• Sharon Winsor's company 'Indigiearth' has become one of the most soughtafter brands. (Family Rules)Source: Family Rules
Sharon Winsor, founder of indigiearth, tells her emotional story of surviving family violence to becoming the CEO of one of Australia's most sought after brands.
By
Laura Morelli

16 Jan 2017 - 5:27 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2017 - 8:57 PM

A little red headed, freckled face, proud Aboriginal girl from Gunnedah was always bound to be bullied at school. That she could handle. But what came after, the death, depression, domestic violence, kidnapping, harassment was enough to send anyone down a dark path. Instead, Sharon Winsor established Indigiearth,  a showcase of Australian native products at its best.

Family Life:

I was born in Gunnedah and spent the first 12 years of my life growing up in near Coonabarabran, in a little place called Rocky Glen. I had an Aboriginal mother from Gulargambone, and a white father from Coonabarabran. I grew up with five of my mothers younger siblings, who aren’t that, much older than me, due to my grandmother passing away suddenly at the age of 40. My mum and dad done everything they could to keep everyone together so that the welfare didn’t take anyone away. That was the big fear during those years. We grew up extremely poor, with my parents doing all sorts of work to provide for the family. Everyone contributed with the work to be done for an income, some more than others. We all helped with logging and barking logs to sell for fence posts and other things, we walked for miles along the highway collecting cans and then cash them in when we went to town once a month.

At the time, I didn’t know that we were so poor. I thought that was the norm and everyone lived like us. I loved Rocky Glen and remember always crying to go home when we went away. Life was tough there, but I didn’t know any better. My favorite memories were the fun things Mum would take us to do like collecting bush fruits (my fav, Five corners). We always had to go early before the emus would beat us to the bushes. Yabbing in dams and creek beds, having a large family and everyone being together.

School was tough - I had a group of friends but a little red headed, freckled face, proud Aboriginal girl was bound to be bullied.

My dad come from a family of 15 biological brothers and sisters, plus 3 other children my grandparents raised. My grandparents, and some of dad’s brothers lived at Rocky glen in little shacks or very rough houses that was built by themselves. Nine brothers all struggled and supported each others family to get ahead. They worked their own saw mill up in the scrub and made enough money until they could buy their first old truck so that a little more money could be made. Then a second truck was bought for my dad. They progressed to being able to do some contract work and cart other materials, grains etc for other farmers in the area. My mum learnt to drive trucks to also help out, then a few years later also progressing to a second semi trailer that my mum drove to help out. There were many years spent growing up in semi trailers travelling to wherever for work. But collecting bush fruits was always still a part of growing up for me, I’d look for them where ever we travelled to.

The year I turned 12, we moved into Gunnedah and there was a different kind of life that I discovered that I never knew. I finished school at St Mary’s College in Gunnedah. School was tough, I had a small group of awesome friends that stuck together, but a little red headed, freckled face, proud Aboriginal girl was bound to be bullied. Apart from my own family, I was too white to be Aboriginal by other people and too Aboriginal to be white. I never told my parents about the bullying and I concealed the hurt and pain for many years. My parents were still struggling to make a living, and I didn’t want to add to any stress or seem like I was ungrateful for what they do.

Changes:

A neighbour of ours had a horse and horses soon became my best friend. I use to borrow the horse and go for rides and pretty much taught myself how to ride this horse. Soon after, an uncle gave me my very own first horse. Mum and dad joined me and my younger brother to pony club to learn more. We were probably the worst looking kids from the scrub on horses, had extremely old horse gear to ride in, hand me downs and fixed up things that people threw out. But I loved it! My love for horses and riding developed into a competitive sport. I got a new horse that could take me to new levels. Soon I was an experienced show rider and travelled away every weekend to compete. Winning many events and championships. In 1991 I went to New Zealand with the Gunnedah pony club team to compete for two weeks.

"It was a hard time in my life - torn between two parents, the love for being out bush but the hate for Sydney."

I returned from New Zealand to some shocking news for me that my parents had separated and my mum had left and went to Sydney. I knew that there was some problems with my parents, but wasn’t aware that It was that bad. I was devastated. My dad drove us to Sydney to look for Mum, we had no idea where she was. When she was found, I was left in Sydney with her. I hated Sydney so much and wanted to go home. It was another hard time of my life. Torn between two parents, the love for country and the hate for Sydney. For the next two years I was back and forwards from Sydney and Gunnedah and my horses. Eventually I had to do something else with my life. Mum couldn’t afford to help me keep my horse in Sydney and I basically had to give up my passion.

