Interview: Shelley Cable, Chief Executive Officer, Generation One

We speak with Shelley Cable about the mission to achieve Indigenous employment parity in one generation.

Shelley will be a plenary panellist at Governance Institute's National Conference on 12 September in Sydney.

Shelley Cable is the granddaughter of the AFL legend Barry Cable MBE. Barry started off playing country football in Narrogin, Western Australia, where he was born. He went on to have a stellar career, winning two premierships. He is still the most recent Indigenous coach of an AFL/VFL team, having coached North Melbourne back in the 1980s. He was a huge influence on the family. ‘There were high expectations for achievement in whatever path his grandchildren decided to take; that they would do the best that they could and aim for the highest level. My dad Shane Cable played AFL for the West Coast Eagles.’ It was Shane Cable’s Australian Rules football newspaper that gave Shelley her first job. ‘I was brought up in a very entrepreneurial family. My parents started a technology business. Then, they started a newspaper when I was very young. They ran it from our big garage next to my bedroom. Selling their newspapers at football grounds around WA was my first job.’

Numbers came to Shelley very easily. She always knew that she wanted to do something in business and that accounting and finance was a critical factor. ‘You need to know your numbers to run a successful business. I wanted to go deep into the accounting route. But then I discovered there were only 24 Indigenous accountants in the country. There were around 200,000 qualified accountants in Australia — CPA, chartered accountants, and other bodies as well. And when I heard the number 24, I just could not believe it. The amount of money that was spent on Indigenous affairs every year and there were only 24 Indigenous accountants? No wonder we are vulnerable to having money spent in the wrong places. We don’t get to decide where that money goes. So as soon as I heard that statistic, I decided 25 is better than 24.’

Shelley moved to Canberra where she gained experience in Indigenous business with PwC Indigenous Consulting. In 2019, she was approached for the role of chief executive officer of Generation One at Minderoo Foundation. ‘It was an opportunity to come home. To come back to my family, my community and go really deep on what I am so passionate about — Indigenous economic empowerment through employment and business.’

Systemic challenges for employment parity

As of 2018, less than half of working-age Indigenous Australians are in the workforce. For the rest of Australia, that number is 75 per cent. What is more concerning than the gap itself, is that it has barely changed in the last ten years. Between 2008 and 2018 the gap had closed a minuscule 1.3 per cent. At that pace, we will not reach Indigenous employment parity for another 200 years. ‘That is just not good enough’ says Shelley. ‘So, it is an ambitious goal that we at Generation One are trying to achieve. Employment parity in one generation. Not 200 years but in 20 years.’

Reflecting on the issues that perpetuate disadvantage for Indigenous Australians, Shelley says, that systemic barriers, and systemic racism, are harder to crack than your typical interpersonal racism. ‘It doesn’t rely just on someone changing their behaviour. It is having to review existing policies, processes, systems; to look through an Indigenous lens and understand how that affects Indigenous Australians. It is much more difficult and time intensive. I also think that many Australians don’t understand racism. We are so afraid to talk about the word that we often don’t talk about the actual issue.’ Shelley believes that Australians have become used to the status quo. ‘I think there is a kind of complacency. We are used to there being huge gaps in Indigenous life expectancy and incarceration rates and employment.’

That complacency is also why we have struggled for over two decades with what truth and justice and reconciliation really means for our nation. ‘I think a lot of people use the word "reconciliation" and have some understanding of what the word means. But there are some very basic elements to what a reconciled nation looks like. They are the things that were called for in the Uluru Statement such as treaties, and representative voices whether they are in government or parliament or elsewhere. There are some very fundamental things that we haven’t done. Australia is the only Commonwealth country that hasn’t done those things. That’s a conversation which Australia is only beginning to have and only now beginning to take seriously.’

Shelley says this lack of understanding also stems from a complete ignorance or lack of awareness about the history of this country. ‘People are still learning the very basic history of this country and how it was colonised, using different words from what we learnt when we were in school. So, with better education and understanding people know what answers and what solutions they can put forward. But there is a lot of change that needs to happen. Organisations simply aren’t changing, and governments aren’t changing things fast enough.’

