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Leesa Watego is a Brisbane-based Murri – mum, educator and business owner. She is passionate about social media, digital technology and Indigenous micro- and small business and the organisations and peak bodies that represent them. Leesa is the current volunteer President of the South East Queensland Chamber of Commerce, is actively working on the development of a Queensland peak body – Indigenous Business Queensland, a director on FACCI, the First Australians Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and co-founder of Indigenous Business Month. 

Leesa has been a volunteer contributor to Australian Blak History Month’s Great Moment in Blakistory Fact Sheet series for nine years, and is a newly accredited Level 1 Recreational Running Coach and is currently a volunteer coach the graduate program of the Brisbane Deadly Runners.

THERE’S NOTHING SHORT ABOUT BLACK COFFEE…

Like most things talked about – projects, initiatives –  this one has a backstory story.

In 2014 I read a Twitter post by Gavin Heaton, a Sydney based strategist about his Sydney-based Friday Coffee Mornings and how after seven years they were still going. It was loose, organic, turn up if you can, where you’d let a little serendipity bring you new contacts and opportunities.

As the then President of the South East Queensland Chamber of Commerce (SEQICC), an organisation with very few resources and at the time only a few helping hands, I was looking for activities that we could do with little expense or risk, and as a volunteer who also had school children and was running her own business, something that wouldn’t eat all my not-very-spare spare time.

I developed the unimaginatively titled Indigenous Business Coffee Friday Coffee Mornings. My idea was to have weekly coffee mornings all around South East Queensland, with a view to ‘getting people on board’ and then growing it far and wide. And for a good six months, I was doing it – Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, Northside, Southside, Central, Ipswich … all over. But there was something missing, and it wasn’t just that I was hosting coffee mornings despite not being a coffee drinker. For whatever reason, I just couldn’t seem to enrol others in the idea. It was me or it was nothing.

A few years later, the TRIBN team were getting more organised and active and had started their coffee morning events. Held monthly and with a better name – Black Coffee – they kicked off. The Indigenous business community is small, we yarn, and after a few months, we joined forces to form the Black Coffee Network – a Facebook page and a logo – and we were officially born in May 2017 (it would have been April 2017 but Cyclone Debbie caused us to cancel).

So what is Black Coffee exactly?

On the last Thursday of each month, Indigenous business owners and professionals, along with their supporters, get together and yarn (ie. network and build relationships). And on a good month, when the internet deities cooperate we do a video hook-up. Some Black Coffee events are very loose – just turn up, while others are a little more structured – with an MC and guest speakers. Each region determines their own format.

So far we have held Black Coffee events in Cairns, Townsville, Palm Island, Bowen, Mackay, Bundaberg, Sunshine Coast, Moreton Shire, Brisbane, Logan, Gold Coast, Wellington, NSW, and Canberra. Some regions are one-off, others are meeting monthly like clockwork.

Since the beginning of the year, we add a new region each month. We look forward to welcoming Weipa, Sydney/Parramatta, and Adelaide soon. Black Coffee is growing.

The lessons we’ve learned 

  • Sometimes you can start with virtually nothing and build something: we don’t receive funding for Black Coffee, nor is there a entry or sign-up fee. Thomas and I share the workload in coordination. It takes time and a just a few financial resources. As we grow, resourcing may become an issues, but at this point in time our commitment has catalysed over 700 people to gather.
  • Joining forces helps: Black Coffee is a joint effort, not just between Thomas and myself, TRIBN and SEQICC, but with every person who offers to look after their region. By ourselves we can only get so much done, but together we’re growing a little movement. We value the contribution that each Regional Coordinator brings.
  • Technology matters: Collaborative technology is vital to the work we’re doing. We use Facebook groups for organising as well as marketing the event, and Google Documents to update our dashboard, as well as Zoom – a video-conference software.
  • People seem genuinely surprised at how simple the formula is: Pick a cafe, tell the organisers, invite your people. It’s that easy. I’m surprised at people’s surprise at how easy it is. What on earth were they expecting? There may be one day in the future where we have to have a much more convoluted registration / start-up process, but for now, put your hand up and you’re in. Keeping the process simple, especially at the start is important.
  • Private and social enterprise are linked: The majority of Black Coffee events have had a good representation from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander not-for-profit sector. We’re excited by this as both sectors are intimately linked. We are all from the same communities.

Eddie Watkin, Torres Strait Islander leadership expert says

“your leadership life is full of choices. You can choose to act, react or just do nothing.”

I’m inspired by from-the-ground-up networks such as IndigiTek established by Liam Ridgeway, as well as the volunteer coaches of Deadly Runners, and Indigenous Business Month, as well as initiatives like Australian Blak History Month. Each of these national networks demonstrates how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals are harnessing various technologies to make things happen. Communicating, sharing and building is the name of the game.

Black Coffee is a demonstration of choosing to act. It’s not going to change the world by itself and there are much bigger and more vital issues in the world right now, but for many of us who are committed to creating enterprises based in our communities so we can deliver grassroots employment outcomes, networking is part of the work we do.

What folks are saying about Black Coffee:

As a small business owner who is still based at home, work can be isolating. Black Coffee is an opportunity to share experience and make connections.

“As a small business owner who returned to South-east Queensland after 20 years, Black Coffee has provided me with great networking opportunities. I’ve been able to meet other local small businesses to share experiences & reconnect with professionals and community on a range of work and general issues.”

Emma Kerslake, Yolla Consulting

“Its networking made easy….I love the informal gathering that is boosting the Indigenous economy. Its a huge benefit to my business.”

Keith Williams, Founder – Royal Black Private Transport

“Black Coffee provides the perfect medium for Indigenous Business owners to come together to network with one and other and foster Indigenous business to Indigenous business opportunities, but it also provides the perfect informal mechanism for indigenous businesses to link with private, government and the corporate section.  The Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP) and the Queensland Indigenous Procurement Policy (QIPP) are gently coercing mainstream business to engage more inclusive with the Indigenous business sector to support business growth and development of the indigenous business sector”

Scott Anderson, Chair -TRIBN


This article has been sponsored by RMIT University in lead up to the Ngamie Aboriginal Entrepreneurs Meet UpsThursday 5.30pm July 26 and Aug 23 at the RMIT Garden Building Bowen Street, Melbourne.

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