Growing up:

My mum went back to finish some education as she dropped out of school at the age of 15. She became a nurse and started working as an assistant nurse and soon progressed to an enrolled nurse. I was encouraged to become and nurse and was able to gain entry into nursing and University of Sydney through Indigenous programs. I spent almost two years in nursing and then realised that it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had grown up but I still had no idea of what I really wanted to do. I decided to get a job and became the Aboriginal outreach worker for Wesley mission in Darlinghurst. Starting this job was probably the biggest culture shock in my life. It was there I saw the existence of homelessness, drugs and everything else. I realised I had led a fairly sheltered life from things. I was living in a little bed sit flat in Auburn and had to find my way in life. I had only just turned 18. By the time I turned 19 I had met a man I fell in love with. An Aboriginal man from Brewarrina. He asked me to marry him and I felt on top of the world. I was turning 20, married and was pregnant with our first child. Life was good. At this time, we also decided to start a business, my husband - a traditional dancer & artist, and I still held a fire and passion for bush foods & cooking. We started a business called 'Thullii Dreaming.'

Ups and Downs:

My world soon changed, I was crushed when my son was stillborn. I went full term and went to hospital to give birth, then was told at induction time that he wasn’t alive. We named him Ngukirri – meaning “to give” in Ngemba language. Post natal depression soon consumed my life and I was lost. I was unable to go back to work and life was on hold.  Just over a year later I fell pregnant again - a terrifying time for the following nine months. I gave birth to a healthy little girl in 1999, on my own birthday. I was given a little gift back to me. Her name is Kirralaa meaning ‘star’.

I was alive with excitement again for the first week, then my husband walked out on us. He couldn’t live with a lie that he had been cheating and wasn’t happy. My life was an emotional roller-coaster again. I was totally in love with my baby girl and devastated about my husbands lies. A month passed and my husband come back home, wanting to repair the marriage. My longing for a happy family took him back and we patched things up. When Kirralaa was six months old, I went back to work and I was employed at Centrelink, Mt Druitt in the Indigenous unit, and soon progressed to the team leader of the Aboriginal unit. After 12 months we moved to Cobar where my husband wanted to go. I then fell pregnant again. A terrifying 9 months consumed my life again, I then gave birth to a handsome little boy Maliyan meaning ‘wedgetail eagle’. I was kept in hospital for 3 weeks with him, as my depression was becoming more evident, I had also developed high blood pressure which was concerning.

We continued with business in Cobar and opened a small cultural shop with art, crafts, artifacts as well as building up a dance group in Cobar. Business was a little slow and my husband got a job in the National Parks, which was his dream job to be working in NP’s, on his own traditional homelands. But that meant lots of time alone at home with two new babies, not a lot of friends, and no family in Cobar. My love for horses was longing and I was desperate to re-connect. Many years had passed but my dad still kept my two favourite ponies in Gunnedah with the hope that I would one day move home with my children, and we could ride again. He let me have the ponies and I moved them to Cobar so that my children could learn to ride. Myself and the kids spent many days by ourselves just with the horses. I lasted about 12 months in Cobar before I wanted to leave. We left and moved back to Sydney. I began working at University of Western Sydney and was enjoying being back at work again. Still coping with affects of depression, between work, children and horses - I was coping.

I kept the business alive and was slowly building it up as well with catering, performing and cultural education. My husband took a dancing contract in Alice Springs with another performing arts group so off he went for six months and again we were by ourselves. Things were becoming a strain on our relationship. He came back, I gave up work at the University and he done some casual work, while I concentrated on business. I decided to go back to study and enrolled at Macquarie University in Adv Dip Community Management. I graduated in 2004 coming out of the course with academic of the year award in 2004. 

Domestic Violence:

Things took another turn when our arguments became more frequent which soon after, turned into physical violence. It continued for about 12 months before it almost killed me. During this time I was planning my escape, one day at a time.

He threatened me with more and more violence and I was terrified. I tried to continue to live a normal life - pretending to him and to many other people that it was ok, but I was really dying inside. He never really liked the horses or anything that made me happy for that matter. He threatened once to kill my horses just to be nasty to me. At that time I also decided that I had to let my beloved best friends go to protect them. I had secretly donated the horses to vision valley – riding for disabled in Dural. I continued to go to the property where they were and played with other horses there. He had no idea that I had let them go, or that they were part of my escape plan.

