Wiradjuri man, Alex Sanderson has always been passionate about supporting Indigenous people and communities. While studying an MBA (Executive) at AGSM @ UNSW Business School, he joined the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee.
As part of its vision, the UNSW Business School’s EDI committee works to shape and progress a just society by mobilising its community’s expertise to lead debate, sustainably address global challenges, and foster equity, diversity and inclusion. It also ensures students enjoy a vibrant, safe, and equitable environment and aims to reduce systematic barriers to opportunities and supports all students to reach their potential.
So in 2022, Alex saw an opportunity to take these EDI principles and apply them directly to his student-peers outside of the committee, a chance for them to come together and support each other, and founded the UNSW First Nations Business Society - the first society on any Australian university campus for solely for First Nations people.
Not long after, proud Gumbaynggirr woman Emma Comninos, Bachelor of Actuarial Studies/Bachelor of Commerce student joined Alex on his mission to inspire more First Nations people to study business at UNSW. Together, they want to empower current and future students to have more agency over their careers; to either start their own business or enter the workforce through not-for-profits, corporate or government industries.
Emma is also the first Indigenous woman to study a Bachelor of Actuarial Studies at UNSW and is now Vice President of the Society.
Communities like the First Nations Business Society play a pivotal role in supporting UNSW to promote access to education, invest in and translate ground-breaking research, and accelerate lifetime opportunities for our graduates. By doing so, the university helps shape tomorrow’s leaders and partners with industry, government and not-for-profits, including universities across the globe, to transform our world.
The UNSW Business School EDI team caught up with Alex and Emma to learn more about the UNSW First Nations Business Society and how they plan to help empower other Indigenous students through their university studies.
Alex: When I was 15, I joined a political party to change how the government supports Indigenous communities. I got a job that same year in the aerospace industry in a procurement and contracts team and was lucky to be part of an initiative to diversify the organization’s supply chain to procure goods and services from Indigenous-owned businesses. These two opportunities opened my eyes as to how you can use business as a platform for change. I take this philosophy with me everywhere I go and think about how we can use business to do well and do good for the community and our people.
When I started my AGSM MBA, I joined UNSW Business School’s EDI committee as its first postgraduate representative. This led me to join the Business School’s Social Impact Strategy Working Group through the Centre for Social Impact, to work on how we use the school’s capabilities and resources to support disadvantaged businesses.
During a meeting, the working group was listing the school’s existing student societies, and I was waiting for them to list a First Nations society, but they didn’t. So, I decided to start one and it’s grown organically since then.
Emma: I interned at the superannuation firm, Future Super in the summer of 2022, where, similarly to Alex, I was introduced to the idea that business can be a driver for change. I think a lot of Indigenous students are turned off the idea of studying a business degree because they don't feel like they can make a positive difference socially to the community.
So, when Rebecca Harcourt, Indigenous Business Program Manager at UNSW Business School, told me about this go-getter who was trying to start up a First Nations Business Society, I wanted to be a part of that. Rebecca introduced us and I found that our vision very much aligned. And it being the first society of its kind in Australia, I wanted to be on the ground floor of something incredible.
Alex: When Rebecca told me about Emma, and how great she is, I knew I needed her on the team. And as soon as the opportunity came up, I asked her to be the Vice President.
Emma: We want more Indigenous business students coming through to UNSW and we want to see more opportunities for Indigenous students and businesses. Then hopefully, we can leverage those greater resources to make a positive impact in the community.
Alex: We’re seeing other UNSW faculties creating similar societies, so we've already made an impact within UNSW itself. Engineering is the next faculty in the process of setting up their own First Nations Society, which we're proud to have inspired.
On a wider scale, I'm looking forward to other universities establishing something similar in their campuses and building something together. And I hope in 10 years, Indigenous businesses that have grown from society members from UNSW, Sydney Uni and others around the country will build something together, to create a curricula knowledge exchange between industry and students.
Alex: We've just created a partnership with the UNSW Tax & Business Advisory Clinic. They support disadvantaged businesses that are in severe financial distress. Many of their customers are Indigenous. However, a lot of Indigenous businesses were hesitant about wanting to work with the Clinic because their materials and workshops are non-indigenous.
However, through our partnership, we can support the Clinic to create business workshops for Indigenous businesses and the community. We will also direct workshop attendees to our corporate partners in relevant areas who will support them further.
For example, our workshops will have a section about business banking, so we’ll direct the attendees to our banking partners. It’s the same with our legal partners. This supports our vision of empowering First Nations business students and contributing to the growth of the Indigenous business sector in collaboration with our partners and the wider community.
We're also conducting masterclasses every semester, so students can access classes from specialised people in areas outside of their degree. So those studying for an aviation degree can learn about IT for instance.
Emma: Through our partnerships, we have also secured mentors for students in the Society to help us get into certain industries. We’ve negotiated for each of our sponsors to not only support our students through traditional pathways into employment but to also use their capabilities and resources to support entrepreneurial students as well.
We also have alumni who have their own businesses and don’t get value out of traditional employment pathways. Instead, we’ve set up a support system for their businesses through our partnerships with the Advisory Clinic, Alumni mentors and our current student society members.
Alex: Another initiative we have set up is a partnership with the National Leadership Forum (NLF) in Canberra. In September 2023, I was one of 140 delegates from Australia and the Pacific Islands selected to take part in this leadership program, and I was the only Indigenous person there.
After the forum, I sat down with the organisers to discuss the Indigenous intake and found that the NLF doesn’t have many Indigenous young people applying each year. So, Emma and I are partnering with the NLF to boost Indigenous representation at the forum from 2024 onwards. This includes being a key partner and sending a delegate each year which the UNSW First Nations Business Society will sponsor, contributing to our Business School student’s leadership growth and industry connection development.
Emma: I’ll take over as president of the Society this year, 2024. I plan to expand upon our current initiatives, focusing on strengthening our network of First Nations future university students, current students, and business professionals, to help our members receive the best possible support throughout their challenging academic and professional journeys. Then once I graduate, I hope to get a job opportunity at a global professional services firm, maybe travel a bit and perhaps do an MBA.
Alex: I have everything planned out until I retire. Currently, I am working with the UNSW Business School EDI team, the NSW Government, and leading industry partners to create alternative pathways for Indigenous and low socioeconomic students to study a business degree at UNSW Business School whilst they complete an industry traineeship.
Once I complete my AGSM MBA, I will be working at a consulting firm in the Telecommunications, Media, and Technology industry while studying a second Masters of Screen Business at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. I plan to work in consulting for a couple of years, and then start my own film financing business.
Want to join the UNSW First Nations Business Society? Get in touch with Alex or Emma through the UNSW First Nations Business Society social media channels: