Cogent Conversations: Episode 9
Liam Ridgeway, Co-Founder of NGNY and Indigitek
Episode 9: Indigitek
“We want our community to be able to say that their children are data scientists or analysts. We want to talk about what it means to the parent, the auntie or the uncle and for them to talk about it to other people in their networks. Because that might inspire others in our community to then pass the information on and help others embark on their own journeys. It’s a shared journey that we all need to take, but we want everyone to have that exposure at least.”
– Liam Ridgeway, NGNY and Indigitek
What would it look like if the technology we created was informed by the voices of many, and built solely to create positive outcomes?
What would be enabled if careers in technology were more visible to indigenous communities? For the individuals who take up that career path, for the indigenous communities that are better served by technology, and more broadly for Western and corporate Australia?
Our guest for this week, Liam Ridgeway, is the co-founder of two organisations that together embody an answer to these questions. One is NGNY, a digital agency that is 100% Aboriginal owned and operated, and the other is Indgitek whose mission is to grow the number of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people who take up STEM as a learning and career path.
We loved chatting with Liam and are excited about the impact his work will have.
Liam is a descendant of the Gumbaynggirr people of the North Coast of NSW, the Wakka Wakka people of Southern QLD and grew up on Gadigal country in Sydney. He is a social impact entrepreneur working in the tech space and is an advocate for self sustainability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
He is a co-founder of NGNY, an Indigenous owned digital agency, and Indigitek a not for profit that brings together Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to collaborate around all things STEM. Liam has a passion to increase Indigenous participation in the digital economy and support the growth of a collaborative and sustainable Indigenous IT community.
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Meet the host: Adam Murray
Adam has led digital business, consulted to start-ups and corporates, run co-working spaces, and created his own podcast. Currently, he’s a Product Manager at Cogent, helping organisations verify their venture ideas and enable them to evolve their culture (but just quietly, the thing he loves most is coaching his son’s team of aspiring under-10 footballers).
Full Episode Transcript
Adam Murray: This is the Cogent Conversations Podcast, made by the people at Cogent. Cogent Conversations is about understanding all the things that go into making a digital business thrive. Helping create these types of organisations is what we love doing best. We also want you to have the opportunity to take the learnings from the best of what Melbourne has to offer, so you can apply them to your own business. To learn more about Cogent, check us out at cogent.co.
Liam Ridgeway: Someone from HR said, “Do you know that you’re the first Aboriginal person to work for Microsoft?” I was like, well, I’m flattered and that’s absolutely disgusting as well. Because that was in the mid-2000s and I just said, “I can’t believe that it’s taken you guys this long to even hire me, and you guys accidentally stumbled upon me.”
Adam Murray: Hello, it’s Adam Murray here and welcome to this episode of Cogent Conversations. It was a pivotal moment for this episode’s guest. They found out they were the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to be employed by Microsoft. Working in and around tech is not yet a common career choice for Indigenous Australians nor has it been common for tech businesses to ask themselves how they might start a conversation with Indigenous people about working to change this.
In this episode, we talk with Liam Ridgeway, the co-founder of NGNY and Indigitek. Together, these two organisations are providing an answer to the question of what would be enabled if a career in technology was given greater visibility within Indigenous communities. Enabled for those individuals, enabled for their communities and enabled for Australians in general. Let’s get into it.
Liam, great to be chatting with you this afternoon. We’re in the Cogent offices in the city of Melbourne and we’re in quite a small space today, which we’re using as our podcast studio, also acts as a meditation room, but I wanted to pass over to you for a minute so that you can do an acknowledgment of country.
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah, so I just wanted to firstly acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation whose lands we meet on here today. This space here at Cogent is closely located to Southern Cross train station, beautifully situated in a very convenient area as well. Obviously, the greater Melbourne area as well as an absolutely lovely place to be a part of or to meet in.
So, the reason why, I guess, we do acknowledgment of country and not a welcome to country is because my people aren’t from the Kulin nation and my people are actually from the Gumbaynggirr nation on my dad’s line, which is Northern New South Wales, around Nambucca Heads. So, the Gumbaynggirr nation spans from place called Eungai Rail all the way up to South Grafton where the Clarence River flows through. Then my mum’s people are from the Wakka Wakka people up in Cherbourg and I don’t have as much of a close tie to my mum’s people but I’m looking to build that.
In fact, coincidentally in the last two weeks, I’ve learned a lot about my mum’s people and family through conversations that I’ve been having just generally with people in community. Coincidentally, without me saying anything, they mentioned my family’s name through my grandfather’s line and I’m like, oh yeah, that’s my grandfather’s people. They’re like, I know all these people in your family and I know where your people have moved from as well in relation to across the Wakka Wakka nation.
I’m like, okay, we definitely need to be talking more about this and building more of a connection, because I definitely have that desire to go back up to Queensland as well and create that connection, too. I think there’s pathways here to be able to then connect with that family up there and obviously my more immediate family who are based up on the border of New South Wales and Queensland and also into Queensland as well, having that connection with them, too. But I think that myself and my brother have quite a significant desire to actually re-establish that connection with country up in Cherbourg.
Adam Murray: Can we talk about country and where you live at the moment? I think you live most of the time in Sydney, but you’re also travelling quite a bit around the world. How much time do you spend on country as well?
