The co-founder of a new accelerator for Indigenous entrepreneurs said successful First Nations business owners kept telling her they wanted to grow but felt stuck on a plateau.
“There was this gap that once you cross the million dollar mark, how do you take the next step” said Sunshine Tenasco, who is Anishinabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que.
So she tapped into her network and persuaded the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), mobile payment company Square and others to back Soar, an accelerator program launched this summer that aims to help five Indigenous companies reach what Tenasco calls “the next level.”
Now she says the companies are “learning to fly together.” This week, the company founders shared their insights about growth with hundreds of other Indigenous business owners at a virtual summit.
Indigenous business leaders and academics say First Nations people are increasingly interested in starting companies and note that having more big-name Indigenous brands is key to establishing economic independence and examples of success.
“We need our youth, our aspiring entrepreneurs to see themselves in these large successful companies, and see that they can be successful without sacrificing who they are as indigenous people,” said Michael Mihalicz, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).
5 companies, 1 goal
The five businesses in Soar’s first cohort include Wabanaki Maple of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Sequoia Soaps, based on the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec, Mini Tipi of Gatineau, Que., Cheekbone Beauty of St. Catharines, Ont., and Indi City of Calgary.
Each company already has more than $1 million in annual revenue and the accelerator’s ambitious goal is to increase their revenue by five times in just a year.
“It’s almost scary,” said Trisha Pitura, the co-founder of Mini Tipi, of the target.
Mini Tipi works with Indigenous artists who produce fabric patterns with authentic First Nations symbols and designs to make blankets, shawls, ponchos, bags and mittens.
Pitura, from Nipissing First Nation, near North Bay, Ont., started the company with partner Mélanie Bernard in 2016 when the two new moms both worked out of their basements.
Now they have eight workers and a 7,000 square foot factory in Gatineau, Que. Pitura says they’re rebranding and launching new products as part of their efforts to achieve the big jump in revenue.
“It’s really exciting to have the opportunity.”
Indigenous business drive
Census data reports indicate more than 54,000 Indigenous Canadians are self employed, a number that has been increasing for years.
“Indigenous entrepreneurs remain one of the fastest growing demographics of entrepreneurs in Canada,” said Mihalicz, who is an Indigenous adviser at TMU, “I see this continuing many years and decades into the future.”
Tenasco knows all about the drive to start a business. As a young entrepreneur in 2009, she appeared on CBC’s Dragons Den.
The experience ultimately inspired her to create her own business contest, Pow Wow Pitch, which began in 2015 and provides funding for Indigenous startups.
Pow Wow Pitch is still going on, and all the companies in Soar are alumni of the contest.
Tenasco says the businesses all “started out with very little, and then grew,” and that they’re ready to make a revenue jump and become big brands.
How revenue growth can happen
Growing revenue by five times in a year would be a challenge for most small businesses, but Soar includes some specific elements to make it possible.
The BDC and other program sponsors are setting up meetings between each company and potential vendors, like retailers.
As well, each company is being fast tracked for enrolment in government and corporate social procurement programs focused on using diverse suppliers, including Indigenous companies.
One of those programs is the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council (CAMSC), which will give the Soar companies the chance to make deals with 120 corporate and government buyers. CAMSC says those buyers have spent $7 billion with Aboriginal and minority suppliers since 2004.
Finally, the companies will get help with online sales and IT, in the form of grants, plus access to a BDC interest free loan for $100,000 to spend on IT needs.
For example, Mini Tipi is sold in 80 stores across the country, but 60 per cent of its sales are online. The company is improving its website and marketing, but high-profile exposure will be key to reaching more consumers.
Pitura says her dream is to land a partnership with the Canadian Olympic team, which she hopes would mean athletes would use their blankets, bags or shawls as part of their ceremonial uniform. She also says more corporate customers buying personalized gifts for clients or staff would help scale up sales.
Another key goal is to increase sales in the U.S. and beyond, and Pitura says her company looks to Manitobah (formerly Manitobah Mukluks) as a model for success on that front, as the brand is sold in more than 50 countries.
New wave of support
Soar is not the only initiative developing First Nations entrepreneurs across the country. CBC News found more than a dozen programs, many of them launched in recent years and more being planned.
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C.’s Okanagan region says it’s a positive trend.
“Anything any project or strategy can do that helps native people in business is all good,” he said.
On the academic front, Ontario’s United College and the University of Waterloo launched a pair of Indigenous Entrepreneurship programs this fall, and the University of British Columbia is a trailblazer in creating entrepreneurial support for Indigenous communities, having started its Ch’nook program in 2007.
Also, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) has pawâcikêwikamik: Nutrien MakerLodge, a facility at the First Nations-governed educational institution in Saskatoon that offers both a certificate program for students and an accelerator program for Indigenous businesses.
In New Brunswick, the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI), an Indigenous not-for-profit organization, started an incubator in 2017, and has offered an accelerator since 2015.
Rekindling entrepreneurial tradition
Chief Louie has a deep understanding of entrepreneurship, having led his band into multiple business ventures over nearly 40 years. The Osoyoos Indian Band now has 13 businesses it says have generated $120 million in revenue in the last five years.
Louie likes what he sees in many First Nations communities.
“Over the past 20, 30 years, people have been getting back on their economic horse, getting back out onto the entrepreneurial Ancestral Spirit and getting into business.”
He says most people don’t realize Indigenous people “were the first entrepreneurs of this land. We were the first traders.”
Tenasco says programs like Soar can fill a need when it comes to First Nations businesses taking a step into the big time.
She says that until more Indigenous faces are involved in all aspects of entrepreneurship and are part of mainstream business, “we haven’t reached our goal.”
Denial of responsibility! galaxyconcerns is an automatic aggregator around the global media. All the content are available free on Internet. We have just arranged it in one platform for educational purpose only. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials on our website, please contact us by email – [email protected]. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.