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How this woman is using accounting to help Indigenous Australia close the financial gap

Nina Karlson, CPA Australia

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Shelley Cable has always known that accounting is more than a profession that serves the lives of individuals. It’s also a set of skills that can effect seismic social change.

Cable, a Wilman-Nyoongar woman from Perth who was recently appointed CEO of Generation One, part of the Minderoo Foundation – an organisation that works towards economic parity for Indigenous Australians – says she’s been aware of the power of finance for as long as she can remember. This awareness has helped set the course of her professional journey.

“My dad, who’s an entrepreneur, started multiple businesses while mum opened a bank account for me almost the day I was born,” Cable laughs.

“I always knew that I was going to get involved with accounting and finance in some shape or form. As a Nyoongar woman, the Indigenous community is a part of me and I see the effects that money mismanagement or lack of money has had on my community. So [I’m interested in] broader questions about money management – of which accounting forms one skill.”

At first, Cable, who studied commerce at Curtin University and, at 19, placed in the top five percent of 10,000 global applicants in Stanford University’s MBA Program, dreamed of being the first Indigenous female CEO of an ASX-listed company.

This aspiration took her to Shell, a multi-national organisation, where she worked as a financial analyst. But although her time at Shell helped her hone the commercial acumen she was hungry for, her connection with community felt out of reach.

“I came through Rio Tinto, where I worked throughout university and then went to Shell, which is highly regarded, too, in terms of how it tackles challenges and unknowns and problems,” she says.

“Back then, I wanted to have an international career, but for me working as a financial analyst, the community aspect was missing. At the time I was working at Shell, I was named Miss NAIDOC Perth.”

Miss NAIDOC Perth, a leadership program for young Aboriginal women, sees the winner become an ambassador for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community. Cable says that winning the prestigious competition, which is judged by community leaders and Elders, galvanised her desire to spark change using her newfound commercial acumen.

“[Winning Miss NAIDOC Perth] made me realise that I’d learned these financial skills and now it was time to go and help the community with it,” she says.

Around the same time, Cable came to realise that Indigenous accountants were severely underrepresented in the profession.

“There are approximately 200,000 qualified accountants in Australia, and of that, we know of around 56 that are Indigenous,” she says. "[To achieve parity] we should be sitting closer to 6000 [Indigenous accountants] which is three percent.”

This statistic motivated her to enrol in the CPA Program. This professional move, she says, has been invaluable because of its emphasis on teaching accounting standards and technical knowledge alongside “bigger-picture thinking” in arenas like strategy and leadership.

She started developing her ideas about financial inclusion, financial literacy and the ways in which cultivating these factors could put First Nations peoples on the path to self-determination. In 2017, she achieved a career milestone most people only dream about: the chance to present at the UN.

“I visited a particular sitting of the United Nations, the EMRIP or the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” says Cable, whose recommendations on financial literacy among Indigenous communities were accepted and formally endorsed.

“For the first time in its history, the topic for EMRIP was on Indigenous business and access to financial services, so it was perfect for an accountant to be there. Self-determination is everything – for us to be able to have power over our own lives and how we do business is so important. The realisation that my accounting background could help me make a difference at a United Nations level by supporting the rights of Indigenous people was pretty incredible.”

Prior to her current role, Cable has worked as a Senior Consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers Indigenous Consulting practice. There, she channelled her efforts in Indigenous employment and procurement.

“The best part of the job was the ability to put forward the voice of my community in rooms where we wouldn’t normally have a seat at the table and to talk to executives who want to make a difference,” she says.

But beyond procurement, Cable has become committed to addressing some of the anxieties that exist around money in Indigenous Australia. She says there are structural and historical barriers that have prevented many Indigenous communities from becoming financially literate.

Cable will delve into the ways in which financial literacy can change Australian society for the better, along with the part accountants can play when it comes to improving social inclusion at the CPA Congress in October this year.

She is also excited about using her accounting skills to help close the economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – the focus of a new role at Generation One. For Cable, this is the next step in her mission towards cultivating financial literacy among those who’ve been denied it.

“If you take a look at what money has done to Indigenous communities, you can start realising why we often don’t want anything to do with it – money is often associated with greed and that greed has torn apart many communities who have been trying to lift themselves out of poverty,” she explains.

“You soon start to realise that it’s not Indigenous people who are controlling the money that is meant for us. They’re not making the decisions about how to spend it. I think that the mistake people make is they see accounting as an end. But I see accounting as a skill set and a means towards whatever change you want to achieve.”

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