How Towcha is addressing Indigenous representation in IT

How Towcha is addressing Indigenous representation in IT

Alan Holmes, founder of the Melbourne-based IT services provider, discusses working with Aboriginal suppliers, Indigenous community projects and surviving through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Credit: Dreamstime

One hundred and three years ago, an Indigenous woman known as Maria Towcha was laid to rest 51km south of Bundaberg. 

Such was her legacy among the European settlers of the Childers settlement, she was said to have been gifted a breastplate with her name engraved by the newcomers. 

Today her legacy and name live on through the Melbourne IT services provider Towcha Technology and through Maria’s descendent Alan Holmes, who has made it his mission to boost Indigenous representation among his community. 

A Gubbi Gubbi man, the former Telstra manager founded the Microsoft and Dell partner in 2016, looking to both fill a gap for digital and infrastructure services and carry on his great grandmother’s name. 

“IT is not a sector that is that well-known for Aboriginal people, so we are working to fix those barriers, both through our suppliers and internal representation," he said.

“We try to improve economic outcomes for other Aboriginal businesses by creating essentially our own marketplace of other Aboriginal businesses who we buy products and services from. From a proportion of the staff perspective, we're over-representing but this is still something we’re starting our journey on.” 

As an entirely Indigenous-owned company, Towcha now employs 12 people and is certified as an Indigenous Supplier with Supply Nation. It is also a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Chamber of Commerce, Kinaway, and part of the Indigenous Defence Consortium, which delivers nation-building defence projects. 

“[This is for] those projects are looking to have a 3 per cent Indigenous spend target,” Holmes explained. “When you're talking about a large infrastructure project of $100 million dollars, that's $3 million potential opportunities for Aboriginal businesses to be procured from in that area. But that's what really what they that's what that's just based on models. “ 

From a customer perspective, Towcha is one of only two-dozen Supply Nation businesses on the Digital Transformation Agency’s digital marketplace, through which it has gained several government contracts, including with Services Australia and Bureau of Meteorology. 

Although run-of-the-mill IT contracts remain Towcha’s bread and butter, customer projects linked to improving the lives of Aboriginal communities register high on the agenda. 

One of Towcha’s largest software projects is with Community First Development, for which it has built a number of apps for Aboriginal communities. It also has created a data capture app for the West Arnhem Land Regional Council and another for capturing data of domesticated animals in remote communities.  

Like many IT providers, Towcha has not found the past year without its hurdles, with customer retention subsiding customer acquisition for the present. However, for Holmes, the focus paid off for Towcha, with both customers and Towcha better able to support each other during the worst of the pandemic.  

“Customer cash flow obviously was an issue,” he explained. “They still spent the same amount, but over a longer period. But that actually meant we were able to do more for them.   

“The corporate customers we work with have been very supportive of what we're doing. It's not easy because we are a small business and not all of these organisations are necessarily set up to support businesses of our scale and size, but they've been doing it anyway. 

“We thought we would just have to cover costs over that period just to see what happened. But it intuitively worked for us by increasing our capacity of existing staff and then having more capacity to take on new work, because the work that we'd have planned was over a longer period.” 

Looking forward into 2021, Holmes is perhaps less optimistic than his NSW counterparts, having witnessed the worst of the pandemic in Victoria.  

Sticking to Towcha’s core services will for now remain a top of the agenda, while trying to recruit fresh talent into its ranks. And although as a small business, Towcha is competing on a big field for a small talent pool, Holmes is confident in the company’s culture and its potential attraction.  

“It’s a competitive field but we've been able to create a pretty good culture. I've been quite surprised by how important that is to the marketplace,” he said.  

"I'm really surprised by the sort of generations coming through who put culture and ethos first rather than just going to another international firm or ASX top 200 company.” 

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