Liam Ridgeway: So, I live in Gadigal country in Sydney. I’ve been there pretty much my whole life. So, I was born on Biripi country, which is up in Forster and I was up there until I was about two-years-old. Then my mother and father moved back to Sydney where they originally first met. In terms of being back up on country, Gumbaynggirr country, I’m up there probably four or five times a year. I do want to spend more time up there, but being a co-founder for a digital agency and then also a co-founder for a charity, it’s extremely time-consuming.
So, I keep saying to myself, oh yeah, I’m going to definitely find time to go up there. When I do say that and I’ve locked in that time, a whole bunch of people are like, oh no, we need to move with you. I’m just like, how do I make that work? And I’m like, okay I can’t shuffle things around. I just have to do these meetings. It’s not that I can’t shuffle things around, just that sometimes I’m like, okay, how do I make this work and make it balance for me? It means, unfortunately, that I spend less time on country, but the desire is to spend at least two to three months of the year up there. I definitely want to do that.
Actually, my father, he also lives in Sydney on Gadigal country as well and he travels up quite a bit more than I do. So sometimes him travelling back up onto country inspires me to head back up that way as well. So not enough for me at the moment but definitely, I’m happy I guess, from my perspective that I have that strong connection to my dad’s people. I know that some people struggle with connection to country due to, like stolen generation, challenges and other traumas and things like that.
So, I definitely have an appreciation for what my father and mother have done for us in terms of our connection to our community and our culture, especially on my dad’s side of the family. We have an amazing big family and a community that’s very strongly connected to our culture as well, which is passed down through to me in the way that I can look at the world and look at my community as well as very much around movement towards like, I guess, cultural focus and what we’re doing to use our culture to heal past traumas and use that as strength to move forward.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Interested in that actually and how what’s been passed down to you is translating into why you’re doing business and the way that you did business as well – those two things. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Liam Ridgeway: I guess growing up in Sydney, in the 80s and 90s, it was quite an interesting environment being a young Indigenous Australian. This balance between being, I guess, in the Western world and going to school, going to university, having all these houses, all these different people of different nationalities around you and all the very vastly different environments to just being in community. So, I always grew up with this, knowing that I’m Aboriginal, having lots of Aboriginal friends and being closely connected to my community in the city plus a lot of my extended family, they lived in Sydney as well and still do to this day.
But then also the importance that my mum and dad instilled in me in relation to that connection to country. It was pretty much every school holiday we travelled back up north onto Gumbanyah country or I’d always travel even though it wasn’t my traditional land, back up into Bundjalung country to Tweed Heads where my grandfather resided. He went to World War II, he was shot in Papua New Guinea, but then he came back and he had PTSD and then aced himself out of Tweed Heads and back to Cherbourg after that point and so my mum’s family and extended family reside a lot around Tweed Heads and up the Gold Coast area.
But I guess my upbringing in a way influenced, I guess, setting up NGNY as a business and also Indigitek as a charity was really around how do we look at our culture as the core component of who we are as individuals, and looking at this whole concept around wellness. Wellness comes from having a deep understanding of who you are and where you exist within your society, community, your network – and also then in the world, too.
So, the great thing that my parents did was ensure that I had the understanding of who I was and where I fit into our family ecosystem, essentially. But then also then how I then carry that with me into the future, into the world that I was going to be taking on. What that meant within NGNY, for example, is that my business partner, who is my brother-in-law as well, we’re very much around that cultural focus of what are we doing to enhance our business and utilise and work with community and enhance that as well and influence that as much as possible.
Not saying that we’re saviours or anything, but what we do is we really focus on what are we doing to contribute to change within our community, and especially in having those conversations around that balance of being in two worlds. Around being in the Western world and economic opportunity, which then drives self-determination and those types of things, and then how that then flows through to the way that we then conduct business in terms of, okay, we’re doing technology over here. How can we promote technology to look at the ways that we can be more productive within our community to actually look at our own systems, processes and data and things like that and how they tie back into culture and community protocols?
So, we’ve looked at all this and we turned this concept within NGNY Indigenous digital economy, which is again about how we’re actually capturing information and data using systems and processes to be able to map out the way that our community and multiple communities within our community operate and function. Then how do we utilise that to try to then look at where we’re having challenges and then use the technology to test different solutions that could work to help solve some of the bigger challenges that are happening in small communities but then also more holistic approaches as well.
So, we definitely have this big dream and this big desire where we want to go and what we want to do. At the moment, we get to work on small little bits and pieces of those things working with community organisations and the like. Very similar as well to Indigitek too, in Indigitek our big focus is around looking at the intersection of culture and technology. When we talk about technology, we’re not just talking about modern-day digital technology, but we’re talking about technology in its true definition of the way that we’re creating tools and solutions that help us enhance the way that we live our lives.
So, then we explore the way that our people also use, creating the new technology in the past and then how that has influenced our people over time. Then where there has been a little bit of a disconnect because of this, again, as I was saying before, this two-world scenario of like culture and being in the Western world too, and these two bits and pieces quite a fair bit actually clash. Then so that’s where you see some of these challenges and traumas as well, and some of these clashes as a result of traumas that have been experienced from previous generations and then passed on from one generation to the next. But then coupling that with traumas that then each individual within our community has then experienced themselves, too.
