Spend time with tech innovator Mikaela Jade, and you’ll soon discover she’s a trailblazer shaping the future of the tech industry. She effortlessly navigates the captivating crossroads between technology and Indigenous wisdom, providing a unique perspective on the evolving landscape of innovation.

From pioneering machine learning applications for Aboriginal communities to reconnecting with nature and embodying resilient leadership, Jade – a Cabrogal woman of the Dharug-speaking Nation of Sydney and the Founder and CEO of Indigital – shares her journey, passions, and insights.

Jade emphasises the possible impact of technology on preserving and promoting Indigenous cultures. Undoubtedly, the intersection of technology with cultural knowledge systems can empower communities and provide innovative solutions. If anything, technology becomes a means to bridge gaps and connect communities. From virtual reality to mobile apps, these tools can enhance cultural exchange, storytelling, and collaboration.

But despite the benefits, there are challenges faced by Indigenous communities, such as limited access to technology and the risk of cultural appropriation – and Jade reveals how addressing these challenges is crucial for a balanced and ethical tech integration.

Stories Ink sat down with Jade, who shares her unique blend of innovation, cultural preservation, and environmental consciousness that defines her inspiring narrative.

Can you share a bit about your background and journey, from your early years to your current role in technology and conservation?

I was born in Hornsby hospital back in 1979 on Dharug country. I grew up in Wahroonga and left Sydney when I was partway through a degree in environmental biology at the University of Technology, Sydney. I had always wanted to be a park ranger, so I volunteered at Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service on the Great Barrier Reef. I worked as a Park ranger while finishing my degree. I was promoted through the Park Service and had the opportunity to work in WA.

I made a move to Ningaloo, residing there for several years, engaged in tourism and visitor management for the Park Service. Later, I shifted to northern New South Wales, followed by a relocation to Canberra. During my time in Canberra, I contributed to a significant initiative known as Reef Rescue, focusing on water quality investments to enhance agricultural water flows into the Great Barrier Lagoon. This led to a role with the federal government for a few years before I seized the opportunity to work in Kakadu National Park.

How did your journey in conservation lead you to technology and entrepreneurship?

While working in Kakadu, I started my company as a side hustle in 2012, and in 2014, we moved to Kakadu. I developed the first minimum viable product of our augmented reality storytelling app. Over the years, we partnered with Microsoft and Telstra, scaling our augmented reality program to 9000 kids across Australia. Eventually, I stepped out of national park conservation after 21 years, and the business started taking off, leading to where we are today with Indigital, Australia’s first Indigenous Edu-tech company specialising in augmented and mixed reality.

What’s the vision for your business today, and how has it evolved over time?

In 2022, we switched gears from only providing educational technology services to becoming orchestrators in the tech world. We help everyone work together across the entire technology stack – beginning on Country with enabling infrastructure. We’ve helped greenlight over $2 billion in data centre projects to date.  We started as a team of one, and now we’re a team of 12. Our focus is on critical technologies and conservation projects. It seeks to develop innovative ways to digitise and translate knowledge and culture from remote and ancient communities. My aim is for Indigital to help create meaningful pathways for Indigenous people into the digital economy and the creation of future technologies. 

 We’ve partnered with Microsoft on the ‘Connecting with Country’ process, bringing traditional owners into the development and design phase of large infrastructure projects. We’ve also delved into conservation technologies, exploring opportunities like wearable plant sensors and integrating IT into cultural systems for better decision-making in the face of climate change.

 We’re intensifying our efforts in the ‘Connecting with Country’ process, placing a strong emphasis on critical technologies and associated renewable projects. One notable area of focus is data centres, which involves extensive negotiations due to their significant power and water usage, as well as their occupation of cultural land. All land is cultural land.

Can you share some surprising lessons learned from your recent projects, especially the collaboration with Microsoft on the ‘Connecting with Country’ process?

One surprising aspect was how easy it was to teach the community about machine learning and how both young people and elders showed interest. They even wanted to name the machine learning algorithm, which we now call ‘Gurung,’ meaning baby. Another unexpected outcome was the community’s enthusiasm for a Harvard qualification course, showing that age or cultural background was not a barrier to learning.

Reflecting on your career, are there any milestones or achievements that stand out as particularly poignant?

