First Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Woman to be recipient of Institute of Managers and Leaders Sir John Storey Lifetime Award For Leadership and Because of Her, We Can Ebook Female Leader, Dr Donna Odegaard said, “The way I’ve done business over the years has initially been about survival, being creative in product design and production, tapping into niche markets, loving what I do and nowadays focussing on social impact business.”
You have been a businesswoman for over 48 years. Tell us about what you’ve learned about being successful in business.
In the 1950s my family of five lived in the outback, our home was initially in a tent. My mother, the nucleus of our family to this day, is why I’ve always had a great appreciation for family, hard work and what I have, rather than what I don’t. Mother made everything by hand – our clothes, our food, our curtains and bedding. Much later in life I realised my business mind came from her and her advice ‘it’s about quality, not quantity’, which is a reminder to this day.
In 1970 as a 17 year old, mother of a baby girl, my husband conscripted during the Vietnam war, living alone in an isolated place, I had little income so I learnt to be creative and thrifty, like my mother. With an old sewing machine, scraps of material, I started making clothes for my baby, my family and myself. Over the next 25 years I used that same model to make high-end children and adult wear, bridal collections, corporate wear, casual, after-five wear and designer wear for fashion shows in Egypt and Russia.
The most valuable lesson was realising I needed to perfect my craft to ensure I could earn a good living. My clients were mainly by word of mouth, so my overheads were low. No matter what my life circumstances, I applied this model to other businesses to this day – interior design, primary production, agriculture, small mining and exploration business, spring water business, property development and broadcasting media network – television, radio and productions.
Quite frankly, the way I’ve done business over the years has initially been about survival, being creative in product design and production, tapping into niche markets, loving what I do and nowadays, focusing on social impact business.
At age 39, how did university change your life?
In my late 30s my world was turned upside down when I became a single mother and lost my home. I enrolled in university to start again and hopefully find a career. I started out with the Aboriginal Task Force, University of SA in a bridging course, then went on to complete a degree in Aboriginal Affairs Administration. It was tough juggling rent, motherhood, sewing at night and doing school work but I was determined to stand on my own two feet and succeed.
The greatest lesson was when my lecturer Alwin Chong gave an assignment to critique a book. My book was ‘Wandering Girl’, Aboriginal women Glenyse Ward’s life story. In front of the class, Mr Chong asked me ‘what was the turning point in Glenyse Ward’s life?’ I answered ‘when she was given permission by the gardener to choose what she wanted to do in life’. This resonated powerfully for me since I had spent years during my young life in an institution under a regime of discipline and silence.
From that point I had this voracious thirst for knowledge and self-discovery. In 1997 I was awarded a University of South Australia, Student Exchange Program Scholarship to Northern Arizona University. I studied Federal Indian Law, Treaty, Environmental Law, Anthropology and Native American Indian Studies. This experience gave me a valuable comparative view of global Indigenous affairs. I travelled widely meeting with over twenty different tribal groups, visiting Indian Reservations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and lecturing on Aboriginal Affairs in Australia.
I returned to Australia fired up about how I could contribute to positive change for my people Larrakia and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. I was thinking about issues including land rights, native title, water rights, community development, resource development, Indigenous business, tourism and more. I went on to complete a Masters degree in ‘Law and Aboriginal Land Claims in Australia: justice in black and white’ and also a PhD on Treaty.
Your family asked you to represent their interests and be their spokesperson in the Larrakia Kenbi Land Claim, which you subsequently wrote a book about. How did this experience influence your leadership?
My father Leo Odegaard and my Aunty Florence Devine came to me in 1968 when I was 15 and informed me about my Larrakia background, culture and responsibility to get involved in fighting for our rights. Bearing in mind that since I was about two, my three slightly older sisters and I were taken from the bush to live in an Adelaide children’s institution until I was seven, then went on to be educated in a Catholic convent school. I was accustomed to being obedient, silent and disciplined, so I didn’t realise what my father and aunt meant or what I was to do.
It wasn’t until the early 90s when I visited my father that he explained I was to speak for him and my sisters in the Larrakia Kenbi Land Claim. Along with my Elder Uncle Joe Odegaard and my daughter Donna Robb and son Stuart, I attended many of the Kenbi hearings, giving evidence about my cultural connection through my father, grandmother and great-grandmother and the more involvement I had with my father and other Larrakia family I realised just how closely and spiritually we were connected to each other and Kenbi.
I also took on a leadership role which I maintain to this day to contribute to Larrakia’s struggle for recognition, land rights and identity as the Traditional Owners of Larrakia land – Kenbi. During the height of giving evidence in Kenbi in the mid 90s I met and spoke with wonderful people and experts of the Northern Land Council, the Aboriginal Land Commissioner Justice Peter Gray and of course our community leaders and families which altogether enriched my experience in Kenbi and understanding of Aboriginal identity and the relationship to Aboriginal land claims and the State.
This experience has greatly influenced my leadership role in that I have a greater understanding of the importance of integrity, responsibility, transparency, negotiation, listening, diligence, consistency and as many of my Elders say ‘do things with a good heart.’
What led you to start Aboriginal Broadcasting Australia with a full commercial license, what has its impact been, and what are your future plans for the business?
In 2000, Aboriginal Broadcasting Australia was a dream and a vision for the future to be a vehicle of change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to improve their lives through forms of media. In my past 30 years of being involved in Indigenous affairs, I realised that we had serious communication problems that were contributing to the disadvantage of our people.
The dissemination of information about health, housing and education services, the telling of our stories by our people and especially the ‘good news’ stories were virtually without a presence or stereotyped in mainstream media. We needed media that was owned and controlled by Indigenous people and gave a voice and vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia.
I founded a large media network with a board of dedicated Traditional Owners and media experts. We’ve achieved commercial digital licenses for television and radio and have a full production operation. We employ Indigenous people in all areas of media and productions for film, television, documentaries, radio broadcasting and presenting. My future plans are to launch the ‘Business Channel’ and to be on digital platforms and apps that everyone can easily access.
The National Because of Her, We Can Ebook is a tribute to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. Right across Australia there are endless examples of strong and successful Indigenous women leading the way. This Ebook shines a light on 12 of our country’s Indigenous women, including four Queenslanders, who are leading and succeeding in business. These women show the strength, resilience, hard work, creativity and intelligence that are crucial elements in business success. Their stories, journeys and the lessons learned are as diverse as they are, but all offer inspirational advice.
The Honourable Di Farmer MP
Minister for Child Safety, Youth and Women
Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence
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