So, you’re seeing this snowball effect where trauma is getting passed on and then people experience their own traumas and then those get passed on as well. So, it’s a snowball effect and a lot of people don’t necessarily understand it quite a fair bit. So, I talk about it quite a fair bit. The beauty of me being able to talk about it was that my old man talked to me about it when I was in my teens because he specifically said to me and my older brother, “I don’t want to pass our family’s traumas down to you guys. I want it to break with me.”
So, I was just like, tell me more about this. So, then I started to understand and learn more about some of the actual family challenges as well. So, it meant that we actually had to open up and talk about more of those things. But then how are we actually manage and control that, so it’s not like saying, “Oh, let’s just sweep it all under the carpet,” and so I’m not going to pass you on any of my traumas. But it’s about also being able to have open and honest conversation about some of those traumas and then how we then handle them as individuals but then as a family unit as well.
Adam Murray: So, can you give us an example of, say, some of the work that NGNY is doing in particular or maybe something that you’ve identified where you can create some of that change through technology?
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah. One thing that does get invested in quite a fair bit lately is development of language apps, because particularly on the east coast of New South Wales and due to historical reasons, a lot of languages were not necessarily wiped out, but were basically forbidden to be spoken. Then, so there’ve been certain knowledge holders within those communities who understand language and know how to speak the language, but then over time they’ll pass on as much as they can, but then the people they are passing it onto then their level of understanding is only X compared to the person before them.
So, we’ve seen some of those languages diminish a little bit in terms of the way that people engage and communicate and use those in their day to day lives. But one of the great things is that in a lot of communities, people have been able to capture that information through written format over the last 200 odd years. What we’re now saying is this investment into language apps, which then we’re seeing a lot of people in communities contributing to these language apps. But then what’s happening is that within communities, and it’s quite a bit of a challenge, is the pronunciation and the spelling of particular words.
So, then what we’re proposing to communities is saying, well, why don’t we actually allow all the spellings and all the pronunciations of this to actually be recognised and so that we’re not just saying it’s this way or that way. Because who’s to say that one particular way is more right than the other without any kind of historical evidence to say one way is better than the other. What we want to do from that is say, instead of getting locked down and bogged down on the nuances of how things are said, how do we just continue to move forward in a unified way? We’re not arguing over pronunciations of words because at the end of the day, and this just, it’s a fact, is the spelling of something in the English language that we’re arguing over isn’t necessarily our history.
So why are we being upset about the way that something might be spelled a little bit differently or pronounced a little bit differently because people in our community would have said things in different ways. You kind of look at some English language, people’s accents then have an impact on the way that a word is said. So, it’s like, so that’s the thing that these accents meant things sound a certain way from one person and different way for another person.
Then all of a sudden someone’s gone, okay, so that’s how this is spelled in an English way. Then we’re now arguing over that and it’s like, that’s not our vehicle to argue over. We should just be looking at what are we doing to move forward with our language. I know that anyone from community who is listening to or may listen to this podcast, some people might disagree with me on that. But I think, for me, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get a deeper understanding of those things, but what I’m trying to say is how do we remove the disagreement and the arguments within our community? Because there are bigger and more important things to be concerned and worry about.
The way that I also look at it as well is we are custodians of our culture here and now. So, it’s important for us to own, yes, our history, but own where we are right now and what we take forward. That means not necessarily disagreeing over what I would classify as small things. But what are we doing to actually address the bigger things in our community?
If that means in technology that we’re going to spell out multiple ways the way that a word is pronounced, then let’s do that. But let’s not fight over it and let’s continue to move forward. That’s, I think, a thing that I’ve always had in my mindset is let’s just keep moving forward so that we can focus on the bigger things. Yes, that’s important, the pronunciation, but let’s focus on bigger things that we need to address instead of being bogged in this one area when there’s all these other things that we need to sweat out over here.
Adam Murray: So how do you, like does NGNY book to get involved in those bigger things? Or how do you identify what big things you can best tackle?
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah, so I think we like to ask questions to people in community. So, we don’t want to come in and pretend that we have, I guess, the solution; we ask questions that are leading questions to influence the way that individuals and groups within communities then respond to a particular challenge, like a small or a big challenge. The reason why we do that is because if we come in and say, “Yeah, we think you should do this or do that,” you’ll probably end up polarising half the room because they’ll be like, who are you? You’re not even from here. You know, blah blah blah. We don’t want to get caught up in that politics.
What we want to do is we want to try to bring out the different problems and the different challenges in the room. So, then those things can be conversed about so that then we can then uncover, okay, well what are the actual problems and is everyone aligned on what those problems are? If not, why not? If so, how do we overcome them and then work out a way to kind of massage it over time? Because I think what ends up happening is that we want to try to remove as many assumptions as possible within the rooms.
This is why we ended up also at NGNY being engaged quite a fair bit with a lot of Indigenous organisations and Indigenous businesses is because we have these conversations. We’ll just go in and basically have a yarn and connect instead of just going in and going, okay, so tell us what you want, tell us how we’re going to do it. This is how many hours it’s going to take and here’s a quote for you to get it done. For us it’s about who are we actually creating that connection with and going on a journey with them, then coming on a journey with us so that we’re all moving forward together.
