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MELBOURNE, Australia — It was a disempowering experience at a large corporate organization that prompted Morgan Coleman to become an entrepreneur.
Initially, he was proud to work there. But soon, as one of the few Indigenous employees, he felt patronized and unwelcome by some, and worried that his manager resented him because of his Torres Strait Islander background.
Now, as part of a growing number of Indigenous Australians finding success in the entrepreneurial world even as the rate of non-Indigenous business ownership has fallen, he feels his future rides solely on his merit.
“Whether I succeed or not, it’s entirely up to me,” Mr. Coleman, 28, said in a recent interview at the Melbourne offices of Vets on Call, the app he left his corporate job to start. “The market doesn’t care if you’re Indigenous or not.”
The number of Indigenous Australians operating and owning businesses grew by an estimated 30 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to a 2018 paper from Australian National University.
And given that the Indigenous population is younger than the country’s over all — with a median age of about 23 — Indigenous entrepreneurs say they find business ownership both alluring and empowering.
That is particularly meaningful in a country that still struggles with the aftermath of racist policies that forcibly separated Indigenous children from their parents, refused Indigenous people the rights to their own land and kept them from voting.
For many whose lives have been touched by trauma from these policies, entrepreneurship is not only a pathway toward building wealth — it is also an effort to combat stereotypes.
“We’re not just good sports people — we’re good science people, we’re tech people,” said Marsha Uppill, 45, an Adnyamathanha woman who founded the company Arranyinha. Sharing its title with her birth name in her Aboriginal people’s language, her company is developing a tool that will help bridge cultural and other gaps between Western businesses and local and national Aboriginal communities.
For Mr. Coleman, whose Indigenous father was sent away during his childhood in the era of family separation, the stereotypes can cut both ways. His light skin has made him the subject of scorn at times from both white and Indigenous Australians, he said.
Although the rate of Indigenous business ownership still lags behind non-Indigenous ventures, in recent years the uptake in those wanting to start their own ventures has been significant, according to Indigenous Business Australia, a government agency that provides support and loans for homeownership and business ventures.
These days, the agency approves about four times as many loans as it did six years ago, and most are given to first-time start-ups, said Wally Tallis, its deputy chief executive.
“Our demand is outstripping our ability to service our customers,” he said.
Australia’s government is also encouraging Indigenous entrepreneurship. In 2015, it introduced targets for awarding contracts to Indigenous businesses, and last year it unveiled new financial support, on top of an Indigenous Entrepreneurs Fund offering 90 million Australian dollars, or about $65 million, in assistance. State government agencies are also chipping in.
That backing has been a lifeline for entrepreneurs like Ms. Uppill, who won a local government grant that helped her set up her business structure. “It’s been fantastic to have that support,” she said.
But others say that having to meet the criteria is slowing them down.
Mr. Coleman, who grew up in regional Victoria, found that he was not eligible for government grants because he did not live in a remote area and had not been denied a loan from mainstream banks.
He was also excluded from some grants because his business is not directly aimed at Indigenous communities. So he has funded Vets on Call with his own assets instead. He has yet to make a profit, though the app is growing.
And many do not have assets or a financial safety net. “They haven’t got that intergenerational wealth like the Bill Gates or the Mark Zuckerbergs,” said Dean Foley, 30, a Kamilaroi who founded Barayamal, a start-up accelerator for Indigenous entrepreneurs.
Still, that has not stopped Indigenous Australians from pitching, designing and brainstorming, he said. “It’s called sweat equity. You just have to work hard.”
It is that type of ethic that drives Ms. Uppill, whose mother, a member of what came to be known as the Stolen Generations, was taken from her home in the South Australian Flinders Ranges when she was 7.
Ms. Uppill, who did not deeply understand her Adnyamathanha heritage until she revisited her home nation as a teenager, said she had not seen herself as an entrepreneur early on. But she was struck by the mind-set of her elders.
“Aboriginal people have always been entrepreneurs,” she said of an 80,000-year history in which her people have had to adapt to changing times. “That’s what we are — that’s how we survived.”
Similarly, Mr. Coleman had never worked in the tech field before starting Vets on Call, which allows pet owners to book home visits from veterinarians.
And Indigenous cultural values are also at the heart of ventures like Faebella, a luxury activewear start-up developed by Alisha Geary, 24, which features authentic Indigenous art designs. Ms. Geary, who is half Aboriginal and half Torres Strait Islander, has vowed to ensure that the artists are paid well for their work.
Her company’s first sets of designs sold out within days, she said. “This is going to help my business and therefore my family and community.”
It’s the type of result Mr. Coleman said was essential to help show that Indigenous people can succeed at the highest level.
“You can’t just succeed — you have to be seen to succeed,” he said.
After a year of putting in his own sweat equity, Mr. Coleman is looking forward to taking three days off for his 29th birthday next month. But with app redesigns and marketing events coming up, the break will be brief.
“Just because society doesn’t expect much from Indigenous people doesn’t mean we don’t expect from ourselves,” he said.
Being Indigenous is an advantage, he added. “We’re very strong willed,” he said.
Jenina Ibanez contributed research.
Follow Isabella Kwai on Twitter: @bellakwai
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Isabella Kwai covers news and the occasional slice of life for the Australian bureau. She is based in Sydney. @bellakwai
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