Sometime during the following couple of months unbeknown to me, he sensed that I was planning on leaving, so he snatched the kids from school. He was gone for two whole weeks before the police were able to find him and recover the children. He went as low as also stealing Ngukirri’s ashes and continued to play mind games with me – he said he spread his ashes without me and said he would never tell me where he put them. After 11 months of not knowing and always hoping that I would find him, I was able to find his urn/ ashes in the boot of his car without him seeing me get the keys that he dropped. I knew that when he realised he would get violent and start threats, which he did. But by that time, I was already on my way to Gunnedah to take Ngukirri home to my dad, where he thought I wouldn’t take him.

"He even harassed my family, set fire to cars out the front of my disabled brother’s house and much more."

His continued harassment turned into another major violent attack, which then sent him to prison for nine months. I hit rock bottom with depression again. After quite a few months and much needed support from my mother I threw myself into business to be able to rebuild a life. There were many days I couldn’t get myself out of bed from depression. It wasn’t long before he got out of prison and he was even more angry than before, wanting revenge for him going to prison. He terrorised me for months and months. Assaulted me again and dished out many threats. I used to sit up all night worried that he would break into the house, late at night and try to kill me, and then get some sleep during the day when the kids were at school. He harassed my family, set fire to cars out the front of my disabled brother’s house, out the front of my mother’s house and much more. This went on for about 12 months until he took a job in Alice Springs again and left. I felt a little bit of relief. He would always let me know that he was going to make my life miserable, he wanted to see me in the gutter and he threatened to break my back so I could never ride horses again.

Business Boom:

Business started to flourish and I was making an affordable living for myself and my children, catering and developing my bush tucker product range. I had dreamt up that eventually wanted my own retail line of products, but I needed to work hard to put a lot of money and research into that. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of support for Aboriginal businesses. I had to do the hard yards. I was 30-years-old and had big goals. In 2010 I won my first business award in Sydney, winning a supplier diversity award for work done with Marriott hotels.

"I won NSW Business leader of the year award and become the first Aboriginal person to win the award."

Five years quickly passed and I was thinking of my next chapter. My dad passed away suddenly, he was my biggest fan. It crushed me.  At this time I was feeling run down and exhausted from city life, pressure, depression and feeling lost. After many times of wanting to leave Sydney, I finally done it. I decided to pack up and move us to Mudgee. We moved not knowing anyone and not having any family. Mudgee was an ideal spot for me to start again. A growing food and wine region, nice town, close to Sydney, family in Gilgandra, family in Gunnedah and Coonabarabran. So I did it.

April 2012 we were living in Mudgee. Within six months I registered a business name that I had thought of 15 years earlier ‘Indigiearth’. I was also able to concentrate on developing and branding a new business. At the end of 2012 I supplied Australia gift packs to Qantas for Ellen De Generes' visit to Australia and received great feedback from her very own personal stylist with all my products!

In 2013 I was excited to launch Indigiearth and a complete retail line of food, beverages & skincare products. It was also the year I met a local Mudgee guy and started a steady relationship. My children were flourishing in Mudgee at school and in sports. Soon after the launch of my brand I was on top of the world with a corporate chain company taking my products into 145 stores across the country. I had employed eight staff, had a warehouse and a retail outlet in Mudgee.

"I had retail products in over 100 independent stores across the country, with another 50 stores to come on board in early 2017."

At the end of 2013 I won central west NSW business leader of the year award with NSW business chamber. I then went on to win NSW Business leader of the year award and become the first Aboriginal person to win the award. Once again my now ex-husband was ready to strike. He seen that I was not in the gutter where he wanted me so he attempted to take me to court and sue me for $125,000. He wanted a share of what I had achieved and claimed that he contributed to my success in the earlier years. It was a stressful time, he wasn’t successful with his claim and it was throw out – but that made him angry and he threatened that he would then take it out his own way and make me pay for it. Another AVO was issued and he put me on edge again for another 12 months.