Because as I was saying before, we don’t want to pretend that we have all the answers because we’re going to work on progress and find solutions together. That’s how we continue to move forward numbers and business and that’s how both myself and my business partner feel comfortable about doing things. Because you don’t want to get to a point where, I guess, your reputation becomes, I guess, smeared because of the way that you handle yourself because you go in thinking that your opinions or your perspectives are above community. We’re not above anyone, no one else is above us. We all progress and move forward together and that’s how we want to continue to operate and function as a business.
Adam Murray: So, you’ve obviously got a background in tech, which is influencing what you do today; I think you were quite technical early on – is that right?
Liam Ridgeway: To a certain degree. Yeah, so also actually I started off extremely non-technical. So, I started off my career at Microsoft, and I was in marketing and sales there for four to five years. Then the guy that I was working with at Microsoft we were heading over to America for a big Microsoft conference. We’re sitting on the flight and we’re talking about ideas and all these bits and pieces. Then we kind of hit this one spot where we’re like, that sounds like it could be a good idea.
We really started talking about it more and more on that trip too, and during when we were in America. Then at the end of that trip, we stopped talking about it. We came back and then a few months later he goes, remember that thing that we were talking about when we were in America? I was like, yeah. Do you want to see if like we can make something of it? I was just like, yeah, principle, yeah, I love the idea but just let me have a think about it. Because then I also need to go home and talk to, I guess my girlfriend, now my wife, about the idea, and she was generally supportive.
Then so the whole idea was that we’d leave Microsoft, because if we created or did any work on the idea that they’d own any or all of the IP, whereas Trend Micro didn’t have the same level of stipulations within their employee contracts around IP ownership. So, I went and worked at Trend Micro for a year. We sketched everything out on paper during the whole time, because we didn’t want to document anything in terms of having it in a computer, which was timestamped and things like that. So, everything was just done in drawings in these big art books, basically.
So, I’d be lugging that around, or I’d have that in the back of my car. Then at the end of every day after work, or at least four days a week, we’d meet up at a cafe in Newtown in Sydney and scribble away and talk about some of the problems and how we can define some solutions to overcome those. So, we mapped it all out and one of the biggest challenges was that we mapped it out in regards to what we thought was the right way to move forward, but we didn’t necessarily do as much concept testing as we should have. So, through the process of doing that, I then went and did some online learning, but then also went and did some in-class learning in relation to how to do some programming and developing and then kind of crash-coursed it.
Then I was just like, all right, we can keep crash-coursing this, or we can get some type of investment and actually bring people in who can, I guess, sort out our strategy and create more structure around it, then allow us to then move forward with finding investors, building out the strategy and the direction and then going from there. Then we took it to a few rounds of investment and then I had a different vision of the way that the business was going to move forward compared to my business partner at the time. We tried to iron that out but then over time, we didn’t necessarily see eye to eye specifically on that, but also, just some of the operational stuff in relation to the business.
And so, during that time I set up NGNY while I was there as well. The reason why I set up NGNY with my business partner was because I was doing freelance work, building websites and different bits and pieces for clients. Because I’ve been asked multiple times during when I’d set up the previous business, if I would actually be able to build websites and help with different digital solutions, etcetera. I’d say “No, no, no, I’m over here focusing on this, I’m not going to do that.”
Then eventually I got to a point where I’m like, this actually could be a revenue stream. I can just go out and just do some sole trader bits and pieces and during my spare hours at night, I’d just work on these bits and pieces. Then my girlfriend, wife now, said, “Oh, why don’t you speak to John. He’s been doing some freelance stuff as well and you guys might be able to do some work together.” Then we had a chat and then we discussed maybe we should set this up as a business and then it kind of naturally flowed from there.
That journey, I guess, it was good because he had all his skills and knowledge and background and then I had mine and there was some crossover. Then there were also lots of areas that complemented each other as well. So, that was five and a half years ago when that happened. So, I guess, for me, it’s been quite a whirlwind of a journey because I was sitting in my cushy corporate job and people would constantly say to me, “Why would you even like leave this?” I’m like, because I feel like there’s so much more potential to do so many more things out in the world.
When you’re in that situation where you take this leap of faith and stop sitting in your corporate cushy job, you just leap out and you try to do whatever you can to make that work, which involved also then learning how to do programming and things like that. Or having to get out and maybe even speak at conferences and events and things like that. If you asked me to do this only a few years ago in terms of speaking on a podcast or speaking at conferences or doing anything like that and I’d just be like, no, I’m not going to do that.
It’s just like I’m out of my depth if I keep doing that. But then over time, you are just like, you just got to do it even if you’re sweating bullets. You just have to have a crack at it and you just make it work. So, that’s generally been probably like the last seven years of my life. It’s just like, oh, I’m not sure. I’m not sure. Then you’re just like, no. You know what? I’m just going to jump off the ledge and just have a crack at this, because you’ve just got to sometimes.
Adam Murray: Yeah. Amazing. I think what you’re talking about there in terms of your cushy corporate job and branching out into NGNY, from what I understand a bit of that then catalysed the idea of Indigitek as well. Can you talk about that journey, that transition and what Indigitek is all about?