One significant milestone is our work with the ‘Connecting with Country’ process and the collaboration with Microsoft, addressing the need for inclusivity and reciprocity in large infrastructure projects. Additionally, our focus on conservation technologies and the upcoming projects involving critical technology developments are areas that I find particularly exciting and impactful.

Your visionary work and achievements have been widely recognised. Can you share a few of your recent accolades?

In 2022, I was recognised as one of 15 leaders to be awarded the Schwab Foundation 2022 Social Innovators of the Year award. I was also nominated for the ACT Australian of the Year Award, and was named ANU Indigenous Alumna of the Year. 

In 2023, I was chosen as one of three independent expert panel members leading the Pathway to Diversity in STEM Review. I’ve also spoken at the United Nations in New York to demonstrate the impact of new technologies in Indigenous communities. I’m also a member of the WEF Global Future Council on the Metaverse, and a delegate on the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

What challenges have you faced, and do you have any advice, especially for Indigenous women in the technology and business sectors?

Securing funding was a major challenge, and I had to bootstrap the business through business bank loans. The statistics on investing in female-founded companies are still concerning. My advice is to be laser-focused when you find your product-market fit, surround yourself with the right people, and don’t be afraid to learn about emerging technologies. The financial challenges need systemic change, making it easier for women to found and grow companies.

 The beautiful thing about life is you’re given all these challenges across your life and sometimes they make sense and sometimes they don’t make sense until you get to a later part in your life.

 I feel with this work now, all of the strands from my life have finally come together and we’re able to weave together a really beautiful basket. I’ve really found my place in the world where I can work between environmental biology, technology and my culture and fuse all those things together in a way or process that really gives back to country and to our community.

How do you view the current state and future of AI, given your expertise in technology and conservation? 

There is no technology named ‘AI’, but I will use that term for familiarity. AI, like previous emerging technologies, comes with hype, trepidation, and immediate self-declared experts. We’re already using AI technologies, and while exciting, we must not leave our humanity at the door. The key is to embrace AI, while maintaining a strong dose of practicality and reality in the conversation.

What are some of your hobbies outside of work?

I recently rediscovered scuba diving and went on a diving holiday to the Philippines. The experience reignited my love for the underwater world. Previously, I worked as a park ranger, spending a lot of time in nature. However, as my career transitioned into tech, I lost that connection. Now, I’m dedicating more time to outdoor activities like hiking, finding solace and grounding in nature’s healing benefits.

Can you elaborate on your relationship with the natural environment and the messages you perceive from it?

My cultural totem is the sulphur crested cockatoo, and I often notice them in my daily life. Being conscious of the plants and animals around us helps us understand their messages. There’s a profound psychological impact when we engage with nature, and I recommend a paper called ‘Eden in a vacant lot’ by Stephen Kellett, which explores the lifelong effects of connecting with nature and the loss that occurs as it disappears.

How has your perspective on leadership evolved over time?

Leadership, to me, is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve a shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty. While my initial perception of leadership was more academic, practical experience – especially growing a company from scratch – shifted my perspective. It’s less about an innate quality and more about enabling those around you to shine.

Given your unique position as a trailblazer in critical technology, who inspires you and influences your leadership style?

While there aren’t many direct role models in my specific field, I draw inspiration from my elders, community, country and Professor Genevieve Bell whom I’ve had the privilege of studying under. Their resilience in the face of challenges motivates me. As my work increasingly focuses on community and country over technology, I find profound inspiration in understanding the experiences of my people and the land.

What other goals or projects are on your horizon?

Personally, I’m keen on renovating our house, a project that has been pending. Despite being the daughter of a builder, I haven’t embarked on this venture yet. It’s essential to balance personal aspirations with professional endeavours, and in the coming years, I look forward to dedicating time to this project.

Are there specific destinations you’re yet to explore, and what draws you to them?

While I’ve covered a significant part of Australia, Tasmania remains on my list. Apart from Bruny Island, I haven’t fully explored Tasmania, and I’m intrigued by its unique landscapes and cultural richness. Exploring Tassie is a future adventure I’m eager to undertake.

Do you know of a worthy ‘Close-Up’ contender? Get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer@storiesink.com.au to get the story captured.