.
“Two of the mentors from the weekend – from a startup company that connects startups with funding – they were integral, they were amazing kind of people who gently shepherded what we were doing.” Whyte said. “That was a lot. They’ve even been in touch and said, you know, hoping you want to take it forward.”
Nickeema is also confident with her concept, and ready to implement it in the near future: “I think the market’s ready. The designers are ready, the community’s been ready for ages, and the council are willing to invest the money.”
The close of the weekend had an irrepressibly positive tone. New businesses were launched, cards were passed, and offers of mentorship were generously abundant. Whether the teams continue with their original ideas or not, Australia’s First Indigenous Startup Weekend will no doubt leave a legacy of skilled up entrepreneurs, emerging networks and, ultimately, brand new Indigenous startups in its wake.