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah, absolutely. So, when we started NGNY, John and I had these big dreams around, and we still do, around the growth and the direction of the business and where we want to take it. Our desire was to look for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people to be the talent within the business, whether it was technical through to nontechnical roles, and we were like, yeah, okay, we’ll go out and we’ll find talent and I knew, deep down I knew, that was going to be a little bit difficult.
But then I thought if we turned over certain stones, we’d find a cohort and things would get easier once we tapped into some of those cohorts. And we found that, well actually no, it wasn’t getting easier to hire the talent because at the time reconciliation action plans were rarely taking off. Then so what that meant was that these big corporates who had these reconciliation action plan targets around procurement or the number of people that they would employ who are Indigenous, it meant that they were scooping up all the talent and we’re like, damn it.
These guys are getting in early and they’re also offering these amazing packages as well, which wasn’t just dollars, but it was just like all these other benefits that you get when you work for one of these big corporate cushy organisations. So, we’re like, okay, we’re going to have to find our own talent and actually dip into this quite a fair bit. So, we found a young Aboriginal man who’s from Gadigal country in Sydney and he was through wider network.
But within our community, people give you a trail, like, go over here, I think this person knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. Then we managed to find our way to Joel, he’s named Joel Davison and I’d speak to him in the early days and he’d barely speak to me. He wouldn’t even say much at all. If you ever saw Joel, he has long hair and it used to cover one side of his forehead and then go diagonally down across the bridge of his nose and then over his face, so you could only see one eye. He’d kind of peer up at me and look at me with his one eye sometimes, but just wouldn’t talk to me looking at me.
Then we caught up a few times and then I said to him like, we’re actually looking at this school called, at the time, Coder Factory. I’d met the then co-founder and he was co-CEO as well of the organisation, because he was doing some workshops at the Redfern Community Centre, teaching young kids how to program and code. So, we got talking and he’s like, oh yeah, we’d love to set up a scholarship and if you have any people that want to come through, blah, blah, blah. I was just like, okay, cool. Noted. Then when I met Joel it’s like, okay, we can actually tie these two things together.
Joel had already a little bit of technology-based experience based on his own self-paced learning. So, as you can tell, he wasn’t necessarily the most outgoing individual and so that meant that he was not necessarily putting himself out there in regards to what the possible pathways were that he could have taken. But I guess what happened with us was that during the time when I met Joel, he was a horticulturalist working at the botanical gardens in Sydney.
In his spare time, he was a gamer and he was learning bits and pieces of development and he worked at one of the local Aboriginal land councils in his spare time, too, where his dad was affiliated with. That’s where we kind of crossed paths. Then when I caught up with him a few times, I’m like, we got these scholarship opportunities, I was just like, would you consider taking it? He’s like, yeah, absolutely, I’d like to explore this.
So, then he went through and smashed it out of the park and then came and worked at NGNY as a junior developer and then he’s like, oh, I’ve got this friend as well, young Indigenous guy, too, who’s wanting to develop, has a little bit of experience. But at the moment he’s a barista at a cafe in a Western Sydney and I said, “Okay, let’s have a chat with him.” So, he came into the office and I couldn’t even get a peep out of him either. Super nervous guy. Every time you’d talk to him, he’d be rubbing his nose, or he’d keep putting his hands through his hair.
So, I just talked to him and I’m like, he’s super nervous. I didn’t want him to feel too uncomfortable. So, I’d just sit there having a yarn with him, talking about anything just to make him feel more comfortable to be in the space with us. Then he went through and then got a scholarship as well at Coder Factory and we now employ him. So, he’s named Keenan, and he’s a full-time developer within NGNY still to this day. Joel is an automation engineer now at CVA. So, his career, he’s really wanted it to take off and it has taken off.
But not only that, Joel is also very closely connected with his Gadigal culture and the language. So, he’s brought those two bits and pieces together. He’s almost like the, I guess, the opinion of what Indigitek is about, around bringing technology together with culture. So, he’s been doing a lot around language, around looking at how technology can influence language and vice versa as well. He’s also been working on a virtual reality experience called Project Birongai as well.
He’s been working on that with Keenan and also Jeremy who is an animator and a graphic designer who’s Indigenous as well. He also worked at NGNY as well. So, we’ve had this great little community who’s come through NGNY and then through Indigitek as well and they all get on super, super well. In fact, to the point now that within the Indigitek community they’ve created a Dungeons and Dragons community as well, which is awesome to see.
So, it’s kind of grown legs of its own in terms of what the areas are that branch out of Indigitek and have formed into with this Dungeons and Dragons community and wherever we go to from there. So super exciting to see that journey, but yeah, so that’s essentially where things are with some of the talent that’s come into NGNY and then how Indigitek formed off the back of that. The other thing too is when I was working at Microsoft, I didn’t tell them that I was Aboriginal and then a few people over time, are like, oh, what nationality? I’m like, I’m Aboriginal, and they’re like, Oh, oh wow.
Then it kind of became a conversation in the workspace and then someone from HR said, “Do you know that you’re the first Aboriginal person to work for Microsoft?” I was like, well, I’m flattered and that’s absolutely disgusting as well. Because that was in the mid-2000s and I just said, “I can’t believe that it’s taken you guys this long to even hire me, and you guys accidentally stumbled upon me.” So then during my time there, two other Indigenous people came through.
