Dean Foley is the founder of the world’s first Indigenous- startup accelerator, Barayamal, or “Black Swan” in the Gamilaraay language. Our editors discussed venture capital, sustainable entrepreneurship, and black cladding in a wide-ranging interview with Foley.
Prior to the colonisation of Australia, school- children in Europe were only taught about white swans, while Australia’s First Nations
people knew for millennia of the black swan. The “discovery” of the black swan in Australia forced Europeans to reconsider and change their perceptions about what a swan actually means. For Foley, the black swan represents the First Nations entrepreneurs who haven’t been recognised in the business world because of current perceptions – and that Barayamal will show the world that First Nations entrepreneurs exist and can build successful businesses that create a better world for everyone.
What were your goals when you first founded Barayamal, and how have they changed over time?
Foley: I started Barayamal because I didn’t believe in the existing system that was primarily operating from a Western entrepreneurship perspective. I wanted to learn how to run and grow businesses, but I was frustrated with government organisations that were supposed to “help” Indigenous people.
After starting from frustration and just want- ing to do “cool” events and programs to support Indigenous Entrepreneurship, we’ve had to take things more seriously, measuring our impact to secure further philanthropic funding and develop a strategy that would allow us to compete against the status quo organisations that are still receiving millions of taxpayer dollars.
As soon as I founded Barayamal, one of those government organisations I was frustrated with supposedly bankrolled a non-Indigenous pro-gram to run their “Indigenous” program by pro- viding them with $500,000. Our budget at the time was $0 and it hasn’t gotten that much big- ger so we’ve had to be creative and leverage the community support to beat these well-funded government programs.
How big is the gap between venture capital (VC) funding between Indigenous and non-In- digenous businesses, and what impact does this have for startups?
Foley: Venture capital is purely focused on a return on investment and making money which is okay, however, they are starting to get pressure from their donors about ethical investing, so their media departments are trying to persuade people that they help everyone, which often isn’t true.
I’ve reached out to a lot of VC funds to find out how they help First Nations people, but most of them didn’t get back to me. Those that do come up with creative stories, but don’t measure that stuff, even though they ask founders about other demographic questions when they invest in them. Based on the information I did collect and my correspondence with VC firms, I believe that 0–0.1 per cent of all VC funding, worth tens of billions of dollars, actually goes to Indigenous entrepreneurs. This is despite Indigenous people making up five per cent of the world and three per cent of Australia’s population.
How has the conversation around Indigenous entrepreneurship changed in Australia over the past five years, and where do you think it needs to move towards?
Foley: It’s changed from “do Indigenous entrepreneurs actually exist?” to realising Indigenous entrepreneurship was operating a lot longer before colonisation. Now it is gaining momentum and support. Unfortunately, a few well-intentioned policies have led to a massive increase in black cladding and businesses that operate from primarily a Western entrepreneurship perspective (focused on benefiting individuals/shareholders instead of the greater community), which is only making a few people rich instead of helping close the disparity gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. However, these problems are gaining more awareness and the “tick in the box” procurement policies are getting more pressure to change, so there are actually tangible results in the community.
You note that Barayamal is the world’s first Indigenous accelerator program, has your model been copied overseas since?
Foley: Yes – someone from New Zealand reached out a couple of months later in 2017 about doing a similar thing there and I know there’s an accelerator in Canada now, too. There were a lot of Indigenous accelerators that popped up in Australia, too, which was interesting to see.
How key is encouraging entrepreneurship in terms of self-determination for Australia’s Indigenous communities? And what are the broader social impacts of businesses led by, and run for the benefit of, Indigenous communities?
Foley: I think “encouraging” entrepreneurship is missing the point that Indigenous entrepreneurship has been around for thousands of years so we don’t need to motivate the community to innovate. The key is to empower Indigenous communities with the right policies and support to see things flourish again. At this stage the government still controls things, and we need them to trust Indigenous communities with a proven track record of positive results with direct funding and support to solve their own challenges. Indigenous people only make up 5% of the world’s population but protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. When thinking about ethical investing and sustainability VC funds should be investing a lot more in Indigenous innovation. The results from supporting genuine Indigenous entrepreneurship goes without saying.
Assuming you had a dramatic increase in funding, how would you take Barayamal to the next level?
Foley: The possibilities are endless. We would increase our investments and support of grassroots Indigenous businesses that are operating from an Indigenous entrepreneurship perspective and are genuinely helping out their communities. They are missing out on support from government and corporate support because they don’t tick their boxes. In additon, we would use the extra funding to help scale our programs through technology to help more people and increase our positive impact in Australia and around the world through Indigenous entrepreneurship.
FUNDING INDIGENOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Read the original article about which was featured in the book Australia’s Nobel Laureates Vol III State of our Innovation Nation: 2021 and Beyond.