Indigenous entrepreneurs succeed in the face of unique challenges

As entrepreneurs from Quebec’s Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg (KZA) community focus on starting businesses, they’re being encouraged to set their sights on the world vs. just their traditional communities and networks.

For some Indigenous entrepreneurs, this is a big mindset shift. For the most part, Indigenous entrepreneurs value collective success and community over economic profit related to individual achievement. They are, effectively, social entrepreneurs who work to support the community, act as a role model and view their local employment and economic development as a policy and measure of success.

Times are changing and KZA entrepreneurs have role models who are sharing their knowledge with their community members on what it’s like to run a business from beyond the reserve.

One KZA success story is Sunshine Quem Tenasco. She inspires and promotes Indigenous entrepreneurs as part of her business, Pow Wow Pitch. Sunshine also founded Her Braids which sells beaded pendants and hosts beading workshops in schools to “be an accessory to change”.  Through her workshops with youth and connection to the David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot Movement, Sunshine Quem Tenasco is raising awareness and contributing to making clean drinking water in First Nations communities a reality.

Systemic hurdles to business development

All entrepreneurs must overcome hurdles when developing their ideas, creating business plans and securing funding for their businesses. Indigenous entrepreneurs have additional and unique challenges.

Setting up a business on-reserve can be impacted by the remoteness and size of the community. However, an Indigenous entrepreneur starting up in an urban setting, away from their home community, often lack community support.

A key structural limitation is Section 89 of the Indian Act, which prohibits the use of land on reserves to secure funding; this effectively cuts off access to funding through mainstream sources.

KZA’s Community Economic Development Office (CEDO) is working to overcome this barrier by offering loans or subsidies to entrepreneurs up to $50,000 for their project.  Many smaller Indigenous communities do not have a CEDO Policy. Infrastructure that many entrepreneurs take for granted, such as high-speed internet, reliable roads, airports, electricity and water, are not always a reality. That translates into issues with maintaining a website, ecommerce and online marketing, shipping and receiving products, and even accessing email.

Students in the Small Business Development program at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.
Engaged and enthusiastic students pose for a photo with their teacher on the final day of the Small Business Development program at Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg.

Growth of Indigenous business through training and partnerships

According to the Sodexo Canada Indigenous Business Survey, the number of Indigenous entrepreneurs had grown to 43,000 from only 6,000 in the 1990’s. It’s not clear what this means in terms of total contribution to Canada’s gross domestic product. The Indigenous tourism industry alone produces $1.4 billion of Canada’s annual GDP and employs more than 33,000 people.

High unemployment rates and low incomes in some Indigenous communities make it difficult for individuals to save money to start a business. This, coupled with a lack of education and skills needed to effectively operate a business and negotiate transactions, can result in an inability and reluctance to move forward with a business idea.

That’s where KZA’s Education Sector has stepped in to regularly offer training opportunities, such as the Small Business Development program. The program was offered this year in partnership with Heritage College. CEDEC’s Youth Start-Up team was invited to present its workshops to participants. On the final day, students presented their business plans for ideas ranging from mobile cleaning services to organic greenhouses to music recording/performance.

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