Rona Glynn-McDonald On Indigenous Business, Finding Common Ground & Bridging The Education Gap


Rona is a proud Kaytetye woman and works with high impact organisations to propel social change. She has a background in economics and a deep curiosity and passion for disruptive ideas. Rona is currently the Director of First Nations at YLab, a social enterprise that puts young people with diverse lived experiences at the centre of designing and developing innovative and impactful solutions to complex social issues.

Rona is also the founder of Common Ground, an online space that shares Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and lived experiences. Since Launching in 2018, Common Ground has supported over 130,000 Australians to learn about the cultures and histories of First Nations people. Through her work with First Nations communities across Australia, Rona aims to create future systems that centre First Nations knowledge and cultures.

In 2019, Rona was a recipient of the Diana Award and named one of Australia’s Women’s Weekly ‘Women of the Future’.


Rona provides rich insights into First Nations culture, sharing her views on the better approaches to create social change with Indigenous communities, and the multitude of ways you can make positive impact as a social entrepreneur or changemaker.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led to your work in the social enterprise sector?

[Rona Glynn-McDonald] - I'm a Kaytetye woman, I grew up in central Australia, in and around Alice Springs, and was really lucky to grow up with around nine First Nations cultures around me at any one time. I moved to Melbourne to study at university, and it was in the conversations that I had with people who were non-Indigenous that I realised that the cultures and histories that I knew so well back home were foreign to so many Australians.

I was really inspired to work in a space in which I could provide for non-Indigenous communities, but also Indigenous communities by bridging the gap in education that we have around Australia understanding First Nations cultures, histories, and lived experiences. So I finished uni and decided that I wanted to go a bit rogue and try something that was a bit risky. I didn't go through your normal path to a graduate role after studying university, and I began this journey to find common ground and create this space in which we could ensure all Australians could learn about First Nations people.

As the Founder then of Common Ground, I'd love to hear a little bit more about the specific projects that you're driving that share this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, history and lived experiences.

We started by creating an online space that anyone could access to go on their own learning journey. We began by curating content and also creating original content that covers our unique histories, our diverse cultures, and also the stories and experiences of people today. We launched that in May 2018, and it's had incredible traction; more than I could have ever imagined.

We had a great run with media, which was awesome. And since then, over 130,000 people have used that specific platform, which is to learn more about First Nations people. Last year we launched a new project, which was all about engaging the next generation of young Australians in better understanding First Nations people and connecting to mob across the country.

We launched something called the First Nations Bedtime Stories Challenge, which essentially was five days throughout June where we challenged schools, we challenged families, and we challenged organisations to learn from a story every day during that week. We went out bush to Central Australia and recorded five different stories, dreaming stories, with three elders out there. And there were stories in language, and stories that really shared the unique elements of First Nations cultures from that region.

It was really awesome to see Australians really get behind that cause, and through a week in June we reached over a million people through the campaign. And then we had over 300 schools and a whole lot more organisations with families who engaged with it. So that's an annual thing that we're running every year. That was the first pilot, and we'll be coming back in 2020 with five new stories from a new region.


There's some fantastic projects there Rona, and you're getting some great reach and creating some excellent impact, so well done on what you've achieved to date. So what do you believe are some of the biggest challenges facing the growth of the Indigenous business sector?

There's so many challenges. I think a massive challenge for us is funding, particularly in the social impact space as well. So for Common Ground, something that we've been challenged by is sustainability, because I was trying to create something that doesn't really have a revenue stream in the long run. And when you centre culture it's also hard to get people to pay. It doesn't feel right to get people to pay a premium on that.

So we're trying to provide free education resources that will have both short term, medium term, and long term impact for non-Indigenous Australians and Indigenous Australians alike. I think the Indigenous business sector is really starting to flourish, particularly through all the CSR programs that exist across the country. There's amazing organisations like Supply Nation that are connecting all types of organisations, corporates and government, with Indigenous suppliers.

