Business & invest,
Entrepreneurial culture

The business of Indigenous culture

Tim Baker | February 1, 2017

Banaam is a unique consultancy applying Indigenous cultural principles to the world of business with some surprising results.

When thousands of international visitors descend on the Gold Coast for the 2018 Commonwealth Games one of the things high on their to-do list is to experience our Indigenous culture – the oldest living culture on earth.

To ensure the Games engage and reflect our Indigenous community 1500 staff from GOLDOC are undergoing cultural training with Banaam, a unique consultancy that applies Indigenous cultural principles to business.

Banaam is a Bundjalung word that means “strong, younger brother”. According to local Indigenous culture, Banaam plays a support role to the elder brother (known as “gogawn”) to help them fulfill their responsibilities. In a similar spirit, Banaam was conceived to support businesses to better understand their Indigenous employees but also to apply Indigenous principles of relationship building, communication, mutual responsibility and non-hierarchical management structures to their business.

“We first came across Banaam when looking to provide cultural education to our staff as part of the development of the GC2018 Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) objectives,” says Mark Peters, CEO of GOLDOC (Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Corporation).

“GOLDOC is proud to be a part of the first major sporting event in Australia to establish a RAP and Banaam’s unique approach to cultural awareness and insights into the local Aboriginal heritage provides our team with a greater understanding of the cultural principles of the region.”

Banaam’s clients already include Bond University, the Gold Coast SUNS, the Sofitel Hotel, as well as schools and health services throughout the region. And the results and feedback have been effusive, with clients describing the program as “transformational” and “game changing”.

“I think it’s a brilliant program, I was really blown away by it. It’s the single best professional development I’ve ever done,” says Kirsty Mitchell, director of the career development centre at Bond University.

“I’ve introduced all their principles into how I manage this business,” says General Manger of Sofitel Hotel on the Gold Coast, Amery Burleigh. “I’m a business person. I’ve got to get results. It’s got to make positive change that delivers results.”

She says recent surveys show they have the highest level of staff engagement of any Sofitel Hotel in the world and are in the top five brands in Australia for staff engagement. She puts much of this success down to adopting the Banaam program.

“When you introduce these principles into the workplace all of a sudden you have such good communication,” she says.

For Kyle Slabb, Banaam co-founder, it is satisfying validation that Indigenous culture has much to offer modern Australia.

“We’ve always been aware of our cultural principles, but when we got into the workforce and started asking questions about whether these principles can be applied in other contexts the cultural conflicts were difficult,” says Kyle, the eldest son of the well-known Indigenous family from Fingal on the NSW North Coast. “We thought, maybe we need to communicate better about what principles we operate by.

“I always call it the Banaam lens because it’s just a different perspective. The knowledge is really a lens to view the world through,” says Kyle’s younger brother, Josh. “I’ve got a lot of confidence that people can walk away and view things in a whole different light.”


Banaam staff take a group on country at Dreamtime Beach, Fingal


The Slabb family have always been deeply in touch with their Indigenous culture but have also been intent on making their mark in the world of business and creating employment opportunities for other Indigenous people.

Kyle and his brothers have worked in land management for National Parks and in cultural tourism and found applying their cultural principles worked well in helping other Indigenous staff adapt to the work force.

“We used cultural principles there and we saw that have a really good success with our guys,” says Kyle. “I believe that every indigenous person has the right to a cultural education.”

But their next goal was more ambitious, to run their own business based on Indigenous cultural principles.

“Could we go into corporate business and use the same principles? I was pretty certain that it would work,” says Kyle.

Yaru Spring Water was born, bottling the pure spring water that flows from the base of Mount Warning, or Wollumbin to the Bundjalung people. It has been an outstanding success, supplying customers like KPMG, Sofitel and Coles.

“We run every decision through the filter of our cultural principles and it eliminates any confusion. We always get the right decisions,” says Kyle.

Banaam aimed to go one step further and introduce these cultural principles to other businesses.  To this end, they formed a partnership with retired businessman Brendan Meddings, who had owned and managed IT and training businesses for 25 years, to help them realise their vision. Brendan met the Slabb family when he moved from Melbourne to the Gold Coast to retire but soon found himself drawn in by their passion and enthusiasm for their culture.

Banaam Pty Ltd Director Josh Slabb says “Culture is living, dynamic, valuable and has relevance in today’s world”

A business group is taken to Fingal Head on a cultural immersion session

A Banaam session all set up and ready to go

“I moved up to Queensland to retire, and now only work 60 hours a week,” Brendan jokes, though he doesn’t appear to mind a bit. “I saw this as an opportunity to contribute and leave a mark with people and a mission I strongly believe in. The journey so far has been inspiring and worth every sacrifice.

“The highlight for me are the personal calls we receive in the weeks following the sessions from people who have been inspired by the sessions. We hear wonderful stories. It makes it all worthwhile … ‘The most profound training I’ve ever done’, and ‘life changing’, are things we hear regularly.”

Central to the Banaam system is a set of circular relationships rather than a hierarchical structure. In traditional Indigenous culture every member of a family and community understand their place in it and their responsibilities to other members.

In any given situation, one of the first considerations is who takes the role of “gogawn”, the senior figure, and who is “banaam”, their support person. Kyle jokes that “blackfella” meetings are famous for going on for hours.

“But it’s all about establishing relationships. Once those relationships are established the decision making happens really quickly,” he says.

“It’s a transformation for most organisations. One of the big benefits is the support that comes along with having a banaam,” says Brendan. “You take that gogawn role, you know someone’s going to step up and be your banaam. You’re never isolated, always supported in a mutually respectful relationship, achieving together, creating an ideal work place.”

“Coming from our system there’s no real hierarchy, and that can make things very inclusive,” says Josh. “We see teams work well when they are working across one level, but that interrelationship between tiers up and down, it never seems to work and only divides.”


Josh Slabb shares bush foods with a client during a cultural immersion session at Fingal


At Bond University, Banaam helps Indigenous students settle into their new environment and assists staff understand the challenges Indigenous students face.

“For young Indigenous students coming here – their first step is to have that acknowledgement of country by local people, otherwise they feel like a stranger until that cultural protocol is dealt with,” says Josh.

“That triggers all sorts of things. Retention in education and retention in employment is a huge thing, and the statistics aren’t that great. But that simple thing makes a whole lot of different for a young indigenous person.”

Kirsty Mitchell believes the Banaam program offers a great deal to all their students, 41 per cent of whom are international students.

“I plan to have them working with all our students, because I think it’s such an eye opener.  I’m a huge supporter of the work they do,” she says. “There’s a really subtle impact, the simplicity of it is almost deceptive. It’s gentle and moving and so powerful. I recommend them to a lot of our clients  … I see such value in it for all our students.”

Amery Burleigh says she has been amazed by the difference the program has made to Sofitel’s staff and guests. They now fly the Indigenous flag, showcase Indigenous art in their lobby and in a dedicated gallery, and Banaam’s principles have informed the way they run staff meetings.

“I could never have imagined the impact this would have. When we have internal meetings now we all sit in a circle,” says Amery. “Staff afterwards wrote me emails and came and saw me saying, we’re Australian and we never knew anything about this culture. Thank you for teaching me about my own country.”

For Banaam and the Slabb family, their work is about much more than fostering better business practices.

“Every time you do it, it’s always a good feeling sharing knowledge,” says Josh. “You know you’re helping people and giving them tools to enrich and improve their own lives. For us it’s about cultural perpetuity”.

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