For Indigenous Leadership alumni, improving on 'business as usual' is just the beginning

The UNSW alumni network sees executive education as an avenue to give back to the community.
Adam Phelan | UNSW Newsroom
Matt Lancaster (left) and Kylie Penehoe (right) joined 80 other AGSM @ UNSW Business School Indigenous Leadership alumni at an inaugural conference in Sydney.

Kylie Penehoe has one rule. No matter what happens throughout her career, it’s her community and family that set the benchmark.

“I always ask myself: would I be comfortable saying that same thing, or continue what I am doing in business, if I was in front of my Grandma?” the Wonnarua and Wiradjuri woman says.

It’s about entering the business world with the community and their interests at the heart of what you do, Ms Penehoe says.

“Ultimately, it’s our old people who have carved out the path for us, and who still guide us today. It’s important not to lose sight of that.

“I grew up in a family with a passion for Indigenous rights: we’d do marches, like the Survival Day marches. It was a big part of my journey when I was young. So now, working in government institutions and organisations, I’m passionate about eliciting change from the inside.”   

Ms Penehoe, the Executive Manager of Agribusiness at the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation, joined 80 other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander executives, business leaders and community advocates for the inaugural AGSM Indigenous Leadership Alumni Conference.

Converging on AGSM’s Sydney CBD campus, the conference brought together alumni from AGSM @ UNSW Business School's three Indigenous Leadership programs.

The network, which consists of over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander current and future leaders, had a clear statement: “we’re here, we’re not alone and we’re ready.”

For Ms Penehoe, the power of the conference was found in strengthening connections and enhancing collaboration.

“Innately as Aboriginal peoples we are relational; connections are what ground us as a community,” Ms Penehoe says. “Having a network of alumni like this makes sense in that way. But it also allows us to mobilise – to be able to coordinate and be strategic about what we do as executives.”

Time for talking is over

The full-day conference covered the challenges that face Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the corporate environment, while also highlighting the inherent strength that Indigenous people bring to the table.

“We don’t have to give up our cultural identity,” Matt Lancaster says. “If anything, that’s our core value. We can be the custodians of the land both culturally and professionally. You just need to understand the rules of the game. And education can give you those tools.”

Inaugural AGSM Indigenous Leadership Alumni Conference

The inaugural conference's theme was "New tracks", offering an opportunity to reconnect with the cohort and meet others to form new and valuable relationships.

Mr Lancaster, the Relationship Manager at Indigenous Accountants Australia, hasn’t followed a typical corporate path. From a police officer working in Brisbane and Palm Island, to joining the Royal Australian Navy as a Combat Systems Operator, the Palawa man from Tasmania with cultural ties to Bunurong has always strived to serve others in the community.

“My biggest value is love,” he says. “Without love you can’t have commitment, courage, integrity and loyalty, just to name a few. I’ve kept that consistent across all my work experiences. That room [with alumni] is full of love, and that’s key to our success.

 “With that passion, alongside courses like the Indigenous Leadership programs, we can drive real change for the community … but it also makes good business sense.

“People always talk about inclusion and diversity, but the time for talking is over.”

Changing the narrative

After revisiting some key themes from the programs, Ms Penehoe is motivated to continue to push the boundaries in her own organisation. She also wants to highlight the business stories you don’t often hear about.

“We did a baseline study recently at the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation on Indigenous agriculture in Australia,” she says.

“Indigenous agriculture generates about $185 million in revenue annually, across roughly 120 Indigenous agriculture businesses. Not only does that create huge downstream economic development for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but it also contributes greatly to the Australian economy.

“It’s a story that’s not often told. It’s exciting and we want to help these Indigenous agriculture businesses scale and thrive – whilst also balancing that growth with cultural connections to the land.

“This social, cultural and economic contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples isn’t often talked about. The narrative should change to reflect that.”

AGSM Indigenous Leadership Alumni Conference brought together 80 alumni

The conference included breakaway sessions on storytelling, leadership development and strategy, and wellbeing.

Mr Lancaster is also determined to continue to develop in the business world, having recently started the AGSM online MBA with a specialisation in Change.

“With these programs [the Indigenous Leadership programs] and now, personally, with my MBA,” he says, “you can gain the frameworks to push forward, to break ground; but do so not as an individual, but as a collective and as a way to give back to the community.

“Our connectedness as brothers and sisters is unique.”

A strong and connected network

ASGM’s leadership programs include The Emerging Indigenous Executive Leaders Program (EIELP), Aboriginal Career and Leadership Development Program (ACLDP) and the Transport for NSW Aboriginal Career Development and Mentoring Program (ACDMP). The programs are delivered with the Elevate RAP Working Group and government partner collaborators.

Over the life of the programs, hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals have graduated.

Instead of just being a factory pumping people in and out of the program, Professor Nick Wailes, Deputy Dean and Director of AGSM says, the goal of this conference was to continue to offer graduates opportunities to touch base, reconnect and continue to develop after the completion of the programs.

Last year, AGSM appointed Professor Mark Rose, Amanda Tootell, Steve Munns and Mark Champley to the faculty, ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander expertise is integrated across all programs.

It’s about fostering long term outcomes and ensuring alumni have a chance to check in with each other, Professor Wailes says.

“It’s fantastic to see how big and wide this network has grown.”