So, one fellow who was, I saw him walking through the corridors and I’m like, who is this bloke? So, one day I walked up to him like after maybe about two weeks of seeing him walk through, I was like, I walked up and I said, “Brother you’re Aboriginal, aren’t you?” He’s like, yeah, yeah. So, he kicked it off but yes, so he worked in the mail room in Microsoft. Then there was one other Indigenous girl who turned up about two years after me. She was working in Microsoft marketing team in product management.
She was only there for about four or five months and then one day just disappeared out of the organisation. Then that young fellow who was working in the mail room, he ended up getting opportunity working with a mining company as a soil tester. So, he up and left, over to WA to become, to move from the mail room here, or up in Sydney, out to the outback over in WA, soil testing. So, I was like, this is a massive change in your life, dude. I’m like, it’s such an interesting change as well. So, I thought it was an awesome story when he was telling me about that.
But yeah, so it was really driven, I guess, by the fact that I didn’t see as many Indigenous people walking through the corridors as I would like to have seen. So that always sat in the back of my mind and how do I influence that in some way, shape or form, which then a few years later led to myself and my co-founder, Trent, trying coming together to pull together Indigitek. It took quite a few months to set up Indigitek in terms of what we actually wanted to do.
But then we get to a point where we’re like, no, we just need to come together as a community and just see, get everyone’s feedback and let’s just see how are we going to grow from there as Indigitek, as a community, which then eventually branched out to become a registered organisation because originally it was just a kind of side passion I guess, which was how do we just build a community of people that we’re comfortable with just to come together and catch up? And then eventually it started to get far more serious in relation to like what the possibilities are and how we can make this work significantly more impactful for our people.
Adam Murray: A little bit of how I understand Indigitek and its mission, and feel free to correct me as I talk about this, but it seems like, I guess, the more common say career path or area of interest for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is often around say health or law or those kinds of areas and less around technology. It’s not an immediately thought about career path, and in part Indigitek is about changing that and enabling people to come through that kind of career path and open up opportunities for them in organisations.
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah, exactly. So, a lot of people in my community, we have parents who are, as you’re saying, in health, like social justice, education, working in government as well within those particular areas, or around housing as well around some human rights and some policy development around these various areas. Yeah, as you’re saying, far fewer people in science, tech, engineering and mathematics. So what our big agenda and our big focus was, was around how do we actually start to utilise the community and their experiences and the pathways that they’ve taken to become those points of exposure and those points of storytelling and creating those as role models to say that, hey, actually there are other people in our community who have already embarked down these pathways and on these journeys.
How do we now tap into these individuals and then bring them together collectively to inspire other people in our community to consider these pathways? We’re not saying, we’re going to just shove this down the throat of everyone in our community. But how do you just create that exposure to give people the idea of a possibility through just that initial exposure, and then take it from there? Whereas, if we’re not doing that, then we’re only limited to, I guess, the things that we see in the world or, sometimes you have very imaginative people, but more often than not, people are locked into what they’re familiar with. Usually, that ends up taking the pathways that their parents, aunties and uncles have already taken.
So, what we’re doing is saying, well how do we become the aunties and uncles and the cousins and the relatives across all of our community and say, hey, we’re over here doing all this stuff. All you fellows, you can also come over here and check this out. Also, we’ll support you if you want to go down these pathways as well. So, it’s inspiring and exciting in relation to what those possibilities are and really about also not just focusing again on sports role models, too.
How do we create STEM role models as well? Because not everyone’s geared toward sport in our community and for those that are, not everyone makes it professional. So it’s like, how do we create multiple pathways for people to just be exposed to those things and go, well, okay, if my career over here, or wherever it is, doesn’t work out, I have exposure to this STEM stuff over here, why don’t I explore that a little bit more? Because I did enjoy some of those things that I was doing and I’m always saying it’s never too late, you can always have a crack at it.
So it’s not just about targeting young people in our community, but it’s about ensuring as well that we’re engaging all of our community to ensure that they have an awareness of what’s going on, because at the end of the day some of the parents, aunties and uncles, etc, it’s important for them to have an understanding of what their kids or grandkids and nieces and nephews, etc, could be embarking upon. So, it’s not saying, you need to know all the details of what they’re doing, but it’s instead saying, “Oh yeah, you work on computers, and that, don’t you?” Because that’s one of the things people say to me, “Oh, you work on computers, yeah?” And I’m just like – there’s more to this area and it’s more specific and to be able to have a better conversation than that and for families to then have a better understanding.
Like I said before, I’m not trying to create experts out of everyone, but just for people to say, my son, my daughter is a data scientist or an analyst or what that means to the parent or the auntie or the uncle and how they then talk about it to other people in their networks. Because then that might inspire others in our community who hear that third hand, for example, to then pass the information onto them, embark on their own journeys as well. It’s a shared journey that we all need to take and varying levels of knowledge, but we want everyone to have that exposure at least.
Adam Murray: What do you imagine or hope that bringing through say a generation or a bunch more people who have an Indigenous background or culture through a technology pathway or career, what do you think that might then enable for that technology and for the broader Indigenous community as well?
