The ISX Story: Its Development, Progress and Legacy

The ISX ( began its life with what became known as the Ngunnawal Trading Floor on May 21, 2003. It emerged from the Social Entrepreneurs Network which was formed in the early 2000s as a joint venture of several organisations led principally at that time by Rev. Nic Frances and the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne.

The theme of the ISX’s first meeting was "Indigenous enterprise". The Aboriginal economy and society was dominated by the public sector and government. It was clearly understood that a private, market economy was very much needed to create more freedom and independence within and across Aboriginal communities.

This simple idea was what fueled the idea of an Aboriginal stock exchange or social venture fund.

For its first ten years the ISX articulated its goal as “helping Aboriginal Australians achieve their dreams by any means available to us - sharing knowledge, raising finance, marketing or one on one support”.

No business idea was too small or too large. Any Aboriginal person wanting to create their own business - commercial, social or cultural - was encouraged to pitch their ideas at potential supporters and investors. Our goal was to build appropriate, strong and growing investments in Indigenous businesses and social and cultural enterprises. Between 2004 and 2009 over 5,000 Indigenous business people, enterprises and communities nationwide used the ISX to post information and to track down investors, supporters and mentors. 

The ISX organised trading floors where business ideas were matched with potential mainstream backers. Many times we were told that there were no business ideas in Aboriginal communities, only to find that there were dozens of people with well developed ideas and projects. Why were we able to find these ideas when government agencies could not? One of the principles of ISX operations that it always worked with community elders and representatives.

In this high energy period, ISX "trading floors":  Kuku Yalanji (Mossman, Cape York, August, 2003, Yawuru (Goolarri Broome), Yorta Yorta (Rumbalara, Shepparton) and Ngarda (Port Hedland, Roebourne) supported any Aboriginal business idea that came from these local communities and peoples. 

Another of the principles of the ISX was that it would be fiercely non bureaucratic. It would not work through committees and would devote a maximum of funds to the business ideas and people rather than to any ISX organisation and would involve minimum meetings for meetings sake.

The ISX proudly eschewed government support. But the early trading floors were relatively expensive to run, a minimum of $20,000 just to provide basic infrastructure such as planning, organising, venue, digital communications, catering etc and large voluntary commitments of labour, time and support. That sum seems peanuts now, especially as we look at the huge public sums that do not even make the grass roots levels of Aboriginal communities; but the ISX was driven by the view of devoting every single dollar to Aboriginal businesses. We reviewed these expenses and were concerned, as every Aboriginal organisation is, with the large sums that needed to be spent on transport and air fares just to hold one meeting of business people and investors.

At the Yorta Yorta trading floor a grand experiment of real time online meetings between London, Los Angeles, Canberra and Shepparton took place.

As time went on the ISX website became a lean way of supporting Aboriginal businesses. Aboriginal people could simply submit ideas and business projects and the ISX would send notice out to over 5000 potential investors and supporters. This modus operandi created a legacy that lasted for over two decades.

Physical "trading floors' - always held in community venues, gave way to the online "trading floor". The online trading floor was a much more economical way to showcase Aboriginal businesses. We also started to run very effective online crowd funding efforts for particular projects Noomool: the Aubrey Tigan StoryMata Mata and for Stephen "Baamba" Aḻbert with the only ISX expense being the free voluntary support of ISX personnel.

Though the national website and online trading floor the ISX:

  • Encouraged Indigenous individuals all over Australia to put forward passionate ideas that they want to pursue;
  • Linked mentors, knowledge, funding and ideas with those who are trying to achieve their passions and ideas;
  • Linked passions and capacity and know-how wherever we can;
  • Created a process where Indigenous business entrepreneurs can move ahead one step at a time; and
  • Created a national network of successful Indigenous community businesses and investors that support each other.

For twenty years our online trading floor remains a free place to market ideas and investment opportunities. 

After 2008 the ISX focused on North East Arnhem Land and supported several budding business entrepreneurs and homelands. In this period the ISX supported many Aboriginal elders during the last years of their lives including A. Tigan, D. Gurruwiwi, Ms. S.D. Gurruwiwi,  Mrs. B. Burarrwanga and  Stephen "Bamba" Albert. We called them our Aboriginal national treasures and they remain in our hearts.

Looking back there was something special about the trading floors as physical events that created ongoing networks and lasting long term relationships. There is often some thought that the physical trading floors should be revived and perhaps from the mid 2020s they might be. But they take great energy and funding in themselves and the ISX will need renewed sponsorship and organisational support to allow these things to happen.

As an entity in its own right Aboriginal ownership and management was an important dimension of everything the ISX did. In 2013 Broome Aboriginal Media Association (BAMA) became the official owner of the ISX with the understanding that other Aboriginal organisations might also at some point become owners and partners. However any new partnerships would be predicated by a period of involvement and work with the ISX and like projects.

