Multiculturalism in Australian Small Business

I’ve been a self-proclaimed Sydney-sider for almost nine years now. Having had a culturally diverse upbringing in four different countries, prior to making Sydney home, I can say with confidence that my new home is one of the most diverse. The very suburb I live in ranks 11th in the recent SBS interactive “how diverse is my suburb”, representing 125 different ancestries. Chinese makes up the largest chunk followed by Australian, Macedonian, Greek, Lebanese, Nepalese and Indian.

Five minutes from my apartment are streets and alleyways lined with shops displaying signage in languages like Bengali, Arabic, Nepalese or Hindi. They sit cosily nestled amidst the local Greek and Macedonian orthodox churches and Masjids (quite the sight if you’re used to living in Bondi). From its modest beginnings in 1884, my suburb has evolved today into something of a mini cultural hub, thanks largely to the many immigrants and new arrivals, who have helped shape it.

Former Australian Prime Minister, PJ Keating said, “In a world where every competitive advantage must be fully exploited, productive diversity – utilising Australia’s linguistic and cultural diversity to economic benefit – offers a practical rescue which no organisation, including government, can afford to ignore.” Since the mid-1800’s, migrants have contributed significantly to the shaping of Australian society and working culture, from the Overland Telegraph and goldfields to factories, art, fashion and real estate.

Migrants bring with them a variety of languages, traditions, lifestyle habits, values and a strong link to the countries they come from, many of which are countries that Australian companies would want to do business in. Business migrants, who have set up their own businesses on Australian shores, have contributed enormously to the economic fabric of Australia. They have created diversity in business products, operations and skills, which has developed a competitive advantage for small business operators in Australia. It has further acted as a stimulator for Australia to be seen as an attractive and viable trade partner in a disruptive and volatile global economy.

For example, Woolgoolga, north of Coffs Harbour, has been home to a thriving Sikh farming community since the 1940s. Today, this community represents 50% of the town’s population and controls 90% of the banana plantations in the area. Satpal Singh moved to Woolgoolga with his family over twenty years ago. He is one of the directors at Oz Group, a co-operative established in 2001 by four local farmers. Oz Group helped provide a consistent line of products to large company supply chains, while protecting grower-interests from fragmented marketing. Today, Oz Group Co-op is the largest blueberry growing co-operative in Australia with over 90 member growers, employing more than 1000 pickers and packers with an annual turnover of $50M.

Another example is from the fashion industry. Akira Isogawa is one of Australia’s most iconic and innovative fashion designers. The Kyoto-born designer moved to Australia in 1986 and has received international recognition for his bold, contemporary designs that draw subtle inspiration from his Japanese heritage. The success of his label has meant that it has now expanded to larger markets in Paris and New York.

Joseph Assaf AM, founder and chairman of the Ethnic Business Awards, made a powerfully astute observation when he described migrant enterprises as “a mini economic stimulus package” for Australia. In a rapidly changing world, harnessing cultural diversity is the key to being a true global player. It is the key to tackling Australia’s skill shortages and ageing population in a global labour- market that’s set to be 3.5 billion strong by 2030.

By Diya Dasgupta

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