Learn more about Steve Birkbeck…
From the Gibson Desert to Paris…
Entrepreneur, CSR Indigenous advocate
and Australian Farmer.
Stephen Birkbeck was drawn into the Gibson Desert, Western Australia in the 1970’s and in 1980 – 1988 he lived and worked with the 1st contact elders of the Martu people, the Last of the Australian Nomadic tribes* to develop a unique business based on Desert Flora and Fauna, pioneering exports of luxury raw materials from the Gibson Desert to France. Stephen left the desert in 1989 and founded Mt Romance with his wife.
Through this experience as a young man he established a passion for Indigenous cultures and the need to progress Indigenous Land and resource rights. He pioneered the first Australian export of cosmetics to France (1993) and subsequently the first Australian exports of natural ingredients into the French luxury perfume sector (1998).
He pioneered the distillation of sandalwood oil from the arid timber sourced from the Gibson Desert and worked with Estee Lauder and Givaudan to establish unique Indigenous plant property rights for this commodity. The integration of social, ethical and environmental thinking led to him co-founding with Indigenous elders from Australia and the America’s the Songman Circle of Wisdom (2002).
In 2006 The United Nations Awarded Mt Romance and Estee Lauder the Inaugural Cradle to Grave Award in Bonne Germany for Indigenous Plant Property Rights and at this moment the UN was able to get global agreement on Material Transfer Agreements to protect Indigenous flora that was a founding block of the Nagoya Protocol.
Driven by a desire to create “meaning behind luxury” Stephen’s vision has had an impact on luxury brands around the world. As the key note speaker at the 2008 International Centifolia Congress in Grasse, France, under the auspices of the United Nations’ Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2008, he conceptualized the vision of drawing together the Presidents of some of the worlds largest brands and perfume ingredient suppliers to form a luxury sector circle to build sustainable supply chains (2008).
As a result of the impact of this speech, at the request of the City of Grasse he was able to draw together five global leaders that were Presidents and Chairmen of some of the world’s largest brands and perfume ingredient suppliers to become founding members of the President’s Circle.
The circle operates through the City of Grasse and meets in Paris and New York; Stephen was a founding Director of what is now known as the Natural Resources Stewardship Circle. The NRSC is driven by a shared goal of joining forces to utilise collective resources to improve regional communities’ socio-economic prospects around the globe.
Stephen has won a string of major awards for business excellence, such as:
2003 Australian Regional Exporter of the Year.
2004 Ernst Young Western Australian Entrepreneur of the Year – Life Sciences.
2005 Inaugural Inductee into the Western Australian Hall of Fame.
2011 Australian Export Hero, Australian Institute of Exports.
Each of these rewards and achievements is a reflection of Stephen’s exceptional capacity to find innovative ways to initiate economic growth from innovation, science, agriculture and value add these into the luxury sector through creativity and meaning. His inspiration comes from two disparate worlds, the Gibson Desert in central Australia, the source of his connection to indigenous cultures and the land (1980 – 2018) and France, the world leader in luxury goods.
Stephen’s success can be attributed to connecting the dots, his technical and communicative abilities have been used to pinpoint, motivate and inspire groups and individuals who will most effectively work together to make these visions a reality.
By promoting the infinite benefits of natural products along with the protection of the socio-economic balance for regional and disadvantaged communities, Stephen has ensured international progression of the luxury sector in responsible and transparent sourcing of natural ingredient supply chains.
In 2014, second contact Indigenous elders from the Gibson Desert asked Stephen to join their fight to get Government recognition of their rights to the sandalwood resources of the central Deserts leading to;
2016 – The Federal Government of Australia awarded Excusive Determination and full access rights of the sandalwood resource to the Martu people in the Gibson Desert through the Mungarlu Ngurrarankatja Rirraunkaja Aboriginal Corporation.
2017 – The formation of a series of Indigenous Desert companies that joined together and was able to draw in the world’s largest sandalwood plantation (WA Sandalwood Plantations) to cerate a unique 50/50% joint venture, Dutjahn Sandalwood Oils, now a finalist in the 2019 Sedex Awards.
2018 – Australia’s Emerging Exporter of the Year for being the first Indigenous owned exports of sandalwood oil to the luxury sector.
2019 – High level meetings with the Western Australian Ministries of Indigenous Affairs, Forests and Conservation & Biodiversity to finalise the last steps in gaining full access to the resource, allowing the impoverished Indigenous Central desert Communities to build socio-economic independence.
* 1st contact elders of the Martu people - The Last of the Australian Nomadic tribes from the Gibson Desert (Muntiljara tribe of the Martu people) are the last Australian Indigenous people to have contact with the modern world and were still coming in from the desert in the 1970’s having had no outside contact and living in a harmony with the desert for 40,000 years. This history is archived in two historical films at Murdoch University Perth, Western Australia; a) Footprints in the Sand and b) The Last of the Nomads.
Today the Central Desert people are impoverished and have one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.