Building business resilience for greater impact

Like most start-up cofounders, Fraser Nai welcomes advice and connections that might help scale his community-focused cultural tourism platform, but concedes they’re often difficult to come by given the remote location of his business, in the Torres Strait.

“When you’re so far away, introductions – especially to capital – are harder to find,” says Nai, who started the two-year-old social enterprise, Strait Experience, with co-founding partner John Palmer. Together their aim is to empower local people by providing an “efficient marriage” for their small-scale tour operations and accommodation services with tourists.

Strait Experience was one of 12 enterprises to take part in a 12-week capacity building program led by White Box Enterprises. Run in two streams, one group, from October 2022, included Far North Queensland businesses operating in the Torres Strait, Cairns and Croydon; the other from February 2023 took in South East Queensland businesses from Ipswich to Morton Island and Redland Bay.  

“White Box has been great for what we need,” says Nai, a traditional owner on Masig Island and former regional councillor. In addition to increasing economic participation in his local communities, Nai also views his enterprise as key to promoting the region, its challenges and opportunities.

“The White Box team has helped give us clarity around where we put our efforts and energy in running the business; they’re always there, and they're nothing but helpful,” he says.

“They made an introduction to a group that we pitched to, and we’ve found some believers in what we are doing, so much they are willing to invest in us.”

The capacity building program facilitator Toni Ellis, who delivered the bulk of sessions in-person to help establish connections and trust with each participant, says while the nature, status and models of the participating businesses were very diverse, each was driven by entrepreneurs passionate about doing more to improve their First Nations communities.  

“The businesses were either in start-up mode, or had been going for some time with little traction, which meant they all faced barriers to what they were trying to achieve,” says Ellis, a Gangalidda woman and experienced business management consultant and facilitator.

For some this included lacking the broad networks, connections or confidence to tap into funding or expansion opportunities, for others it was being so consumed by “working in their businesses rather than on them”, she says. But the number one desire for all of them was to learn more about social enterprise and how to build their business’ resilience. 

“Entrepreneurs like these have so many ideas on how they're going to deliver on their passion, and groups like White Box can not only be an advocate but provide a safe testing ground to see how their businesses can really flourish,” Ellis says.  

“I loved running the program, because I like to see build, to see scale, and to see people open to being challenged, and these businesses were ready for it.”

For another start-up founder participant Selena Walters, the program provided crucial reinforcement that she was pursuing the right path in transforming her charity into a social enterprise.

“It really firmed up our desire to keep progressing towards the social enterprise concept,” says Walters who founded Fearless Towards Success two years ago to support young people coming out of Queensland’s youth justice system, with a strong focus on Indigenous youth due to the overrepresentation within the system.

Based in Ipswich, just west of Brisbane, her goal for the organisation is to make “a genuine impact” on the lives of the young people who come into their care by “giving them something better to look forward to in life, rather than crime”. 

Bringing to bear her experience as a youth worker and an educator at Brisbane’s youth detention centre, Walters’ organisation provides a place, support and programs – such as recreational fishing with Indigenous elders, and cultural arts and painting courses – to actively engage the young people as they get back on track, including into work.  

And, she says, it’s working – the first three kids to join Fearless Towards Success are now in full-time work after 12 months and are “just so happy and proud of themselves”. 

“The more kids like them who are gaining success, it ends up flowing onto the other young people, where they are actually advocating for themselves and want to be involved in our program.”     

Her vision for the business model is to create a source of income from its programs – such as by establishing a clothing line using the artwork created by participants – enabling it to support more young people, who themselves may eventually be paid employees running some of the Fearless Towards Success programs. 

Besides the tailored information, expertise and advice during White Box’s capacity building program, Walters felt the care shown for her business aspirations was like “a breath of fresh air”.  

“They were completely immersed in what we were doing,” she says.

“It felt finally like someone was in our corner. For a small organisation like ours, having people who really take the time to delve into and support what we were doing, what we stand for and our long-term vision, was quite special.  

“It reinforced that this is not just a pipe-dream, but that it does have the substance to be a key provider employing people who are hard to employ, in a safe and supported environment.”  

Ellis says she saw significant changes within each of the businesses by the end of the 12-week program, with some amending their operating structures to become more efficient, to some undertaking complete rebrands to better communicate their purpose. She believes these outcomes show that replicating it throughout First Nation’s communities would enable more social enterprises to “blossom” and tackle the greatest local issues.

“There is so much good work going on regionally, with so many people out there looking to take the next step to better serve their communities,” she says.

To learn more about the work White Box is doing to mainstream jobs-focused social enterprise, head to our news page.