PEOPLE: How Cherie Johnson built her business, lost it overnight during the pandemic, and started again

Five years ago, Cherie Johnson started her business, Speaking in Colour, to enable and improve education around Aboriginal perspectives. After several successful years of business growth, the pandemic led to a significant business downturn, and Cherie had to start again.

In this interview, Cherie shares why she started Speaking in Colour in the first place, and how she has perservered through tough times to ensure the business is still moving forward today.

  • What prompted you to start your own business? 

Speaking in Colour Pty Ltd was established in 2016 with the vision to support educators, and embrace and implement Aboriginal perspectives into the classroom. It is mandatory for all teachers to do so however, there are simply not enough local resources to support the teachers in doing this well.

The business started when I was on leave from teaching with my young children. Project work creating resources at night allowed me the opportunity to stay at home with my young family and still make a difference in education by supporting my colleagues.

  • How did you determine the business model and services for the business? How did you know whether there was a market for what you were offering? 

There are several arms to the business. The first was the professional development and resources for the teachers. This started organically as several of the projects I worked on in the early stages were for galleries, creating pre- and post-exhibition resources for the teachers to support the students visiting. This helped engage the students in their learning, developing a greater understanding of the content while the teachers felt empowered by the approved teaching support material.

Demand drove the supply and diversification of the resources, leading into education kits, cultural programs at schools linked to key learning area (KLA) outcomes and further endorsed professional development.

From this place we had enquires from the business, government and corporate sectors. Over time we refined our offerings, which we continue to diversify and modify to suit geographic location, objectives, and fit for the organisation size including online offerings.

Today our span crosses preschool professional development right up to the corporate space with the aim to support organisations’ and individuals’ cultural education journeys through our training and cultural experiences.

  • What have been your biggest challenges with running your own business? 

Learning how to run a business while balancing the why, that is making sure the impact we want to achieve is in the forefront of our mind. It’s one thing to work in your business, it’s another to work on it well. Understanding billable hours, time and money budgets, working smarter by understanding your demographic and how to make the impact you hope you can.

  • How did the pandemic impact your business? 

Massively, we lost 100% of our business overnight.

So, we took the opportunity to get busy and work on all the research and development we had wanted to do for ages. Fortunately, one of our large contracts advised we could continue with our training contract if we could go online. For a long time I had wanted to create an online option to supplement and support our professional development for teachers and business/government – here was the opportunity. Within three weeks we had over 10 hours of content created and at pilot stage. We continued to create and with a brilliant team we were able to deliver the contract better than we had originally expected.

Post-COVID, if that is where we are, we are back to delivering programs and products we had pre-COVID, however we now also have several other online options we are constantly refining.

  • In your view, how did the events of 2020 impact the way Australians view Aboriginal culture? Has this impacted the way you run your business?

There is a growing awareness of injustices and rightly so. I have found the majority of Australians are surprised when taught the real history of this country and surprised at the level of racism, systematic disadvantage and disparity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people still evident today despite an individual’s socioeconomic status. The #Blacklivesmatter movement, the Intellectual property and copyright debate over the Aboriginal flag, the #wearitblackwednesdays are all people movements we should be aware of. This is growing.

Generally, we have found people are hungry to understand how can they be part of the solution. Our recommendation is diversifying your viewing, reading and listening. Look to the Aboriginal authors, story tellers and journalists to help challenge and shape your understanding.

At Speaking in Colour, a large part of what we do is support business and individuals do exactly this. We now provide online weaving experiences for anyone to participate in. Via our online shop we have two Creative Kids options, whereby you can use your Creative Kids vouchers to purchase two packs which are posted to you, all inclusive of the voucher value. We provide cultural capacity training for groups and individuals. Our cultural immersion wellness and team building sessions have become a very popular way for teams to learn and connect with each other post-COVID.

We hope to continue to make a difference and are honoured every time we are invited into workplaces, especially when we have been referred by our community to represent our people.

About the expert

Cherie Johnson is a proud Gamilaroi and Weilwun woman from Northern NSW, who resides in Newcastle, and participates as an active member of the Awabakal Community. Daughter of Dawn Conlan, Granddaughter of Rachel Darcy, and great granddaughter of Charlotte Wright.

Cherie is Founder and Owner of Speaking in Colour, an Aboriginal education and training company based in the Hunter region providing: training, cultural experiences and Aboriginal education resources for Corporates, Government and educational sectors.

On leave from her Visual Arts and photography teaching position Johnson is currently a PHd candidate and casual lecture at the University of Newcastle in Aboriginal culture and Education.

Image description: Cherie is wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt and is standing in front of a light brown wall.