Dr Dean Jarrett becomes first Indigenous man awarded PhD at UTS Business School

Dr Dean Jarrett

Dr Dean Jarrett

Last month Gumbaynggirr man Dean Jarrett became the first Indigenous man to earn his PhD from the University of Technology Sydney Business School.

He is justly proud of his achievement and hopes his tenacity and success will inspire others to follow in his footsteps.

"I'm hoping to be the first of many," he said. "There's a pathway there now."

Doctor Dean Jarrett spent time growing up on the mish in Nambucca and at Wall St in Macksville.

In 2009 he started his first consulting businesses, which set out to help level the playing field for Indigenous Australians in the corporate world.

In 2012 he attended the National Minority Supplier Development Conference trade show in the US as part of a Supply Nation delegation and noticed that Native American businesses seemed to be underrepresented, almost to the point of being absent.

"If Native American people aren't at the forefront of these conferences, does supplier diversity* really work for Indigenous people?" he thought.

The question kept burning in his mind and he knew he had to explore it further, but he was nervous about undertaking a PhD.

What changed his mind was the example of former senator Aden Ridgeway, and notable activist and academic Dr Gary Foley - two leading lights from the Valley who had both attained PhDs in their respective fields.

To see those two, both having family connections in the Nambucca Valley, get their PhD, really helped to motivate me. It was the shift in mindset that I needed; if they could do it, what's stopping me?

Dr Dean Jarrett

His thesis explored the concept of 'inclusive procurement' by large corporate buyers and questioned whether its current application in mainstream business added to a 'tokenistic' culture which propped up a 'top-down' system.

He looked at the relationships between Native American and Indigenous Australian businesses and corporate buyers in the construction, ICT, education and training, and professional services industries.

What he discovered was that "key underpinning factors of self-determination, Indigenous cultural values systems and human-centred skills are critical in commercial relationships with Indigenous businesses".

He also found that understanding these factors and a greater focus on authentic, person-to person, long-term relationships (people stepping out from behind their corporate desks) not only helped to build stronger relationships, but can create more profitable ones for both parties in the long run.

There was also a greater likelihood of Indigenous businesses warming to a corporate buyer if the transactions were leading to positive impacts in the community.

"For a lot of Indigenous businesses, the financial gain for the individual was secondary. The primary focus was on creating employment, mentoring and giving back to the community," Dr Jarrett said.

While mainstream corporations are pumping millions into 'corporate social responsibility', it's fair to say that making money remains their MO.

Whereas Dr Jarrett said he found in his research the tenets of Indigenous culture - reciprocity, strong relationships, and giving back - translated into strong cultural values for Indigenous businesses too.

He also found there was a strong tendency to avoid relationships with businesses that didn't align themselves with these values and principles.

While 'inclusion' and 'diversity' are buzz words thrown around PR departments in large corporations and government agencies, Dr Jarrett found there to still be an undercurrent of racism (whether it be overt or through unconscious bias or an imbalance of power) that exists within commercial transactional relationships, which he says can be overcome by education.

"People often don't know they have these biases against Indigenous businesses," he said.

"One way to overcome these issues is through a process of decolonisation. There may be a need to restructure the company to one based on respect, and the inclusion of Indigenous values into ways they do business."

Dr Jarrett said it "felt great to get closure" on his thesis but added "there's a long way to go yet to improve commercial relationships between Indigenous businesses and their corporate and government buyers".

"To complete such a massive task, one has to be tenacious, determined and be prepared for small set-backs" he said. "It's really about how you react to those setbacks that can define your character. These challenges are only opportunities in disguise.

What helped me get through was that someone - Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal - might see me doing it and think, 'maybe I might be able to as well'.

And Dr Jarrett appears to have hit the right note in the worlds of business and academia - before he'd even graduated UTS had offered him a position as a Lecturer in Indigenous Business.

He's also been talking with key figures in the UN Global Compact, Network Australia - the world's largest corporate sustainability initiative which provides a universal language for corporate social responsibility and a framework to guide all businesses.

"The work I've been doing has a global overarching link back to their sustainability development goals," he said.

"Isn't too bad, really - from the Nambucca mish to talking UN Global Compact sustainability development goals."

NOTE "Supplier diversity is a strategic business process aimed at connecting minority and Indigenous-owned companies with major corporations and government agencies through inclusive procurement practices. Recent years have seen substantial increases in the number and size of Indigenous-owned companies providing goods and services to Large Purchasing Organisations." Excerpt from 'Managing commercial relationships between indigenous business and large purchasing organisations : changing the play and the rules of the game' by Dr Dean Jarrett.