“Our lives as kids were pretty tough, we definitely lived below the poverty line,” Ochre Workforce Solutions founder Joanne Pellew tells us. “My mum’s three brothers all lived in Merredin [WA] at the same time and using their hunting skills, they kept us fed with kangaroo and rabbit, which was our staple diet. The night hunting trips were a family occasion, with Mum and all of us kids going along for the ride, even though the Wheatbelt winters are bitterly cold.”
Growing up in the small country town of Goomalling, 120 kilometres northwest of Perth, was far from anything resembling easy for Joanne, the only daughter of then six sons in her extended family.
“We only had a tiny two-bar electric heater that us four kids would try to squeeze around on the cold winter mornings. My shoes would get so worn out my big toe would be sticking out of a hole at the end as one pair of shoes had to last until they fell apart.”
At a young age, she assumed a bread-winning responsibility within her family, scoring for local footy matches for $15 at weekend games, or later, as a teenager, taking up several casual jobs and giving her earnings to her mother. It’s unsurprising, then, that the importance and empowerment that comes with employment has contributed to her latest business project.
“I know how much a job means to any individual,” she explains. “The improvement in self-esteem, feeling a part of society, having a purpose, moving out of poverty, providing for your family and the positive flow-on effects to all areas of your life… simply by having a job,” she explains. “[These] elements are multiplied by 100 times for an Indigenous person. This is especially the case if they have grown up in ingrained poverty, been through the justice system, been marginalised, disadvantaged, discriminated against their whole lives.
“I get it because I come from that life. I have been blessed with an ability to take all the negatives that have happened to me and turn them into positives.”
After founding her first business, Aboriginal art emporium Jorum Dreaming, out of Broome at just 21, Joanne has become a fully-fledged entrepreneur, culminating in the 2010 creation of Ochre Workforce Solutions. Originally created as an aggregator of jobs for the Indigenous population, the company has placed over 900 indigenous Australians into employment and made an impressive revenue of $6 million in 2016. In the seven years since its launch, a series of service add-ons have also been created by Joanne in order to bolster her support of local communities. Not only does Ochre collate jobs, but it also offers nationally accredited training through their iWork platform, and also pre-employment training, mentorship and consulting services.
“My problem is trying to use self-control to stop creating new businesses,” she insists. “I can flow between all of my different projects from minute to minute. I can take a call or answer an email about Ochre, then a call about iWork, then a call about any of the others.”
Still, as wide-reaching as the influence of her self-made business has been, Joanne is realistic about just how much her personal passion has driven her relentless pursuit of successful, fulfilling projects.
“I’d never advise anyone to take my approach to business as it’s not possible for most women. I’m in the most ideal stage of my life where I have rich life experiences, learnt a lot of information along the way, my two kids are now adults, I don’t have any pets or partners that need my attention,” she explains. “I don’t concern myself about work-life balance, I don’t take planned holidays, I work on weekends, late at night or at 5am in the morning because I get so much enjoyment out of it. I don’t consider it ‘work’.”
Joanne’s dedication to her business and its wider cause has certainly paid off, even if she’s put seven years’ worth of “blood, sweat and tears” into building the self-funded business from the ground up. Now, she’s not just attracting a sizeable amount of Indigenous job hunters, she’s also got considerable attention from government officials for purposes wider than just employment.
“Some government officials have seen the benefit in utilising the iWork job site to not only advertise their Indigenous roles, but to also use that large amount of traffic to collect data; that data will then be used to form policies around certain Indigenous areas,” Joanne says. “That is especially exciting to know my platform is not just a jobs board but a collection point of data to create more relevant Indigenous policies.”
And this, at its core, is really what drives Joanne and her business.
“I’ve had to deal with discrimination… negative comments, judgement and everything else that comes with a level of success,” Joanne says. “But they all need to know that I’m not stopping; I’m making my way forward despite what they say because I have a mission to complete. I have an army of people behind me who need me to create change for them.”