One of the challenges that Shelley sees is the invisibility of Indigenous Australians in workforces, on boards of directors, in executive suites. It is hard to find an Indigenous board director on the top 500 ASX listed companies. Or any other organisation that does not have a distinct Indigenous enterprise or mission attached to it. ‘I find that a very interesting situation. Because Indigenous Australians get thrown on boards so quickly, mostly for community organisations, for Indigenous enterprises, Native Title bodies. When I turned 18, I joined three boards immediately because my accounting background is very highly sought after in those organisations. I don’t know how many other Australians join their first board when they are 18. And yet, despite starting early and being on multiple boards at once, it does not seem to translate into corporate boardrooms. There is a missing link there. There is so much experience we can draw on. Of course, the cut and thrust of the commercial sector is often different to the community sector boards we frequently find ourselves on. But the skillsets are there, we just need to further develop it and need the chance to prove our capabilities.’

Creating employment parity within one generation

Generation One’s mission is to create employment parity within one generation. The work is in two different streams. ‘We focus on supporting employers large employers in particular around Australia to improve their Indigenous employment and create parity in their organisations. And we support Indigenous Australians to become entrepreneurs and create their own jobs, to grow and scale their business.’ Indigenous businesses are up to 100 times more likely to employ Indigenous Australians than any other businesses.

One of the projects that Generation One is currently focused on is the Indigenous Employment Index. The Index will work with 50 of Australia’s largest employers to help establish a baseline on where Indigenous employment sits within those organisations, and how close to parity they are. It looks at the levers that have been pulled within those organisations on Indigenous employment and the results that they have had, whether good or bad. ‘This is a collective learning piece where we can call on the experience of 50 of the largest workplaces in the country to understand what works for Indigenous employment.’

‘This is really important because at the moment there is no transparency when it comes to Indigenous employment. There are some leaders who report on the percentage of their workforce that is Indigenous, but they are few and far between. If we can bring transparency and consistency in workplaces across the country, it means firstly that governance leaders can understand what the current state is, they can understand what is or isn’t working, and they can learn from other organisations’ experiences.’ The long-term goal is for investors and investment funds to be able to apply an Indigenous screen or a black screen against future investments. At present, the information or data is not there to allow them to do that.

Converting business intent into action

Shelley believes there is a lot of good intent among businesses across the country. Organisations want to employ Indigenous Australians. They just don’t know how. Generation One is trying to convert that good intent into research, that can then inform smart decisions, including investments, to promote Indigenous employment. ‘The first thing that businesses need to do is to understand the interaction of their business or their workforce with Indigenous Australians. That could mean that they are operating on a particular land and must meet the traditional owners and elders from that country. It means understanding how products and services impact Indigenous Australians as a customer base, or in how they are created or produced, or in how their supply chain interacts or doesn’t interact with Indigenous Australians and Indigenous businesses.’ This environmental analysis, Shelley says, can pave the way for change.

Secondly, Indigenous employment. Getting a job is such a big part of one’s self-identity and self-esteem. It has huge further benefits, for physical and mental health. Health is one of the major gaps Australia is trying to close for Indigenous Australians and economic and financial security are major social determinants of health. ‘We see a job as a critical turning point in somebody’s life. For more workforces to offer Indigenous Australians that opportunity is massive. But we have such a long way to go to achieve parity in a generation. We need 300,000 more Indigenous Australians in work in 20 years. We are not on track.’ What would help is to put Indigenous leadership in place at organisations, whether at board level or in the C-suite. Indigenous voices that have influence and can guide an organisation to make the decisions that actively include and support Indigenous Australians.

‘Until we have Indigenous Australians in those positions of leadership and decision-making, we are not really going to have real change. There are different ways of creating change. Often external pressures on organisations and governments are quite effective. But if they are not coupled with people on the inside to drive the change, things fall flat. There is a huge gap in the people who are working inside the tent, who can actually shape the policies and procedures that support Indigenous Australians.’

If you can’t see it, you've got to be it

Finally, Shelley says, it is about taking a chance. She has been reflecting on her own appointment as a first time CEO. There is something to be said for corporate Australia and boards to take a chance on Indigenous Australians. Just because there hasn’t ever been an Indigenous member on your board is no reason why not to take a chance for such an appointment Shelley says. ‘We rise to high expectations. I think that is what needs to happen. People will need to do things they haven’t done before to effect reconciliation. If that involves appointing an Indigenous board director, or a senior executive, these are things we cannot shy away from. There is a saying, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I completely disagree. It is of course much easier to do something when you have a role model in front of you. But when you are operating in a space like we are with Indigenous employment, where we do not yet have an Indigenous CEO of an ASX 200 company or the first board director of an ASX 200 company, if you can’t see it, you’ve got to be it. You need to either do it or support someone else to be that. You are taking a chance. A calculated risk. But hopefully, it will pay off.’

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