Kylie-Lee Bradford: Forging New Paths for First Nations Business

October 24, 2022

We recently welcomed Kylie to the TDi team. Kylie brings a wealth of experience in entrepreneurship as well as rich heritage and story from her Kakadu roots. Kylie is passionate about opening up opportunities for First Nations business to support and give back to their communities.

 

Kylie-Lee Bradford officially joined the TDi team in July this year as our First Nations Lead, but she’s been a friend and partner with us for a number of years now. Bringing with her a rich experience from growing up on Country in Kakadu, Kylie’s knowledge of native botanicals and bush foods goes hand-in-hand with the stories of her ancestry and family history, and her entrepreneurial spirit, inspired by early experiences with her mother. Now, Kylie wants to ensure opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs and business abound.

We first met Kylie as a participant in the Laikim Sister cultural exchange, a partnership with Indigenous Business Australia, where we connected Indigenous women entrepreneurs from across the top end and PNG, with the goal of strengthening local trade partnerships and supply chains. [Read more about Kylie’s Laikim experience]. Kylie credits the roots of her entrepreneurial journey to her early childhood on Country in Kakadu, and most importantly, to her mother.

“I’d go with mum through the bush, collecting these different, beautiful nuts – and they’d have to be a certain shape – so she could make earrings out of them. We’d walk for hours, collecting, and then we would come back to camp and mum would show me how to smooth the nuts with a rock, and then she would show me how to grind down ochre and various plants for the dyes, boil the berries for pinks and purples – the whole process – so that she could make this really remarkable jewellery.”

When Kylie decided to hang up her hat on traditional employment in the airline industry after a period of maternity leave, she began to contemplate (as many women and mothers do) a shift into running her own business. It seemed only natural to Kylie, as an Indigenous mum of young kids, to partner with other First Nations women, including her own mother, to develop products for mum and baby, featuring the work of First Nations artists, and native botanicals. Her initial success in a then-young market saw her compete as a contestant on the program Shark Tank in 2015 where she was awarded a $20k loan, on top of a further $20k investment from two panellists, and she was able to tap into the publicity to gain ground:

“My first customers after the show were boutique stores in places like Byron Bay. And then as we grew, we sat very much in the international tourist space, where we began a wholesale model, in airports and overseas – places like Japan ­– and big information centres.” 

The early years of Kylie’s entrepreneurial journey were not without challenges. Many of the male corporate buyers in the international tourist market lacked understanding of not only the mum-and-baby product line, but the ethics behind the business itself: the focus on community, family, and on continuing support for the artists. For similar reasons, Kylie ultimately parted ways with the initial investors (from the Shark Tank program) in her business due to fundamental differences in approach: Kylie’s passion was – and still is – to invest back into local communities in ways consistent with her culture and values.

Despite the challenges of starting and running a business as a First Nations woman, Kylie’s journey has also brought with it a wealth of knowledge that she’s keen to pass on. From ethical manufacturing, supply-chain security, sourcing investment, and managing a steady cash-flow, to more nuanced skills like navigating and balancing the intricate nature of relationships between culture, community, and business, Kylie’s experience as a First Nations businesswoman and mentor holds incredibly broad value to everyone we work with at TDi.

“Often people I work with and mentor have this deadly idea, but they might be really confused and can’t see the path. So I’ll try to help get that light going and see if we can try to find that path. So I’ve taken on quite a few businesses and mentored them and helped navigate the roadblocks, because that’s my way of giving back my knowledge as well. If I can prevent them making huge mistakes that I’ve already navigated, then I want to share all of that knowledge as well.”

Throughout the triumphs and the challenges, for Kylie, her success has always been about the story, even as the focus of her business began to shift.

“We didn’t make any major pivots, but there was a gradual move into wellness and skincare, and away from the baby market. Because it wasn’t about the baby clothing, really. It was our story of Kakadu, our journey, and our knowledge. It was the magic of our understanding of culture and the magic of our community. And they [clients and buyers] felt like they were a part of Kakadu. Seven years ago, no-one seemed to care where things came from. No one cared if it was organic, no one cared who made it or what the story was. But we have seen a huge cultural shift. People want to be educated. There’s a lot more interest in native foods and botanicals, and I see this as a huge opportunity for other Indigenous businesses.” 

This is what drives Kylie on a fundamental level, and why she is such a good fit for TDi. As we collectively seek to champion self-determination and increase market access and opportunity for First Nations businesses, it’s vital that First Nations voices like Kylie’s are leading the charge.

Recently, Kylie found herself asking the question “What am I actually in business for, and how can I be part of the bigger picture? If I’m doing well, how can I help others do well?”

We are so thrilled to have Kylie as an integral member of the TDi team as we answer these questions on a practical level, and ensure that First Nations entrepreneurs and businesses continue to not only thrive, but create new pathways for others to walk.

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