But I think a challenge that we're facing right now is that yes, we can create a sector in which Indigenous organisations and companies are flourishing, but are we just making them fit within the wider paradigm of colonised Australia, or are we centring culture at the centre of what those businesses exist to achieve?

I see that as a massive challenge, because I think that when we're talking about the next generation of our young people being empowered to start businesses and exist within the business sector, we want them to be able to centre their own lived experience and centre their own culture. And actually people are paying for their culture, because it's 80,000 years in the making, you know?

People don't just want to work with an Indigenous business to get a product, but it's actually about the extra value you get when you work with an Indigenous business. Things like centring relationships, things like long-term commitments, but also, getting a different product. If you're going to buy hand soap from a company, why not get hand soap that's going to include elements of cultures that have been handed down since time immemorial?

It's my hope that we begin to really centre culture at the centre of that shift, and ensure that our next generation are able to feel empowered by their own histories and cultures.

Absolutely. I share that hope with you Rona, and think that the work that you're doing at Common Ground and that education piece is just so vital to help improve some of the horrendous disadvantage that Indigenous Australians face. I was looking at just some recent examples, and many people in Australia would be familiar with the Closing the Gap report. That shared the statistic that in 2016 for example, the unemployment rate of Indigenous people of working age was 18.4%, which was 2.7 times the non-Indigenous unemployment rate. That's just one of these horrendous statistics. So what do you believe is essential, for example, in this space in order to close the gap in unemployment rates? Or perhaps you'd like to touch on some of the other statistics which prove this terrible disadvantage for our First Nations people?

I think that when we look at Closing the Gap, when we look at those statistics, it's very much from a deficit lens. And we know that one, there aren't jobs that exist that are appropriate, or there's not many jobs that are appropriate for young Indigenous people across the country. I've mentioned before when I was talking about culture, how we need culture to be at the centre of everything. I think the same goes for the type of jobs that we're creating and making available to young Indigenous people across the country.

Particularly those people in remote communities. The way that you'd engage with a job in those communities is completely different to the way that someone would engage in a job in Melbourne or Sydney.

Rona and Easter Arrernte storyteller Kathleen Wallace filming with children for the First Nations Bedtime Stories Project.

Rona and Easter Arrernte storyteller Kathleen Wallace filming with children for the First Nations Bedtime Stories Project.

One of the biggest issues we have within Australia is the way that we approach making social change for Indigenous communities. We look at a blanket policy across the whole of Australia, but it's really important to consider that the way a community engages with a policy in somewhere like Papunya, which is west of Alice Springs, versus the way they'd engage with a policy in Sydney or Melbourne. It's completely different, and I think that in order for us to make change we need to have place-based approaches in every community across Australia, whether it's an Indigenous community or a non-Indigenous community.

It's so important that those policies are created to centre the voices of individuals and elders and young people within those communities, so they can self determine their own solutions to the social problems that they face.


I absolutely agree on that place-based approach. So if all of these local regions were potentially facing some really pressing social and environmental issues, and if social enterprise were to be a way to address that, how might we change the broader mindsets across our nation, and globally, to see business used as a great tool to tackle some of these issues?

I think naturally it's starting to happen, which is amazing to see. Within Australia, particularly in the Indigenous sector, we're seeing more and more incubators for young First Nations people. We're seeing more and more micro businesses getting support.

People are starting to recognise that when an individual is empowered to create something that is completely self-determined, whether that business succeeds or fails, the amount of learning that comes through that process is incredible.

I think that forums such as the Social Enterprise World Forum are amazing for bringing together people to share best practise and learn from one another. And I think that we need more of that in Australia, to be honest.

The social sector is slowly growing and growing, but it's so important that we're sharing these learnings so that we can better support new people coming into the system, and also those that already exist in the system.

Definitely. Well done on being invited to speak at this year's Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia, Rona. It'll be great to see you over there.

What advice would you give then to the young social entrepreneurs out there who are listening, who are working really hard to create this positive impact?

