The Three Streams of Dilin Duwa

Dilin Duwa means ‘everlasting flow’ in the Woi Wurrung language of the Wurundjeri people whose lands the Dilin Duwa Centre for Indigenous Business Leadership stands on.

The name Dilin Duwa was easy to settle on, according to Director Michelle Evans, because the centre embodies the convergence of three flowing streams between Indigenous teaching, engagement and research.

The evolution of Dilin Duwa didn’t happen overnight, though. In fact, it took around 10 years to develop into the centre it is today. The MURRA Indigenous Business Masterclass Program, the Centre’s flagship course, was the instigator of it all. But to understand MURRA, we first need to understand its co-founder and Program Director, Associate Professor. Michelle Evans.

Associate Professor Evans is a Koorie woman, born and raised in the Hunter, and an Associate Professor of Leadership at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Business and Economics and Melbourne Business School. Before entering academia and co-founding the MURRA program, Associate Professor  Evans was one of many students dipping her toes in post-graduate study at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). She completed a Graduate Diploma in Arts Management before continuing to graduate with a Master of Creative Arts degree in 2003. In that same year, she founded VCA’s highly respected Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development, which has been connecting Indigenous artists to industry work for over 15 years now.

Woman smiling
Associate Professor Michelle Evans

Associate Professor   Evans is no stranger to hard work. Which is why, perhaps, five years after founding the Wilin Centre, she went on to undertake her PHD in management at Melbourne Business School. It was here she discovered she was the only Aboriginal person in the program. “When I came to MBS,” Associate Professor  Evans says, “there were no Indigenous students.” Having worked in the arts for so long, this came as a huge shock. “I was used to working with a whole community of Indigenous students, artists and cultural mentors.” In response to this, true to her character, Associate Professor  Evans decided to rectify the imbalance of Indigenous representation in her cohort.

In partnership with Ian Williamson, an African American professor, the two started to think about how they might encourage First Nations students into business education.

They settled on a masterclass program for Indigenous entrepreneurs – a big vision that would invite Aboriginal students into the centre of the conversation surrounding the creation of an economically powerful Indigenous Australia.

“For Indigenous Australians, education is an important equaliser…and a key site of Indigenous activism,” Associate Professor Evans explains. “Education, however equal the access, does not always correspond with equal opportunities.” Associate Professor Evans and Associate Professor  Williamson’s challenge was creating an education program that could contribute to greater productivity, better procurement and job opportunities, and economic growth for First Nations Australians.

Man in suit smiling
Professor Ian Williamson

In 2012, the duo set about conducting widespread consultation. “Kind of like a road trip with the newly fledgling Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne, called Kinaway,” Associate Professor  Evans explains. “We went around the state to really ask people what they wanted from a business education program, and out of that came the MURRA program.”

In nine years, MURRA has seen 187 First Nations students graduate from the program, 18 students enrol in postgraduate level studies, 5 students commence a PhD, and 3 students selected for prestigious fellowships. All 187 MURRA graduates came to the program from businesses which employ over 3100 people, many of whom are Indigenous, indicating the flow-on effect of First Nations entrepreneurship.

With MURRA off the ground, Associate Professor  Evans had the opportunity to conceive of a centre that would bring Melbourne Business School and the Faculty of Business and Economics together in a joint venture.

“I spent two years working with colleagues on both sides of the park [University Square] developing the divisional Indigenous Development Plan, and building a business case for the centre. But most importantly, in 2019, we held a national consultation where we brought 50 Indigenous business leaders in for a kind of roundtable symposium.”

A group of students celebrate graduation evening
MURRA Gen 9 Graduation Evening

This consultation focussed on what a centre might do; what sort of research agenda it would have; what sort of programmes it would run; what sort of community engagement was necessary to grow the Indigenous business sector; and what sort of partnerships were required for the centre to thrive. “Because the thing that the sector had identified as missing was an academy, if you will,” Associate Professor  Evans says.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that a centre would be established, Associate Professor Evans emphasises. In fact, there were a lot of other competing priorities for the University at the start of 2020, and the drive to establish a centre started to peter out. “We got a kick up again in the middle of 2020. And it really had momentum.” At the end of 2020, the University approved the business case for Dilin Duwa, and in August 2021, the centre was launched.

