Business through the lens of cultural diversity

Business through the lens of cultural diversity

I’ve had the privilege of working in a number of cross-cultural contexts over the last ten years: six years spent living and working in Cambodia – running my own business and developing many others, followed by three years working in remote Indigenous Australian community development roles. More recently I’ve been delivering a unique business development program for migrant and multicultural members of the Cairns community (as part of a project delivered by Centacare Cairns). If I’m completely honest – I don’t claim to be an expert at working cross-culturally at all. I simply aim to respect people’s stories, to listen and learn – and stay humble enough to see through a different cultural lens!

I’m currently focused on delivering a range of training and business development supports for up to 20 local multicultural aspiring business owners in the Cairns region. The program participants include a mix of those who have recently migrated or been re-settled (mostly from Ethiopia, Syria and Iraq), and those earlier refugee arrivals (from 10-15 years ago) who are from Burmese, Arakanese or Bhutanese cultural backgrounds. Overall, It’s been such a pleasure to go the journey with this diverse group of individuals as they embark on starting a business in local Cairns region.

This picture was taken during one of my recent training workshops for multicultural business owners in Cairns, those participating in the Biz ACTIVE program delivered by Centacare Cairns. In this session I introduced The Business Model Canvas as a tool for thinking and conceptualising business operations.

I’ve taught on the topic of Business Models over almost ten years – mainly in Cambodia and recently to culturally diverse groups in Australia. Interestingly, I’ve found this tool to be completely transferrable and relatable in most cross-cultural contexts and would recommend it for anyone delivering business skills or entrepreneurship training.

Why focus on culturally diverse business owners? Well, for starters: it is Harmony Week! Which provides a great platform to talk about the contributions of culturally diverse business owners to our local economy. Secondly, it is always good to acknowledge the significant challenges faced by culturally diverse business owners in Australia. Many have to overcome significant personal grief, loss and trauma while dealing with the ongoing impacts of leaving behind their family, friends, home and other assets. Many also have to accept a downgrade to their status and earning potential when they settle in Australia – with a large number finding their qualifications will not be recognised in Australia. Now, add to this the stress and challenges of learning a new language (for many English is at best their second language), and adjusting to Australian culture all while trying to start a business in a country they are not familiar with – now you get a fuller picture!

Across the board, I am continually impressed with the resilience, hard work and enthusiasm of many culturally diverse business owners I meet. They leave me feeling inspired to do more and to always be thankful for what I have. As I’ve reflected on my last 10 years working with culturally diverse groups – I’ve noticed some common challenges and opportunities which are outlined below:

Common Challenges for Culturally Diverse Business Owners in Australia:

  • Knowing the rules: Although Australian laws and regulations for doing business are well defined and transparent – it can be a real challenge to know where to look to find what you need. When factoring the sheer volume of information spread across both State and Federal Government platforms – it is pretty easy to get lost in the all the documents, website links & cross-referencing not to mention those ever frustrating call-centre queues!. I’ve personally found there are often conflicting or mixed information shown on the various Government websites as well! Now add in the complexity of English not being your second language – and this is where I see people from culturally diverse backgrounds getting stuck. The ability to get timely answers to questions, access to easy-to-read help guides, and knowing people with practical insights in how to apply the rules of doing business in Australia – all remain a key challenge for many.
  • Finding their crowd: Every business needs to find their “crowd” – those individual purchasers who love what you offer, who express their loyalty and support the business by promoting it among their social networks. It can be really tough for culturally diverse business owners to find their crowd in the beginning. Often they need help to bridge the divide and require a supportive infrastructure that enables them to develop their business models. I call these “safe harbour” environments. They are essentially opportunities and environments that support culturally diverse businesses to connect with real customers who are happy to act as advocates – those willing to go the journey and provide honest feedback. Isolation and loneliness is a killer in everyday life – and even more so in business. Every business owner needs to find their crowd!
  • Overcoming distrust and cultural bias: I wish I could say we live in a completely tolerant, understanding and embracing world – where culturally diverse community members are accepted and celebrated by all. Unfortunately, even in 2017 this is not the experience of many members of our multicultural community. A significant challenge for culturally diverse business owners is overcoming the often “hidden” layers of cultural bias and discrimination. Building trust through dialogue and shared stories that promote mutual understanding, can help bridge this divide and lead to better relationships all round.
  • Access to financial capital: As they say: Show me the money! Without savings & credit history, minimal tangible assets or collateral to loan against – many culturally diverse business owners are ignored by the banks and lending institutions. This typically forces them to rely on their social capital – friends, family and local members with finances – if they actually exist. In the worst case, these business owners resort to loan sharks or high interest lending – which can often lead to further disadvantage and loss of marginal incomes. Culturally diverse business owners are also often penalised through not being eligible for government assistance and related business grants.
  • Professional and Business Networks: It is often the case in business that its not about what you know, but who you know! For culturally diverse business owners who lack the confidence or ability to access professional and business networks – it can be tough to find new customers which often limits their potential for growth. These business owners tend to exist surviving rather than thriving in their business. A basic need is finding good people (those with the right motives), who are willing to use their professional and business networks to leverage connections and initiate business introductions.