There's many things that I could say to give advice, but I think it's just so important to recognise that there are so many different ways people will be a change maker, or a social entrepreneur within their lifetime.

I think that at the moment, particularly in Australia, we're challenged with this idea of the hero-preneur, which is the person up the front who's winning the awards, who's leading an organisation, is a social change maker and no one else is.

I'd really challenge that and consider that you don't have to be the person up the front, you don't have to be the CEO or the founder.

There's many ways in which you can be an entrepreneur, or to support other people to create change. I think that we need to start shifting towards collective impact models and thinking about the ways that we can collaborate across the sector to achieve change.

So that's a challenge to any young people who are listening right now.

Think about the ways you can make change, and it doesn't have to be as a leader of a social enterprise. I'd also challenge people to think about the way they are positioned within layers of privilege, and also within the communities they're existing to serve. If you're not someone with lived experience with a problem, you need to actually collaborate and work with people that have a lived experience with that problem.

So there are two challenges, but my advice would be just being real about how hard it is. It's really hard to exist within this space. There's a lot of challenges in terms of the regions where you're located. There's a lot going on in Melbourne, and if you're outside of Melbourne, it's really challenging.

I'd encourage you to connect through online communities and reach out to people, because I think that there are amazing people within the sector who really want to share their learnings.

I'm one of them. If you’re listening to me and you want to learn about my journey, please reach out to me and I'll do my best to support you, and also to share with absolute realness around the journey that I've been on and the challenges that I've faced within that journey. So I think that I'm being a bit negative here.

I'm saying it's really hard, and if you don't understand the problem deeply, you probably shouldn't attempt to address it.

But also there's lots of people out there, and I think that we just need to be sharing our learnings more and connecting across the sector.

Rona working with Garrard Anderson to record the One Eyed Rainbow Serpent Story.

Rona working with Garrard Anderson to record the One Eyed Rainbow Serpent Story.

There are some great insights there Rona, and it's a generous offer of you as well.

Which Indigenous-led enterprises are you aware of which are using business to tackle some of these really big social and environmental challenges?

There are so many new Indigenous businesses popping up everywhere, which is incredible to see. There's amazing social enterprises that are sharing culture and art through clothing, and the kind of effects you get from sharing and wearing a piece of amazing art that's been handed down for years. Amazing art centres like Injalak Arts, or North are doing incredible work in the [Northern] Territory.

But I think that there's also more and more opportunities for people to better support those social enterprises that are starting out. There's new incubators like Barayamal who are working to support Indigenous entrepreneurs.

I'm going to toot my own horn and talk about YLab, and the role I have at YLab. We're creating a First Nations led co-design practise within the wider YLab organisation. We sit within the Foundation for Young Australians, and essentially we bring together young people who are unemployed or underemployed and have lived experience in something.

Then we train them up to get a seat at the table, and design solutions to complex social challenges. So there's more and more happening within this space to ensure that the next generation of young people are able to have opportunities to learn about business, to create their own businesses, or to get the training that they need to be able to flourish in really complex systems.

Because essentially we, as First Nations people, need to be creating new systems, and the only way we can do that is by being agents for change in the current systems that we're up against.

Absolutely. The YLab program sounds amazing, Rona. And it was a year or so ago now that we spoke to Dean Foley of Barayamal as well. So to finish off then Rona, what books or resources would you recommend to our listeners?

I would recommend reading the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It's amazing at bringing together ideas from across the world around social innovation. I'm also a massive fan of Tim Ferriss. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, because there's so much variety in the types of people he talks to. So it's incredible to learn about these people from across the country. I'd also recommend the Tiddas 4 Tiddas podcast, which is a podcast that shares the voices of First Nations women from across Australia. So there's three for you.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast


You can contact Rona on LinkedIn. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Impact Boom are proud media partners of the Social Enterprise World Forum, Ethiopia, 23-25 October.


Find other articles on social enterprise.