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A Force for Good: The Story of Dick Estens empowering indigenous Australians through business

Dick Estens is a man of many talents. On the one hand, he is a rugged farmer who has spent his entire life tending to the land, but on the other, he is a fierce advocate for Australia’s indigenous people, determined to empower them through education and mental support.

It was this passion that led him to start the Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES) in 1997.  This innovative program uses a school-based trainee model to help indigenous Australians enter the workforce. Rather than relying on an executive structure, Dick built AES on the principle of mentorship, a decision that has proven to be highly successful.

Throughout his career, Dick has had a passion for farming and has had experience growing grain and cotton. He has also held positions such as Director and Treasurer of Moree Health Service and Director of Barwon Health Service.

However, what sets Dick apart is his commitment to advocating and empowering Indigenous Australians through education and mental support. He has been recognized for his efforts with multiple awards, including the Human Rights Medal in 2004 and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2009.

Over the past 25 years, the program has helped many indigenous people complete school-based traineeships and enter the workforce. With more than 80 per cent of trainees who complete six months or more never returning to unemployment, the AES is a shining example of how mentorship can change lives.

But Dick didn’t stop there. In 2008, he expanded his impact by branching into the citrus industry, purchasing half of Grove Juice. His business acumen and dedication to mentorship have not only helped him succeed in the agricultural industry but also in improving the lives of many Indigenous Australians.

In 2011, Dick took his dedication to the indigenous community to new heights by opening Yaamu Ganu, a not-for-profit Aboriginal art gallery and first nations-operated café in Moree. This unique establishment not only showcases the stunning artwork of local indigenous artists but also serves as a community hub for people to come together and learn about the rich culture and history of Australia’s first peoples.

The beginning

“One of the recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was to set up an Indigenous promotion committee,” Dick Estens recalled. “In 1991, I was asked to join an Aboriginal Promotion Committee to look at improving prospects for Aboriginal people in Moree.”

“We started an Aboriginal employment program under the Gwydir Valley Cotton Growers at the beginning of 1997,” he continued. “A big issue was that Aboriginal people weren’t finishing school. They didn’t have a vision of what they could achieve in life as there was little to no career path thinking in their families.

“They couldn’t get jobs, and crime and social disadvantage were climbing. Kids were leaving school early with no clear vision or direction for their lives. People were demanding more punishment for the crimes being committed, and no one was addressing the issue of Aboriginal employment.”

A Force for Good: The Story of Dick Estens empowering indigenous Australians through business

“In 2000, our family took the issue on and registered the Aboriginal Employment Strategy Limited (AES),” he said. “We set out to see if we could make a difference. It wasn’t easy selling a commodity that nobody wanted, The Aboriginal Jobseeker. We realised it had to be about building self-esteem, pride, empowering people and their communities.”

“It took me three days a week for 13 years to build the company before I could step back from it,” he added. “It guaranteed I worked every weekend on my own business.”

“An early vision of the team at the AES was to introduce an Indigenous school-based traineeship program,” he said. “The kids worked one day a week in the banking industry and during their school holidays. It became a part of their HSC, and they would leave school with an HSC result and a Cert III in Financial Literacy. Aboriginal kids dressed in bank uniforms leaving school to work in a bank positively impacted other kids in their schools and communities.”

AES has seen thousands of indigenous people complete school-based traineeships and build successful career paths, empowering their families and becoming role models in their communities. 

Giving back to the community: The Yaamu Ganu Centre

Indigenous Australians face unique challenges in the job market, including a lack of education and training and difficulty obtaining a driver’s license. These factors, coupled with low skill levels, can make it difficult for indigenous Australians to find and maintain employment. 

Dick Estens knew firsthand the challenges that indigenous Australians faced in the job market. That’s why he founded the Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES), an organisation that provides mentoring and customised training for individuals to ensure they are employment ready.

But he didn’t stop there. To support the Moree community, where the AES began, he opened the Yaamu Ganu Centre in 2011. Yaamu Ganu Centre has now become a highly successful centre for selling Aboriginal art nationally and internationally, creating an income stream for Aboriginal people living in regional and remote Australia, and helping the wider community understand Aboriginal culture, heritage and how they see their land.

As a Director at Grove Juice, a 100 per cent Australian family-owned fresh juice processor, Dick saw yet another opportunity to empower the indigenous community. He partnered with the AES and Warlukurlangu Artists from a Central Australian Art Centre to create a limited-edition range of juices that celebrate the artwork of leading indigenous artists.

Through AES, Yaamu Ganu Centre, and his partnership with Grove Juice, Dick was determined to break down the barriers that were holding back indigenous Australians and help them achieve their full potential. He knew that by providing mentorship, training, and economic opportunities, he could empower indigenous Australians to build a better future for themselves and their communities.

“The Aboriginal Employment Strategy (AES) core client is businesses. It is about visiting businesses, building relationships and empowering our candidates and staff members. We operate like a recruitment company,” he said. 

“It is 100 per cent managed by Aboriginal people who offer support, mentoring and training to indigenous Australians into jobs and career path development.

“This starts with assisting in the development of a resume, and career plan, identifying the best careers for each person, interview coaching and providing support in their personal lives to ensure they feel supported in their training and employment. The AES is about Aboriginal people visiting businesses and building relationships. 

“It also continues to offer school-based traineeships and school-based apprenticeships, giving students the opportunity to gain practical work experience and skills from year 10 to year 12. Upon graduation, they are mostly offered a full-time position or the opportunity to complete tertiary education. 

“Full-time traineeships and apprenticeships also assist Indigenous Australians being able to complete a Certificate II to Advanced Diploma.”

“Our Grove team wanted to release the limited edition ‘Aboriginal Art Series’ on all our Grove two-litre juice bottles with a percentage of profits going back to the Warlukurlangu artists, their communities and the AES to add value to their communities and empower the artists.”

In Dick’s opinion, the key to long-term sustainable success in closing the Indigenous employment gap was working in partnership with indigenous communities rather than telling them what to do. 

He emphasised that it was important to understand their unique challenges and issues and to work together to build self-esteem, empowerment, pride and a can-do attitude within their communities.

“Our family set out 26 years ago to promote and build wealth for those less fortunate and give value to remote communities. We strive to do this by educating, empowering and caring, just like we care for our groves, the environment, our people and their communities.

“It’s not just about providing jobs; it’s about providing meaningful and sustainable career opportunities that will improve the lives of indigenous Australians and their communities. It’s about creating a pathway for success and building a foundation for future generations to thrive.

Dick has no plans of slowing down as an activist. At 67 years young, he has just completed a 13-day Chairman’s Adventure Hike in the Everest region to raise much-needed funds for the Australian Himalayan Foundation.

“We believe that through mentorship, education and economic empowerment, we can truly close the Indigenous employment gap and create a more equitable society. We are committed to this cause and will continue to work with indigenous communities to create a brighter future for all.”

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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