Design-Led Aboriginal Entrepreneurship Is Not New
A Longer Read
The late Lin Onus was a hero of mine. I was 13 when Urban Dingo was published. I would take the big glossy book to school, and it became my private lesson in design, line work and expressing the layers of Country.
Lin Onus’s father, Uncle Bill Onus, was born in 1906 on Cummeragunja Mission. My grandmother, Lulla Morgan was born at Cummera eight years later. Uncle Bill was a high-profile activist and successful entrepreneur. He campaigned for our citizenship rights and for parliamentary representation.
In 1952 Uncle Bill Onus established Aboriginal Enterprises. He carved and sold boomerangs, woomeras and greeting cards. His shop and factory in the Dandenong Ranges became a major tourist attraction, his boomerang throwing demonstrations a drawcard in themselves. For Uncle Bill, the business was more about promoting and preserving our traditions than it was about profit. He travelled Australia to promote the venture, and opened shops in Port Augusta and Narbethong.
It was in his workshop that his son, Lin, first learnt to paint. Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the opening of Aboriginal Enterprises.
Seventy years ago, Uncle Bill Onus was selling products that were beautiful, functional, and aerodynamic. Products that told a story. At his shop he mentored the next generation of trailblazers, the role models of my childhood. His business model was impact driven and regenerative. He scaled nationally, providing employment for other Aboriginal people, while still petitioning for his own rights to citizenship.
Design led and impact driven. This is the way our Elders have taught us to do business.
I work with over 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses around Australia, we design programs and build brands. Recently I launched the Kalinya Retreats, a place for Aboriginal entrepreneurs and friends to talk business under the stars.
A life of travel and working across sectors has given me a bird’s eye view. From this angle you can see macro trends forming. Global shifts are made of millions of moments, experienced by millions of people. These are a few of mine.
I attended my first international Indigenous exchange 20 years ago and it changed my life. A protest for Igorot rights in the Philippines, led to a Mayan boarding school in Belize, Kalinago tourism in Dominica, land rights in Vanuatu, a social enterprise hotel in Canada. The richest experiences of my life have happened on the margins. There is an ease when Indigenous people meet, because we are continuing conversations over generations. These discussions always felt private. In the last few years, it’s like someone turned the volume up on the mic.
It was at a regenerative resort in Mexico called Playa Viva that I first noticed the ways in which industries are adapting Indigenous systems thinking. I went there for the tree house and left obsessed with regenerative design. Designing in relationship with land; nurturing local initiatives and allowing impact to grow organically; embedding story and inter-generational stewardship. Practices that feel familiar.
A couple of years later I attended a TED conference in Palm Springs. There was a whole stream on Indigenous thinking and climate change. To my delight, Kelsey Leonard spoke on ‘Why Lakes and Rivers Should Have the Same Rights as Humans’. During her talk, the energy in the room shifted. There was an intense silence, and a feeling came over the crowd that I can only describe as yearning.
In our twenties, Kelsey and I attended international Indigenous youth leadership programs around the world. Watching her on the TED stage, it hit me – we had grown up. The cohort of kids given opportunities our Elders dreamt of and fought for were now mid-career adults. And Kelsey was on a TED stage with the crowd in raptures. I am a member of the first generation of Aboriginal people born citizens, first generation access to higher education, passports, and the rights to own assets. And now our Elders are passing the baton.
I returned to Australia to devastating bushfires, and uncharacteristic media interest in Aboriginal fire management practises. I knew then.
A change had arrived in Australia.
The year was 2020. A slower pace descended on the world, walks in nature became a luxury, the yearning for connection to Country grew stronger. The Black Lives Matter movement changed the world. Awareness grew of racial injustice in our own backyard. People wanted to act, and what can you do in lockdown? Online shop. #BuyBlak trended. Small business owners gained tens of thousands of followers a week. Major Australian magazines became unrecognisable; it was like we had hacked their accounts and taken over their pages with Aboriginal art, fashion, and activism. It was heady. It was overwhelming. And it was long overdue.
Right now, many Australians are learning about our culture for the first time. Eating our foods without knowing that those foods have custodians and songlines, that they are protected by lore. Adorning themselves with our artworks, without knowing the depth of the stories they tell.
The world has awakened almost overnight to the understanding that we need to change our focus – as businesses, and as individuals – to protect and regenerate. These are the values that are intrinsic to Indigenous cultures – care for the land, water, and all living beings. It is what we’ve been doing for thousands of generations.
It is this next chapter of collaboration that keeps me hopeful. When a cushion wrapped in the stories of our waterways is printed with dyes that won’t harm the very rivers it depicts. When the stories of the people who sew our clothes are known, because their freedom is linked intrinsically to our own. This is the future of design-led entrepreneurship, and it’s nothing new for us.
When the beauty of the final product signifies the layers of connection beneath our clothes are known, because their freedom is linked intrinsically to our own. This is the future of design-led entrepreneurship, and it’s nothing new for us.
When the beauty of the final product signifies the layers of connection beneath.