5 insights into small business wellbeing from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business leaders

In partnership with Mindarma, the recent Business Victoria Aboriginal Insights – Small Business Wellbeing webinar brought together an expert panel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders from the Victorian small business community to draw upon their experience in building mentally healthy workplaces.

The event was part of Business Victoria’s Headway – Small Business Wellbeing initiative, with a panel discussing the unique strengths and challenges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-owned businesses experience, and how owners support themselves, their teams and each other.

1. Connect with community and share your insights

Connecting with others – in your business or in the community – creates the opportunity to build relationships, find support and give something back.

Megan Van Den Berg, the co-founder Kinya Lerrk, speaks about the importance of checking in with friends and peers and shares her experience of working with business partner Emma Bamblett.

‘I think yarning is the most important thing for Blackfellas. We have to have somebody that we can talk to – elders, other businesspeople.’

‘We’ve had a lot to do with Laura from Clothing The Gaps and she’s been a great support to Kinya Lerrk and we’ve been able to jump on the phone and have a yarn about things.’

‘I think you do create a sense of community in the Aboriginal business community and I think we’re all there to try and reach out and support each other as well.’

‘We’re all about giving back and I know Sharon and Lionel will be the same. Where we have success, we’re trying to work out ways that we can pay it forward to another business and help them.’

‘We’re 3 years in so we’re still learning we haven’t got it completely right but, where we can, we’re going to pay it forward to someone who’s entering business and look at partnerships and always think about how we can do the best by each other to support opportunities.’

2. Access support services for yourself, your employees and your business

As well as colleagues and community members, there is a range of ways to find support as a small business owner, be it for yourself, your employees or your business.

Brendan Hede, a Small Business Wellbeing Consultant from Kinaway Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce emphasises the importance of finding wellbeing support, including when faced with periods of uncertainty and change. He says, ‘A lot of pressure, stress and anxiety can quite easily creep into your life.’

‘I think business owners are tough by nature. They are usually the last ones to put their hand up for any kind of help or assistance. It was the business owners that were generally reaching out at the early stages during COVID-19. But the service is also available not only to the business owners, but their staff and also their families.

‘Expressing what you’re feeling and what’s happening can just really ease a lot of weight off your shoulders.’

Sharon Brindley, the owner of Cooee Cafe and founder of Jala Jala Treats speaks about contacting Kinaway, saying ‘reaching out was one of the best things I could have done’.

‘To have those conversations with Kinaway was amazing and it gave me time to reflect. Then I actually brought out Jala Jala Treats through that – and went on to win a resilience award. So from a breakdown to winning a resilience award was pretty massive! But to get me there was a lot of people.

‘The more people you talk about these issues, the more it’s known and the more you express, you realise that everybody has their own issues. It’s not just you – there’s other people going through the same thing that can then help you.’

3. Take the time to look after your own mental wellbeing

We know that investing time in ourselves is an important part of looking after our mental wellbeing and building our resilience. Activities such as mindfulness, meditation, hobbies and exercise can all be important parts of your own self-care.

An important aspect of the Mindarma program is the concept of ‘filling your own cup’ – taking time for yourself. Megan reflects on her approach to self-care.

‘I think connecting back to Country and taking trips back to Country and getting out of Melbourne for us. Sharon’s very blessed to be on the Peninsula and have that beautiful Bunurong Country but for me in Melbourne, I need to go back and take those trips.

‘Emma and I are both artists first and foremost. So, we’re sitting there on the iPad – a lot of our art is digital, Emma does a lot of physical painting. But taking that time out and it’s very meditative, art.’

Finding your own form of meditative experiences – whether that’s walking or exercise or listening to music or painting or whatever. But you have to have an outlet – that’s important to do that healing.’

4. Build a strong, resilient and empowering workplace

Giving people opportunities to contribute, learn and grow helps you to recruit and retain staff, build your business’s resilience and promote a mentally healthy workplace.

Lionel Dukakis, a co-founder of First Nations Traffic Management, talks about creating a work environment that empowers his team.

‘We’ve got 70 Indigenous staff employed with us and we want them to get to a peak that they’re looking to go higher. For us, it’s an entry point to employment, so it’s giving them the confidence, the self-esteem … if they go on and do bigger and better that’s what it’s about.

‘Our staff see the change that we’re creating for the community, that gives them hope. They want to come to work.

‘We’ve got some pretty powerful videos on our website from women in domestic violence to alcoholics to people who’ve been in jail, brothers and sisters. They’re the stories that just make me want to keep working and doing what I’m doing – empowering our mob.

‘When you’re blessed with something so special, I think as a leader you’ve got to bring the brothers and sisters together and take them on a journey too.

‘We’ve had a lady that we just recently gave her a uniform, she’s real very proud of. She takes it home and the daughter puts it on and running around the house is like “I want to be like Mummy” and that’s what that’s all about.’

5. Be there for your team

A mentally healthy workplace is one that ensures employees feel respected, supported, and free to speak about concerns or stress. An important part of this is looking out for your employees and ensuring they know they can come to you when they need to.

Sharon speaks about supporting her staff as a business owner during the pandemic, saying communication was key.

‘We all just worked through it together and literally just spoke about how we’re going to get through it and making sure they knew that I had their backs no matter what.’

‘Going through coronavirus was a big pressure on them as well. It added pressure to myself because I had to stick to that promise, but it all worked out. But just giving them that security was super important because we all have families we have to feed.’

Lionel shares his approach when it comes to reaching out and supporting staff.

‘If one of your staff members are not themselves, I’ll get on the phone and talk to them.

‘I know them, my 70 staff, my Indigenous staff, well enough to say “You weren’t yourself today, sister or brother. Do you want to talk about it? It’s just between you and I.” So, you get to the bottom of it and we that’s how the mob works. It’s just knowing.’

It was a pleasure to witness this rich, wide-ranging and powerful discussion. We’re grateful to our panel for their time:

  • Megan Van Den Berg, the co-founder Kinya Lerrk
  • Sharon Brindley, the owner of Cooee Cafe and founder of Jala Jala Treats
  • Lionel Dukakis, a co-founder of First Nations Traffic Management
  • Brendan Hede, a Small Business Wellbeing Consultant from Kinaway Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce

And our thanks to Dr Joe Tighe from Mindarma for facilitating the session.

You can watch the full discussion on the Business Victoria website.

This webinar included an overview of the supports available through Business Victoria’s Headway initiative and a tour of the Mindarma program.

Business Victoria has partnered with Mindarma to make their online platform available for free for Victorian small business owners and their employees.

Register for Mindarma for free by 31 December 2022.

Business Victoria

Business Victoria

Business Victoria