From the outset the ISX gave itself an enormous challenge and there was much to learn from it. The bottom line for Aboriginal business as well as for Aboriginal human, cultural, social and environmental development is the sheer lack of investment in capacity and infrastructure when compared to mainstream communities over the last 250 plus years of colonisation.

The irony is that when Aboriginal communities were recognised and supported by the Commonwealth after the 1967 Referendum it was welfarism that was the biggest major national investment that was made into communities. In many contexts welfarism eroded the capacity and self reliance and independence of Aboriginal communities.

There have been a number of things that have been learned over the years:

  • Our goal was to build appropriate, strong and growing investments in Indigenous businesses and social and cultural enterprises.
  • Over its operations the ISX did not create the number of businesses that we wanted to create but in failure we have been successful because it became clear especially in Arnhem land there was an economy which had not been taken into account, the ceremonial economy.
  • In traditional communities the invisible wealth was cultural wealth recognised by the world in the respect for Aboriginal art, dance and song.
  • Our long-term mission must be to create high quality, patient capital investment in Indigenous people and their dreams and this must take into account the values and culture that are the core values of Aboriginal society.
  • We will never deviate from this goal.
  • Whether mainstream or traditional, any Indigenous person is free to put forward a business proposal before investors and supporters through our online and community trading floors. We welcome those who are putting up their ideas for the first time no matter how crude. We encourage first time business people to work on their ideas over time and to continue to refine them by re-listing and improving their proposals. We strive to assist Indigenous business Australia wherever we are needed.

Why is this important? The original understanding that an Aboriginal private sector was essential to ongoing Aboriginal well being remains fundamental. The Federal Government's Closing the Gap strategy 2008-2023 is a contemporary attempt to make up for the enormous deficit that separates Aboriginal Australians from non-Aboriginal Australians. It has predictably failed on a number of fronts because self reliance, prosperity and economic development is a critical dimension to social health. Without these things then Aboriginal development cannot progress.

An Indigenous Stock Exchange is never going to be like a conventional Western financial market place. Over time certain rules and principles have evolved:

  1. In Indigenous communities there are many things - bought and sold in the Western world - that will never be up for sale.
  2. Some techniques for raising capital and equipment such as offering shares in businesses may be of importance to future Indigenous economic development, but there are also conventional ways of building up businesses through family endeavour that are also relevant. As the ISX develops it learns more and more about how new capital and social capital techniques can be transferred to Aboriginal contexts.
  3. The ISX has been very effective in identifying business proposals in communities where none were thought to exist. In this way the ISX supports “entrepreneurs” that usually fly under the radar screens of governments or even conventional business networks.
  4. Supporting non-profit human, social and cultural enterprise is as important as supporting profitable commercial enterprise within Aboriginal communities.
  5. The ISX always works with the permission and in partnership with the elders of the community, supports and enables existing Indigenous organisations within the community, and communicates through trusted Indigenous community leaders.
  6. All our work involves long lead periods of many years, and extensive community consultation starting from the elders and moving to the grass roots of the community and vice versa.
  7. Indigenous positions within the Aboriginal services industry and in the public sector have been growing relatively well, but Aboriginal people are under-represented in the private sector, micro and small business.
  8. There are several Aboriginal Australian economies. One economy that is located in major cities and regional towns is closer to the norms of European society. Another economy in the regional and remote areas, sometimes stricken by problems of poverty, under development and threats to traditional culture and ways of living, remains an important place for future wealth creation and investments.
  9. In the short time the ISX has been operating it has become understood that in order to support Indigenous communities (that often do not have any investment or commercial models) we need to support all levels of activity and not just those who are most likely to succeed. Nurturing those that could succeed is an important principle and has become a trademark of the ISX. We don't just want to support the elite investments, we want to create hope and encouragement at grass roots levels for all Indigenous ideas, enterprise and development. The ISX supports many who are not business ready, so that they can develop over time. Many of the projects of our initial and future trading floors had this characteristic and we can see that over twenty years even when things don’t develop, they nevertheless create opportunities and unexpected business success stories.
  10. The ISX supports the development of social, cultural, financial, natural and financial capital within Indigenous communities.
  11. The ISX operates at cost and all of proceeds go directly into developing the community.
  12. Currently, the ISX trading floor model involves volunteers raising sponsorship for each trading floor and contributing a substantial part of their labour and expenses as personal donations to the ISX. The strength of this option is that it ensures that the ISX is very lean, all funding, even when the sums of money held to run a trading floor, goes to existing Indigenous community organisations. As much as possible our operating principle is that all funds must run through Indigenous organisations. This principle of providing a low cost, direct means of linking capital with Indigenous business with all of the investment going into the businesses, not the bureaucracy or enablers themselves, or the structure of the support mechanism, is the best way to help more Indigenous businesses succeed.

For more email voluntary national secretary Peter Botsman at