Growing up in a small town on the south coast of New South Wales, moving to Canberra for a job was a big deal for Yuin woman Melanie Harris.
Spending her youth running around with her cousins and extended family, moving to Canberra felt like she was moving countries.
Now based in Kuala Lumpur, Ms Harris is Australia’s first female Indigenous trade and investment commissioner and has ambitious plans to bring Indigenous culture and companies to the ASEAN region.
Harris said the Australian landscape was a lot less accepting of First Nations people than they are now.
“I think there was a bit of time, especially when I was growing up, where it was a little harder to say you’re Aboriginal,” she said.
“It wasn’t easy being Aboriginal and I’ve got a white parent…and some kids would say ‘you’re a coconut’.
“And some kids would say ‘you can’t do this because you’re Aboriginal’ so there was always a struggle between two worlds.”
Now, Harris said her Indigenous heritage was what set her apart from other trade commissioners.
“I’m very different from a normal trade commissioner – a lot of other trade commissioners either did it at university, or they had a whole international experience, or their parents were posted overseas when they were little,” she said.
“I have a very different background from every other trade commissioner but that’s another thing that makes me unique.
“I think my Indigenous upbringing, makes me sort of empathise and understand and appreciate different cultures in Malaysia.”
Harris said the idea of being a trade commissioner seemed like it was out of reach, but she was motivated to work towards a posting after an inspiring chat with a previous CEO.
“I just didn’t think it was an option for me. People would ask me if I was ever going to go for a posting and I said ‘no I work in HR that’s what I do’,” she said.
“And then a previous CEO said ‘why not, you’re really good with clients, you’re really good at building relationships’,”
“I gave her 10 reasons why I couldn’t do it and she still said well I think you can and it was really lighting that fire underneath me that made me think, you know maybe I can do it.
“So I threw my hat in the ring and here I am two years later.”
Since being trade commissioner, Harris said she’s loved showing the Malaysian people different Indigenous products and ingredients.
“We did a trade show a couple weeks ago and brought a whole heap of Indigenous products to market,” she said.
“And people were really interested, but the thing I found heart-warming and what spurred me on was people said ‘what I really want is the Indigenous chef to come out and teach us properly’.
“So now I’ve got to organise a visit for an Indigenous chef to come out and teach a whole heap of people how to use Indigenous ingredients.”
Despite being so far away from her hometown, Harris said her role as trade commissioner has been received so well by the Malaysian people.
“Once there was a general manager of a public hospital and I was talking to him about health and what we could do and Australia’s capability in the health space,” she said.
“And I gave him my spiel about Aus trade and being the first Australian, female Indigenous trade commissioner.
“And he pulled out his phone flicking through the photos of all the boomerangs he has in his house from every visit he’s been to Australia.
“He was so proud of it and really got into it…but it just felt so good that I could be very far away from my hometown and be proudly saying that I was Indigenous and have somebody be so receptive to it.”
Harris hopes to continue to bring more Indigenous products and businesses to Malaysia and the ASEAN region during her tenure as trade commissioner.