Common opportunities for Culturally Diverse Business Owners in Australia:

  • Find a niche: In almost every business market there are niches that remain untapped and waiting to be discovered by entrepreneurs. So much potential exists for culturally diverse business owners to tap into niche markets – finding opportunities where others fail to look or are simply not bothered to serve. We can thank the early European migrants to Australia for our thriving cafe culture. These entrepreneurs found a niche opportunity that they exploited fully – gaining benefit for themselves while also contributing much to our Australian way of life!
  • Show your mettle: The inner determination, drive and passion to make a better life is contagious and can breathe life into even the most normal of business environments. All across Australia there are small communities that are being revived thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of migrant and multicultural business owners. My advice to culturally diverse business owners is: Don’t be afraid to show your passion, your strength, and what gives you pride in your culture. Most Australians love it when someone is bold enough to stand up for what they believe in.
  • Turn disadvantage into advantage: A personal story of struggle, loss and pain is powerful in attracting customer loyalty. Aussies love an underdog – someone who others have written off – yet despite all the odds comes out on top. I encourage all culturally diverse business owners to weave their story of struggle into their brand and find ways to grow loyalty through connecting people to a strong narrative. A great example of this is Nahji Chu, founder of Misschu (Vietnamese rice paper roll tucks shops) who built her business in Sydney and Melbourne through use of brilliant marketing that connected her own refugee story with her business purpose.
  • Be More Resilient: Many culturally diverse business owners share a story of hardship, pain or loss on their way to building a better life for their family in Australia. This journey of hardship builds incredible resilience and is an asset in and of itself. A key strategy to competing in open markets is to outlast your competitors – this can only be achieved through hard-work, discipline and a resilient mindset!
  • Be Creative – Be Different: I love talking with cultural diverse business owners about their roots – their family background, their culture and history. Often, what is revealed is something incredibly unique about their identity and story that can be incorporated into their business model. I think the world needs more diversity not less and by encouraging culturally diverse business owners to celebrate (rather than hide) their differences we encourage a more creative and tolerant society

One thing is certain – when I compare the challenges of doing business here in Australia to most of the developing world – I am convinced that we live in a blessed country. For most of us in Australia – we have consistent political landscape (relatively speaking!), stable rule of law, strong labour regulations and minimum wage provisions, good tax system, strong financial institutions and relatively stable economic growth. We are sincerely and truly blessed to live and work in this great country! After living in Cambodia for six years and running our own business there for five years – I can speak with some authority about the ongoing and persistent challenges business owners face in many other countries. For a start: rampant corruption, poor infrastructure, lax rule of law, poor education standards, insufficient quality controls and discrimination based on ones gender, status & ethnicity to name a few!. I take my hat off to all emerging /developing world entrepreneurs and business owners that have built and sustained profitable business without compromising on their values and ethics.

Here’s some further personal lessons I’ve learnt over the years working with inspirational culturally diverse business owners and entrepreneurs:

  • Always keep looking forward: No matter how tough life gets, you have to stay positive and keep the end in mind.
  • Nothing comes without sacrifice: Everyone has to pay a price to achieve their life vision – to see anything of significance become a reality – we will have to sacrifice something of value. It is so true: No pain, no gain!
  • Stay connected: I have yet to meet a culturally diverse entrepreneur /business owner that is not grounded in some way, shape or form to a community. Sometimes it may not be direct family or close friends – but rather a community of individuals that have similar values and aspirations in life. The act of being part of a broader community provides the ingredients needed to remain emotionally healthy and stay the course in business.
  • Be generous: It never ceases to amaze me how many times I’ve witnessed culturally diverse business owners just getting by personally (many living humbly) – yet have such generous spirit towards people in need around them. I’ve often felt ashamed to the core when I meet and hear their personal stories of sacrifice while remaining generous to others. We arrive at a place of contentment and inner satisfaction when we don’t allow our wealth or other resources to define us – instead opting to be generous with what we have within our local community.
  • Find the “third way”: In our western educational context, we’re often raised with an either/or mindset. We therefore find it difficult to come to terms with embracing a both/and mindset! What I’ve seen from many culturally diverse business owners is the ability to find a “third way” when faced with conflicting viewpoints or situations that are complex in nature. Whereas in the past I’ve held to a “my way or the highway” thinking – I find I am now thinking more about what might be the third way that provides a good compromise – one where everyone wins! This thinking is referred to as synergistic or integrative thinking (the ability to hold too equal and opposing views in mind) – and is much easier for non-Western people than the rest of us!

One last point I’d like to finish on. We often fail to consider that culturally diverse business owners are customers themselves! They represent a significant percent of the available local market and we’d be wise to start factoring them into our marketing strategy.  From our last ABS count, at least 28% of our population was born overseas and over 50% have parents born overseas. If you’ve not found any other reason in what I’ve presented here to take seriously the role that culturally diverse business owners can have in our economy – then at least reflect on how you might engage more culturally diverse community members as your customers!

I hope this has stimulated your thinking and inspired more inclusiveness in your approaches to business and working with culturally diverse people. Happy Harmony Day (or Week!)…

Cheers, Mark

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