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah, so we have this real dream around, how do we create these points of exposure and opportunity for our community to use tech but more importantly influence it and create it in a Western context, but also then in a cultural context too that’s appropriate for what we see in need in community. So not necessarily overreaching, not into areas that we don’t need technology, because there’s a really important balance between technology and culture and cultural protocols. So, we want to make sure that there isn’t a one size fits all scenario.
Each community deals with the way that they see things that come into our community, into our culture. Everything gets handled on a case by case and a unique basis. So how do we tap into that essentially and make sure that we don’t just slap technology across the community? Because one of the most important things is around ensuring that technology that we do bring into our community is productive, and doesn’t take away from the possibilities of like you look at YouTube and things like that.
They’re very addictive and even apps and games and things like that, extremely addictive. How can we actually create more productive games that are culturally aligned, that don’t take away from the individual’s time, that’s like unproductive? So, what we want to do is look at the way that technology then is developed by community for community and also community organisations as well.
This comes back to the point that I’ve been talking about quite a fair bit around productivity-based technology and how we then utilise that to then capture data in an efficient way, which is, for example, the way that an organisation might use technology, which is a community organisation, which represents our people. How do we use this technology to create transparency in relation to what they’re doing and how they’re serving the community and how they’re helping overcome challenges and support the community? Overcome those challenges in a very transparent way as well, so that instead of a community organisation just running off and doing its own thing, how do they best serve their people by taking their people and their stakeholders and their community on that journey with them by being entirely transparent by showing why things are working and why and the things that aren’t working and why these things are happening? So that everyone can come together, bring their brainpower together to see all the bits and pieces that are going on and overcome challenges, but then also continue to strive for future potential growth opportunities.
So we want to see people in our community, in the Indigitek community, being able to take this knowledge and these experiences back to their own communities as well, and being able to influence those because that knowledge that can create so much potential opportunity when used in the right way for the growth from both a Western standpoint but also from a cultural standpoint as well, because there is so much that technology can do. As I was saying to you earlier, we are the custodians of our culture, so how do we utilise what we have here now and the good things that are in it and use that to then align with our culture as well?
Adam Murray: Yeah, that’s awesome. Just trailing on then from what you’re saying towards the end there, and maybe a while ago too in the conversation, and talking about that, those three things of Western culture, I guess, Indigenous culture and technology. You talked a little bit about Indigenous culture and technology and I’m wondering about the Western culture part of that as well. What the merging of those two things or equipping of Indigenous people with greater technology skills and power, what might that bring to Western culture? Particularly in Australia, I suppose in corporate Australia, but in Australia more generally?
Liam Ridgeway: So, I think, I guess, looking at Indigenous culture and, I guess, Western culture in Australia in particular, I guess, when you look at kind of Western culture in Australia in general, it’s very fast-paced. It’s like what’s happening here and now, time and money and things like that. It’s like you’re constantly chasing something or looking to do the next thing, which is okay, and I have that ingrained in me as well growing up in the city in Sydney, but then there’s also from, I guess, an Indigenous cultural standpoint, I guess, the ability or the desire to sit down and have a yarn and build relationships and assess things, and have deeper conversations to get a deeper understanding of what are some of the things that are going on. What are the successes, what are some of the challenges, what’s the overall narrative? And starting to understand if there are problems and how do people feel about those problems?
Then how do we actually delve deeper into that to then try and resolve those problems and not just the small group of people, but how do you bring the collective along by taking on that journey as well? So, it’s a slower approach, but it’s a very thorough approach and it’s one of the things that within our community, with thousands and thousands of years of connection to this country and our culture as well, and then those knowledge systems being passed on.
An example of that is when we look at some environmental management and these days with climate change and issues that we have around that, there’s so much knowledge that Indigenous Australians have around environmental management and then how you actually, you don’t take more than you need. Whereas today we live in a society where we take more than we need because we’re constantly looking at how we have the right supply to make the right amount of money, whereas traditionally our culture wasn’t around I need to get this much because then I’m going to get this in return and then blah blah blah.
It’s like, no, you take what you need and then you let the environment flourish in the way that it needs to flourish so that it can sustain itself, as opposed to ripping all the fish out of the sea or cutting down all the trees or whatever it may be. So Indigenous culture I think can and should and will play an important role. This isn’t just Indigenous culture in Australia, but it’s Indigenous cultures all across the world too.
You’re seeing some of the challenges that are happening over in Brazil and the Amazon at the moment as well, just in relation to deforestation and land clearing and things like that. Then the challenges that government’s having with Indigenous people, but then also then the flow-through effect that’s then having on the environment and the economy. It comes back to this whole idea around people who are living in the here and now trying to chase the time and the dollar are just doing things to just sort things out right here, right now.
Then not actually going, okay, what’s my history? Then what’s my present and what does my future look like in terms of sustainability? So, then you have politicians and corporations who are chasing either fiscal cycles or political voting cycles. So, you see how this then translates into the way that they are acting and doing things to try to, I guess, make things better. But then they’re only making things better in one aspect in terms of, I guess, their economic opportunity. But then what happens over several years, or a few decades even as well, when you’ve now taken advantage of that thing and that thing in order to make money and generate economic opportunity? How do you then in 10, 20 years actually go back to that and try and revive that? And then the cycle has to go back through that again to actually regenerate the ecosystem. It’s like it doesn’t make sense. Why don’t you make the ecosystem and the environment work for you sustainably right here, right now, but not take more than you need?
