‘It all begins with a daydream. You have to be able to daydream, that’s where it all starts. It starts with a daydream, then it becomes your dream. And then it becomes a concept’.
Flora Warrior is a shining example of a dream – her daydream – becoming a reality.
She has recently completed a Master of Business Administration from James Cook University (JCU) in Cairns, part of which she funded through the IBA Scholarship Fund. Achieving an MBA is a fantastic feat for anyone, and for Flora the accomplishment seems particularly remarkable. She is a single mother of five who lives on the remote Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait, where she is a Traditional Owner (Goemulgal people), about 65 kilometres north of Thursday Island. After starting her MBA in Cairns, she completed her final subjects from Mabuiag, adding the challenge of having no mobile phone coverage and only 30 minutes per day of internet access – if it was working.
While completing her MBA, Flora undertook a real-world community project as her final subject, exploring the possibility of a social enterprise that could be owned by her community to improve the economic future of the Traditional Owners and the community.
Now she is putting that concept into practice and trying to make her daydream a reality for her community. She has also set up an Indigenous business and training consultancy that is furthering the capacity of her community through the cultural brokerage service it offers.
The population of Mabuiag is approximately 280, and according to Flora the island has a “strong sense of community, a strong sense of cultural responsibility”.
‘We have also got a strong sense of environmental stewardship’, she said. ‘You have to look after your country and the ecosystem around you. If you fish, you just take what you need. We don’t cut down trees – we prefer to develop around them’.
Flora was ambitious from the start, spurred on by her hardworking mother Maletta Warrior, who she cites as her biggest inspiration. After completing high school on Thursday Island, she left island life to complete an undergraduate degree at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. After university she was successful in getting a graduate traineeship at what was then the Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, which started her career in management and the expansion of the Aboriginal Medical Services (AMS) sector.
‘My work with the AMS sector gave me an important perspective about the importance of community control in making effective change at the grassroots level’, she said.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years and two career changes to 2010, and Flora had taken a break from the workforce and was living in Cairns caring for her frail mother, who had taken ill. She was now a mother of five, her youngest being just a baby.
Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, Flora felt that while she wasn’t working she would take up some study, and first took up a short course to complete a Certificate IV in Small Business Management. ‘I started the Cert IV under the NEIS (New Enterprise Incentive Scheme), which was offered to people on Centrelink who were interested in developing their own small business’.
Flora already had a strong career background and had been CEO of the council on Mabuiag for several years as well as Project Officer for the State Library of Queensland in Cairns developing Indigenous Knowledge Centres throughout the state. ‘I had worked with many of my community organisations as a volunteer and a community advocate, and there were times when I thought maybe I could get paid for doing that kind of work.
‘It was always at the back of my mind [to do postgraduate studies], but I never got off my bum’, said Flora. ‘It was actually a random event that led me to do it. Another relative rang me and asked me to take her to the Cairns campus of JCU and help explain the different courses. When I was there I thought “look at all these courses that the uni has to offer! So I decided to apply as well. I signed up then and there to study for an MBA. What I didn’t know back then was that I needed to upskill to be in a very competitive industry’.
Flora knew from the outset that she wanted to use her MBA to make a difference to her community.
‘I saw the masters as a way to develop the local economy back home, through self-sustainable enterprises that ensured that the dollars remained in the community. I also saw the MBA as a tool to explore our value system in economic terms. That is why my community project revolved around social enterprise, because it reflected the value system of my community. Whether I am paid for it does not matter because that is the culture of our community – we give, we contribute and expect nothing in return. I have come to appreciate that our remote Indigenous economy is different to the greater Australian economy and that structural deficits (like lack of mobile coverage, large freight costs and access to finance) still remain the biggest barrier with Indigenous economic development.
‘Our economy also includes a traditional or cultural sector where goods and services are shared to benefit the greater good of the community. Community members at any one time may care for the children of working parents, or a person with a disability or mental health challenges. Others may contribute communally through their take-home pay; others through fishing and bushfood activities. This is a dynamic process where everyone contributes and no-one is left behind. These activities still come at an economic cost to community members but their dynamics and output are never fully understood in broader economic terms and unfortunately, just get lumped under the term “welfare”’.
Flora heard about the IBA Scholarship Fund when she was at the local IBA office in Cairns attending an IBA Into Business workshop to explore her business idea for an Indigenous business and training cultural brokerage consultancy, which she has now set up. Although the Scholarship Fund was originally only for undergraduate students, fortunately that same year the fund opened to support postgraduate study.
