23 October 2014

Developing our potential in the far-west desert

During the Winter break 2014, a select number of students were selected to participate in the University of Sydney Business School's Regional Industry Placement Program. Here, they share their insights on what they gained from the program.

Adapting to a brand-new environment

Joining the University of Sydney Business School's Regional (Broken Hill) Industry Placement Program and working as a member of a consulting team was a unique experience that we could never find elsewhere. Four of us came together and worked on 3 different projects, involving financial and legal advice for small business owners, and business plans for a commercial and a social business idea. Working on these projects helped us gain a deeper understanding of the difficulties and uncertainties of doing business in a rural and aging community. As our supervisor - a business owner in the area - told us, when you are in a small community, people tend to pull you down when you rise above the crowd.

Our team, our unit coordinator and our supervisor

We departed Sydney, bound for Broken Hill, during the final exam period which was somewhat stressful as we had to fulfil our working commitments while undertaking our exams at the same time. However, after flying on the smallest airplane some of us had ever seen, our IPP cohort arrived in  a kingdom forgotten by the outside world, Broken Hill.

Learning by doing

The majority of businesses in Broken Hill are small businesses, especially family-owned businesses. We felt a bit helpless at the beginning because we had not yet learnt much about start-up businesses in our degree. Adding to this was the fact that Broken Hill's isolated market is very different to more concentrated and saturated urban markets. But in this new environment, we learnt things that we could probably never have learnt had we only studied and worked in large cities.

By observing how our unit coordinator, Peter Vymys, communicated with clients, we learnt useful strategies to lead the conversation. Later on when we had to face the clients by ourselves, we could use such skills to effectively conduct meetings and attain the information that we needed.

Immersing ourselves in real business issues was not like sitting an exam where the information is provided to you. In fact, we had to identify clients’ needs and expectations, then gather sufficient information to give advice on the best course of action for our clients. Through this, we came to understand the importance of communication between consultants and clients. We even attended a cultural awareness workshop about Aboriginal culture and studied Aboriginal culture and history, in order to better understand the context underlying the problems that our client was facing. Whilst working on this project, we were greatly inspired by the Aboriginal peoples' positive attitude towards their history and future. Furthermore, by getting to know the locals, we gradually adapted to Broken Hill and discovered its unique beauty and identity.

Our client for the project

The beauty of Broken Hill

You never know who you might run into in a small community. In fact, we were pleasantly surprised to meet the Mayor of Broken Hill in a pub on a regular Friday night and received an exclusive invitation to visit the local mine (which was closed for maintenance). The people within Broken Hill seem to maintain qualities and virtues that those in big cities forget or overlook, given their fast-paced life. For example, we met friendly strangers who warmed our hearts with their generous offers, such as giving us a complimentary private museum tour, teaching us how to dance, inviting us over for dinners and movies, or allowing us to pick mandarins from their garden.

The Mayor of Broken Hill

One of the highlights within the IPP experience was perhaps the chance to travel. With the help of our dedicated unit coordinator, and other students sharing our accommodation, we hopped on our cars and drove around the town, exploring nature and viewing the clear night sky a few kilometres outside of town. We also stumbled across sacred Aboriginal rock art sites during our trek in Mutawintji National Park.

Getting out and about to see other parts of Broken Hill-Menindee Lake

Someone once said that stepping into Broken Hill is like going back to the 50s or 60s. We spent hours wandering in the museums, galleries and historic sites, learning about how the mine used to operate in the past; about how the Royal Flying Doctor Service started; or about how Pro Hart's artworks reflect the hardship of a mining town. We are also proud to become life members of the Silverton Hotel (located in Silverton, 26 kilometers north west of Broken Hill) after completing the mysterious 'pub challenge'. No life member is permitted to reveal anything about the challenge, so I will leave it to you to explore!

Pro-Hart's Rolls Royce

Leaving behind a legacy

6 weeks of placement had gone by so fast, and it was time for us to present our findings to our clients and say goodbye to Broken Hill. There were ups and downs in working with each other, but having overcome the obstacles that we faced, we each learnt more about ourselves, about teamwork and about leadership. We were all happy that although we gained so much from Broken Hill (new learnings, new perspectives, new friends, etc), we were still able to leave behind a legacy of having put together a business plan that would become the foundation for the businesses to build upon. We hope that one day, Broken Hill will be able to thrive and grow.

Returning to Sydney, my team and I all felt more confident and motivated to continue learning and developing ourselves so that each and every one of us can continue to contribute to improving the communities we live and work in.

Song Tran and Eleanor Liu
Current students at the University of Sydney Business School

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