Adam Murray: As you were talking about that, I’m just reflecting on myself as an individual, and the kind of the tugs that I have and what motivates me. Part of it is, I guess, being caught up in a lot of that culture and having a disconnection to nature and the environment and not really, I guess, feeling the direct impact of my decisions and my actions and yeah, I can sense that, wanting to change and needing to change, so that’s encouraging.
Liam Ridgeway: Yeah, absolutely. Then there’s a technology element to that as well. So how can we actually pass these knowledges through technology-based systems? So, then this type of information can be shared all across the world. We can come up with ways of being able to collaborate across Indigenous cultures and then outside of our cultures as well to share information around environmental management.
In fact, an interesting example actually is here in Australia, it’s a non-Indigenous example of, I forget his name, but he looked at how does he actually, he’s living in drought on farms for so many years. It’s on and off, but it’s more often like off than it is on in terms of, I guess, the amount of water that’s flowing through and different communities and the rain and things like that, that we’re not getting.
This one individual is looking at how do you actually use the environment to also sustain itself. So, he created this system of trees and weeds and things like that, that would flow through, that would sit across the river bed where his particular farm was. Then what would happen was those trees would then reroute water through the water table system, and that actually pretty much helped him maintain and regenerate his entire farm.
If you look at his farm from topographical and then you look at all the farms around his, his is the only one that’s like lush and green because he’s used this natural environment to be able to uplift his farm and his space. He’s been going around preaching this and people are not happy with his methods. I’m like, how can you not be happy? He’s leveraging the natural environment, what’s wrong with what he’s doing? So, I don’t understand why more people aren’t considering how you’ve leveraged the natural environment instead of creating a built environment to manipulate, I guess, sustainable, environmental and ecosystems.
Adam Murray: Last question for you and it’s around probably Indigitek in particular and how people who are listening to this, and predominantly the audience for this podcast is around people working inside digital businesses, or working inside a digital team inside an organisation. How can people best support in Indigitek?
Liam Ridgeway: People generally have a tendency to try to make it more complex than it needs to be in terms of the way that you engage with Indigenous community and organisations like Indigitek, for example. I guess one of the critical things is just to get in and listen and then have a conversation and then progress your relationship beyond that point. Don’t go on with any preconceived perspectives or notions of what Aboriginal people are or aren’t, and just go in with an open mind and connect and have conversations.
Because you learn so much from what our community is talking about. But then we also have the opportunity to then converse and start sharing stories and taking journeys together because as Indigitek we’re not an exclusively Indigenous organisation. We want all Australians and people outside of Australia as well to come on our journey, and share our journey. We can share their journey as well because we know that many people have many different experiences. Bits and pieces and gems of information, I guess, that they can share with us in our community to help us thrive and become bigger and more impactful.
There are things that we can teach as well to people who come into our space to help them with what’s going on in their lives. I think the other thing as well is really being able to ensure that, for us, we’re using this as an opportunity to talk to a few people who then go and talk to another bunch of people who then create this snowball effect. So even though people may not necessarily walk in the doors of an Indigitek event or a gathering, someone might come to an event and then take away a story or a series of stories.
Then when they’re sitting at the dinner table or on a night with their friends they can talk to, stories and things like that about things that they’ve actually heard and it’s second-hand, but it’s certainly stories from Indigenous people who you’re connecting with at an event like Indigitek. For us and Indigitek we really want to promote this idea of storytelling but a safe space for conversation as well.
It’s super important to make sure that we’re having a safe space so that people have the opportunity to learn. Because if you’re not actually creating a safe space and how can people ask those tough questions that, I guess, we might sometimes think might be a little bit ignorant, but then it’s kind of like, that’s because this is what people are generally exposed to, in terms of the bad news stories that get portrayed in the media, particularly.
That’s what we want to overcome at Indigitek is the ability for people to ask questions, the ability for our community to then share with people the good news stories because there are way more good news stories than there are bad news stories, and the mainstream media really just hype up the bad news stories and then you see that how that perpetuates in society and then people’s opinions of Indigenous people. So we really, as Indigitek, want to continue to overcome that even though we’re a STEM-based community, we’re also a community that’s actually working towards, I guess, creating more harmony between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia and creating pathways for us to be able to take that shared journey of progressing together forward.
Adam Murray: Liam, it’s awesome to hear. It’s inspiring to hear what you’re up to and your journey, and what it might enable in our culture as well. Thanks for taking the time to chat, to share.
Liam Ridgeway: Thank you.
Adam Murray: Cheers. Thank you very much for listening. If you’re interested in keeping up to date with what Cogent is up to, including when new episodes of this podcast come out, you can do that by subscribing to our blog updates at cogent.co/blog. And of course, to help us get the word out there about all the great digital businesses in Melbourne, you can help by rating and reviewing this podcast through your favourite podcast platform.
Finally, if you want to tell us about how your business is thriving or you know of another digital business that is thriving that you think we should hear about, the best way to do that is through emailing us at email@example.com. I’m Adam Murray and I do look forward to hearing about how your business is thriving.