Closing the gap, all on his own
When Jennie George asked me to meet one of her constituents I was happy to oblige out of a respect for Jennie but without an expectation that it necessarily related to my responsibilities.
How wrong I was. Through the door came Michael McLeod and with him the remarkable story and passion that is his life.
Luck begins for all of us with the conditions of our birth. And from the outset it was clear that a successful life for Michael would require a triumph of will over fortune.
A member of the Stolen Generation, Michael was taken from his parents at the age of two. This decision condemned Michael to a youth of ever changing foster homes and institutions.
Unquestionably bright – being one of the few kids in foster care to complete his Higher School Certificate – this was not enough to protect Michael from becoming entangled by substance abuse, a common legacy of those in his circumstances.
By the age of 30 Michael was sleeping rough in Hyde Park, Sydney, trapped in a cycle of booze and drugs which left him comatosed from the shocking realities of his existence but with little ability to change them. He seemed destined to become the kind of lost soul that haunts our major cities, barely noticed by passers-by but occasionally eliciting a reflection from the more thoughtful as to who he used to be.
Certainly no passers-by could have conceivably imagined that the more interesting question would have been who this person would become.
Michael says that it was not a lightening bolt nor an epiphany which changed his life but a simple suggestion that he might attend a centre to dry-out. It seemed as good an alternative on that day as any other. Yet it was the first step that unyoked his extraordinary determination and drive.
Lifting his eyes for the first time above the whirlpool of his own misery, Michael decided he would seek a life without welfare. He became attracted by the internet and decided to try his hand at helping others to access it. In the process he tentatively established Australia’s first indigenous ISP.
Before long Michael found himself in a battle for self-recovery and battling the tribulations of starting a small business in tandem.
Fifteen years later, in the present, Michael has appeared on the front page of the Australian Financial Review and in the pages of the Business Review Weekly as the successful owner and manager of a multi-million dollar communication business.
The humility of this man is almost confronting. Michael seeks to play down the enormity of his achievement; often citing others who have helped him along the way. He willingly asserts the role of his mentor and business partner Dug Russell. Dug’s belief in Michael and sensitive nurturing of his abilities is itself impressive. The two of them make a formidable pair.
In his remarkable journey as an indigenous Australian Michael has closed his own gap. But his achievement goes well beyond his own circumstances. His example stands as an inspiration to indigenous and non-indigenous Australians alike.
Michael knows the responsibilities of that example. It is why he is so searingly honest about his life’s journey. It is also why, along with Dug, he has been a passionate advocate for the establishment of the Australian Indigenous Minority Supplier Council (AIMSC) which held its foundation dinner last week at Parliament House before an impressive gathering of Australia’s business elite as well as Ministers Jenny Macklin and Mark Arbib.
Based on the National Minority Supplier Development Council in the US, AIMSC aims to connect indigenous businesses with the procurement processes of mainstream blue-chip companies. AIMSC also aims to connect blue-chip corporate Australia with the great national endeavour of closing the gap of social disadvantage between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
If the National Minority Supplier Development Council is any guide then this acorn will grow into a very big tree as the National Minority Supplier Development Council is responsible for the procurement of more than US$100 billion annually.
As Michael’s life testifies, business can be a powerful driver in closing the gap. It can provide employment and prosperity for the indigenous Australians working in and owning indigenous businesses. But it can also empower. To see a vibrant indigenous business is to see indigenous Australians helping indigenous Australians. It is the antithesis of welfare.
Michael cautions to all of us that AIMSC is not a “silver bullet” and is indeed “only really the starting line”. Yet in all the resources committed to closing the gap no public dollar will be better spent than the seed funding the Commonwealth is providing for AIMSC.
AIMSC will be an organisation that will foster and encourage indigenous businesses to thrive using their own resources. It will be an organisation that will encourage and facilitate indigenous Australians to walk in the foot steps of Michael McLeod.
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