In June 2021, Brendan, his wife, Lauren and their two kids piled their bags and toys into a four-wheel drive. They were setting out on a six-month road trip around Australia, looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Sydney and reconnect with some First Nations communities.

“Spending time in remote areas put some space between us and the everyday activities and noise,” he says. “It let us think with more clarity and in a different context.”

Some Aboriginal communities he visited were thriving, but as a proud Boorooberongal man from the Durug tribe, Brendan was shocked at consistently low employment and education levels he saw in others. According to the most recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework summary report, the unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians is four times as high as it is for non-Indigenous Australians. There are many reasons for this, ranging from lack of educational opportunities to systemic bias.

“That juxtaposition from community to community showed the opportunity was there,” Brendan says about the experience. “There’s still a need for people to do more to support these communities and create places in the workforce that are culturally and environmentally welcoming – that have empathy for their cultural practices and norms.”

“Talks with my wife on the road solidified my passion for the property industry, but also my desire to use my position to create pathways for people in the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander community to develop fruitful careers – to improve their life and their communities for generations to come.”

With that mission in mind combined with the knowledge and skills he gained in his recently completed AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBAX (Technology) degree, Brendan was well positioned to make the most of the opportunity ahead of him.

Now, it was time to re-route his career.

Establishing a property services business (with a difference)

After he returned to Sydney, Brendan ended his 12-year stint at Commonwealth Bank to start Ngalawa Nura (pronounced Na-La-Wa New-Ra), also known as NGNU. It means ‘sitting in the circle on country’ in Durug language.

The company provides corporate property services, including project management, property consulting and procurement, for large real estate occupiers – such as universities, government and corporations. This includes the delivery of new builds, commercial offices, retail stores and education campuses through to purchasing materials.

But Brendan says it’s the social good of NGNU that he places the most priority on.

“While we do offer corporate services, the main thing we’re focused on is creating industry pathways for First Nations people,” he says. This is accomplished through an employment model that prioritises not only workforce placement for Indigenous people, but also ongoing mentorship and education.

See also: Erica Smits finds her voice with AGSM’s Indigenous Leadership program

Tapping into his skillset – and his studies

While Brendan started Ngalawa Nura shortly after completing his AGSM MBA, it wasn’t the idea of beginning his own socially conscious business that led him to apply.

In 2018, when he was still with Commonwealth Bank, Brendan thought an accredited MBA at a Business School would give him a broader understanding of how organisations are structured and run, especially at a strategic level.

Over the next four years, he took AGSM classes in person and online. It was that flexibility, and ability to do his MBA courses through distance learning, that helped him keep the ball rolling.

“I used every delivery method: intensive in-person, weekly in-person in the CBD, block classes at AGSM and online. There was always an option to continue the momentum, which is crucial with a very busy career and young children.”

Brendan thought his MBA would help him further his career ascent at a large corporation. But it instead provided more entrepreneurial inspiration for him.

“I’d flirted with the idea of starting my own business for 10 years, but it was always a bit too scary. But my MBA translated some of my concerns around finance, marketing, accounting and technology into something I could understand and then tackle.

“Knowing what you don’t know is an important step. It turned those unknowns of leaving a corporate career to start my own business into quantifiable actions.”

See also: AGSM MBAX ranked one of world’s top online MBA programs

Taking a leap to start a socially conscious business

Brendan says he felt “a mix of exhilaration and being terrified” when he decided to take the initial leap from working for a business to launching his own. But once he did, Brendan was able to get to work quickly.

“It was just time to execute: laying out what else I needed to learn, resources I needed to look into, people I needed to speak to,” he says. “The exposure I got to all the moving parts of a business in my MBA really helped get me going.”

He’s built Ngalawa Nura on some of the frameworks he learned in his MBA. PESTLE analysis, which examines how political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors could impact a business, helped him establish safeguards against potential dangers. SWOT analysis, used to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, has helped him measure his team’s capabilities and determine areas for improvement.

“The MBA gives you some of the core pillars of an organisation, whether it’s a trillion-dollar corporation or a small start-up,” he says. “We’re setting things up in a scalable structure, establishing things once, correctly, with the right risk and governance overlay,” he says.

See also: Want to find out more about MBA specialisations? Head here.

Keeping Indigenous community at the heart of business

As Director of NGNU Brendan says every day is different, but his core focus remains establishing systems and processes that keep the Indigenous community at the centre of everything the company does.

“I saw so much opportunity for improvement and impact in those communities on our trip around Australia. You know one person can’t fix it all, but you still reflect on what’s possible. It’s about focusing on what you can do with your skill set and what you can control,” he says.

“Solving issues in remote Australia isn’t something I can control. But having a business where I create opportunities for people in a supportive space is a way I can help disrupt the cycle of multi-generational trauma.”

While Brendan had always loved helping people in the building industry, right back from when he started out at Lendlease to with NGNU, he had found a way to put his experience and his knowledge into practice.

He recently met with students at a high school in his native Western Sydney about working opportunities in the property industry. Brendan says the student audience came from backgrounds with multi-generational unemployment and limited education – their family members never having the opportunities available today.

UNSW Sydney

Brendan Thomas, AGSM MBA graduate. photo: supplied

Brendan says he was encouraged by the impact of his words, and how inspired the children were.

“The quote ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ really rings true to me,” he says. “When I explained what’s out there for them, and the demand for Aboriginal employees across corporate Australia right now, you could see it was all news to them. Sharing my story, I think it really opened their eyes that they could do the same.

“It’s little snippets like that that hit home for me that I’m on the right path with what I’m doing.”

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