‘I was really excited when I found out I had qualified’, she said. ‘I was a mother of five, had a young toddler, three children at home. I was really struggling with juggling childcare costs, textbooks, travel. I was also working on a casual basis as a JCU Student Ambassador, and as a tutor under the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ATAS). Working as a tutor and ambassador was my way of giving back and I found it very rewarding. Every day was a challenge’, she said. ‘We had a strict routine. I had to find people to babysit my children at night. If I couldn’t find a babysitter I couldn’t attend class, that simple. And sometimes I missed out on very important components – even to miss one night there is a lot of catching up to do’.
During the process Flora had to come to terms with being realistic and knowing that sometimes you can’t always be your very best – sometimes you just need to keep your head above water.
‘Sometimes you do a subject and have four weeks to complete your assessments before the next subject starts. Sometimes I had to aim for a pass to get it out of the way and move on to the next. There were moments that I really wanted to go for a higher grade but had to just get a pass – otherwise it would impact on the next subject’.
As she approached the last semester, Flora requested permission from the Faculty of Business to return to Mabuiag and do a project in her community as her final project.
‘That is an important part where the scholarship came in’, she said. ‘It enabled me to go back home and also work on a real-world project in my own community. I went back home at the end of 2012’.
The project built on her social enterprise idea, which centered on the direct global export of tropical rock lobster to foreign markets. This involved developing a social business structure to support and foster local suppliers, the fishermen, to create a strong local economy. It also included a component for a $3.5 million world-class processing plant to meet stringent quality standards.
‘Lobsters are traditionally sold to the Australian market via a third party’, explained Flora. ‘The fishermen do a dangerous job but are at the poor end of the supply chain. So they might be getting $20 a kilo for a product that could potentially sell for $160 a kilo. If we didn’t sell to the middle man and had a direct-export supply chain then the fishermen would get a better price; it would put money into the community, create employment and create a sustainable sector.’
She set up a small working group to gain different perspectives and also carried out community consultations. ‘Community consultation is an important part of any development in our community, and sourcing capital for the project remains one of the challenges that has to be met’.
Her children love living back on the island, and Flora describes the support from her small, close-knit community as integral to being able to cope with her studies. But working on her MBA remotely from Mabuiag brought a new kind of endurance test.
‘That part of the journey was the most challenging’, she said. ‘I had to do assessments and research all at the local Indigenous Knowledge Centre (IKC) because it was the only place on the island that had public internet available.
At the IKC, internet time is limited to 30 minutes per person each day and there are only four computers available – and only two of them could print so you had to get the right computer. There were times I queued for hours and then got to the front of the queue and it would close down for lunch – so I would have to go away and come back again.
Sometimes you have to make a decision between handing in a lesser-quality paper or handing it in overdue and losing points for being overdue’.
Flora achieved a Distinction in her final subject which was a ‘big buzz’ for her as it was so close to her heart and she had opted for the project to be overdue in order to do it to the standard that she wished. Incredibly, she finished the entire MBA in just 18 months.
Now she is taking a quick breather before continuing to develop her consultancy business and also pursue the development of the social enterprise for her community.
Flora had applied for a loan through IBA and NAB’s collaborative Indigenous Entrepreneur Microenterprise Program to build her own small business and was happy when it was approved.
‘I was lucky enough to access the microenterprise loan following the completion of my Into Business workshops’, she said. ‘I commend IBA on the structure of the workshops because it enabled me to learn from other small business intenders as well and also provided me with inspiration’.
Reflecting on her remarkable journey over the last two years, Flora said, ‘I wanted a challenge. And challenge me it did! There were stressful moments of nearly missed planes, sick children. I cut out my social life, and life revolved around bus timetables and schedules. But a lot of my “blinding flash of the obvious” moments arrived when I was sitting in the back of a bus – daydreaming. Dreaming is an important phase in business development. You have to be able to daydream – before you dream – before you start forming something in your mind and think “hey, this might work”’.
For Flora, it was never about what the scholarship, the MBA and the business loan could do for her. It is about what they could do for her community.
‘You’re a better report writer, a better lobbyist, a better facilitator, a better negotiator’, she said. ‘You may have been able to do this before but now I do it at a better level. So my community’s capacity has risen – I am able to mentor, teach my people and be an agent of change’.
Flora thanked IBA for the support she received during her scholarship. ‘I am very grateful and humbly thank IBA for considering a person from a remote area, as we often face numerous challenges just to be heard’.
‘Our community does not have a bank, a post office, a high school or mobile phone coverage so it is nice to be heard and considered for a scholarship. I would like to encourage other mothers to stand up and take the study challenge because the journey itself is rewarding. I would also like to encourage those lucky people who receive IBA scholarships to also give back to the community by investing their personal time and effort into further building the capacity of our people.’