Associate Professor Evans describes the opening of the Centre as a major relief. “It was just an excellent, incredible achievement when you think about what we've been able to pull together.” With the support of major founding centre partners including Indigenous Business Australia and the Minderoo Foundation, Dilin Duwa has been able to develop a comprehensive research agenda that looks at building a national data infrastructure for the Indigenous business sector.

“That kind of starts to realise how a place like Dilin Duwa can become an academy for the sector,” Associate Professor  Evans says. “As well as a Centre that pushes back on the myth of meritocracy, and challenges how institutions and societies maintains embedded hierarchies of privilege which prevent First Nations people from fully participating in the economic life of this country.”

While it took a decade to establish Dilin Duwa from the launch of the MURRA Program, much was achieved during that time. Associate Professor  Evans and her colleagues built the Native Title Operations and Management Program, which is a training workshop delivered nationally for traditional owner corporations in partnership with the National Native Title Council, AIATSIS and RMIT. They also established the Future Forum bootcamp, in partnership with Indigenous Business Australia, which is a week-long accelerator program to develop young Indigenous entrepreneurs and their early business ideas. A huge driver of these program’s successes is the MURRA program alumni community. They are creating an environment where young Indigenous business leaders can not only gain access to venture capital, but also become venture capital providers themselves.

There are many priorities on Associate Professor Evans to-do list, but at the top, she says, is building a larger pool of First Nations researchers. “I really do put my main aspirations in the importance of having Indigenous academics, because they are the reason people want to come to our University; be involved in our centre’s programs; and want to do research with us over time.”

Creating a space for Indigenous business leaders to push their agenda, to have influence in important conversations and to build knowledge about the Indigenous economy is a big piece of the puzzle. With only a small pool of Indigenous academics working today, Associate Professor  Evans says there's a lot of work to do.

In April 2021, the first Indigenous Business Sector snapshot study was published from the research arm of Dilin Duwa. Developed under the Indigenous Economic Power Project, the study brings together Indigenous business registries and, in partnership with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, integrates those lists with the Business Longitudinal Analysis Data Environment inside the ABS. This data environment houses Australian longitudinal business information, however there is no Indigenous identifier connected to this data. Associate Professor  Evans is spearheading the project that is working to illuminate longitudinal indigenous business data. The first Indigenous business sector snapshot study in Australia, told us that the Indigenous economy brings in $4.9b annually to the GDP. That’s equivalent to the entire Australian vegetable output annually.

Gathering this data is challenging and requires a deep commitment to building partnerships, Associate Professor  Evans says, “We approached leading Indigenous business registries across Australia to join the study. In our first year, 2021, we integrated three registries and are now working on the second year hoping to double the number of registries involved. By starting to gather this data now, Associate Professor  Evans’ team are illuminating the impact and strength of the sector as it currently stands. Like turning on the lights to identify where and how Indigenous businesses are operating in this country.

Woman smiling
Associate Professor Michelle Evans in her home town of Albury.

Currently, little data exists on the Indigenous business sector. “Research is vital to understanding the effectiveness and impact of policies,” Associate Professor   Evans states. Measuring and mapping the existing framework is crucial, however, the other piece, Associate Professor  Evans reiterates, is to continue to offer excellent access to business education for Indigenous people from an undergraduate level right through to a PhD level. This will, in turn, build our collective cannon of generations of great First Nations business leaders.

Calculating Dilin Duwa’s impact isn’t done by quantifying numbers, though, but rather in the downstream social and cultural impact it has on First Nations individuals and communities. Strengthening Indigenous firms, improving Indigenous employment, demonstrated change in business education curriculum leading to increased Indigenous applications in tertiary studies; these are the measure Associate Professor  Evans is really concerned with. “Bringing us back to a virtuous cycle – with more Indigenous business leaders contributing to more knowledge of what works in Indigenous business and leadership.”

The three streams of Dilin Duwa – research, teaching and engagement – are now flowing powerfully, carving out Dilin Duwa’s position on the map for all Australians to learn and benefit from.