Back on the horse:

Business can take a turn at any time and I was not exclusion to this. The corporate chain company suddenly decided to end its Indigenous program after 12 months which, left me a warehouse full of stock and nowhere to go, huge debts and I was left wounded again. I was determined not to let it beat me, and kept reminding myself that I had been through worse and that I had two amazing children that I couldn’t let down. I struggled through the next 16 months of debt and keeping the business afloat. The black clouds of depression crept up many times and there were many days I just wanted to give up.

2016 seen a much better year in business for me, I was finally getting back on my feet financially. Personally I was also able to really start finding myself again and what makes me really happy. Going bush has been a big part of that as well as getting myself horse! Between the horse, my kids and often going bush, it’s been my therapy to happiness again. My children and I continue to live by ourselves, I am still in a relationship, but unable to live with a partner in the same house as yet.

Business is how I strive to achieve. My children get involved with the business with catering, performing and other help. Kirralaa will be turning 18 in April and Maliyan will be 16 in March. They are the happy. They had to endure a lot from family breakdown, violence and also struggling along side me in business but they’ve been my greatest support.

By the end of 2106 we had achieved new milestones, we had attended our first international food expo in Hong Kong, I had retail products in over 100 independent stores across the country, with another 50 stores to come on board in early 2017, retail products in 15 Oxfam stores, and some new amazing potential deals that we continue to work on for mid 2017!

Re-rooting Indigenous culture:

My childhood love for the bush and bush fruits has remained with me my whole life. I believe the memories of being happy has been a strong force in the development of products in the business. Developing something that was not common in the wider market became something that I was excited about taking to the world. In the later years of business through all the trauma, I found that between business development and sourcing bush ingredients has played a huge part of my personal healing and finding myself again.

Maintaining culture has been very important to me and I have done this through going bush, collecting our own bush products, developing new ideas by playing around with bush products to see what I can create. Educating other people about bush tucker, medicines and culture, performing traditional dance and performing with my children has been so special to me. Every time we perform together, it’s special - spiritually and culturally. The kids know a lot of our own language, songs and dances in language, a lot about bush tucker and are extremely proud of who they are and where they are from.

Bush beauty:

Indigiearth is one of Australia's most sought after brands especially by tourist places, gourmet grocers, boutique gift shops, chefs and other catering companies. Sharon now conducts bush-tucker masterclasses for chefs who want to learn to use native ingredients, but also want to support Aboriginal businesses direct. She also guest speaks at conferences and other events, conducts cooking demonstrations at food and wine festivals and more.

Here are her top tips when you're bringing the contemporary person out on country.

Skincare:

"One of the best forms of natural skincare that can be found in all areas is natural clays/ ochers. Mixing with water and creating clay face/ body masks.

Other ingredients can also be added, bush medicines, fruits that are high in vitamin C, antioxidants, such as quandongs, lilly pilly, kakadu plum and lots more.

A common ingredient that is grown across many places is wattleseed. Wattleseed is a great natural exfoliant in skincare products. Lemon myrtle leaves produce amazing oils and is not only medicinal but provides for a great cleanser, antibacterial wash. 

Kakadu plum has become the latest big trend in skincare products across the world and is now being used by global skincare companies. Kakadu plum or 'Gubiny' is grown in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley regions. It is highly sought after for its vitamin C content. It has the highest content of vitamin C than any fruit in the world. 

There are lots of native fruits that are high in vitamin C, antioxidants and provide many other benefits to skin and hair. Traditionally eating these fruits on a regular basis keeps people healthy inside and out, just like our ancestors used to do. 

NITV's TV series 'Family Rules' follows the lives of a modern Indigenous family trying to keep true to their culture - you can check it out at SBS On Demand 

MORE FROM FAMILY RULES:
How I dealt with losing a partner and becoming a single mother of nine
OPINION: When a shock incident changes your family's life forever, somebody still needs to put food on the table.
Denise Bowden – How a kid from Katherine became the Director of Garma
Decendent of the Tagalak people and born on Jawoyn country, Denise went from being a small town Katherine kid to the CEO of the Yothu Yindi Foundation, and the Director of Garma. She sheds light on the importance of passing on Indigenous Australian knowledge.
Diversity is Always the New Black
Fijian-Australian fashion photographer, writer and model, Dusk explores the importance of capturing culture through fashion.
Bush and the City: Parenting from different walks of life
Be it in the city or bush, single or with help - parenting can be one of life's most difficult tasks. We've sought advice from proud parents who raised their children in polar opposite environments.