Indigenous entrepreneurs on the rise in Alberta


By Tom Murray
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Mallory Yawnghwe is determined to help people share stories and reconnect through her brand-new business venture: Indigenous Box.

The quarterly subscription box service includes products by Indigenous artisans from across Canada. It launched quietly in March and sold out within three days. When it was restocked for a second run in April, the boxes were snapped up in 24 hours.

“It’s been incredible,” says Yawnghwe, who notes that Indigenous Box is meant for everyone who wants to support First Nations artisans. “We hear from people about how these items are helping them reconnect with their family, or how they sit with their daughter picking things from the box, talking about what the kokum scarf means to them. They’re sharing stories with their kids, and that’s powerful.”

Yawnghwe is one of a rapidly growing number of Indigenous entrepreneurs who are finding innovative ways to thrive in an uncertain economy. Substantially so, with the Royal Bank of Canada predicting that the Indigenous economy will more than triple in size over the next three years from $30 billion in 2020.

According to Marcela Mandeville, chief executive officer of Alberta Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), there’s always a mix of opportunity and challenge when it comes to starting your own business, especially for Indigenous business owners.

“One of the problems for Indigenous women entrepreneurs that we work with is location,” she says. “By the nature of where they sometimes are in rural areas there’s also a disconnect from opportunities and networks to help them build revenues and perhaps bring money into their business. That’s long been an issue for many people.”

Mallory Yawnghwe is one of a rapidly growing number of Indigenous entrepreneurs who are finding innovative ways to thrive in an uncertain economy. (Supplied)

Mallory Yawnghwe is one of a rapidly growing number of Indigenous entrepreneurs who are finding innovative ways to thrive in an uncertain economy. (Supplied)

Indigenous Box is an excellent example of entrepreneurs reaching past their home base. Among the offerings from the debut package are products from Carrie Armstrong of Mother Earth Essentials in Edmonton, Mi’gmaq artist Tracey Metallic from the Restigouche River in New Brunswick, and Michaelee Lazore who is Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) from Akwesáhsne in Quebec and Northern Paiute from Nevada. According to Yawnghwe, all three entrepreneurs are doing what First Nations people were engaged in well before colonization.

“We had trade networks set up a long time ago,” says Yawnghwe, who has a background in supply chain management. “So here we are taking back that space again and supporting each other. With the pandemic there’s been such a strong emphasis on shopping locally, so this fits in quite nicely.”

Mandeville agrees, and notes that it’s still difficult for many Indigenous entrepreneurs to get a leg up because of outmoded systems.

“It’s not the easiest to navigate and get support for a small business,” she explains. “For many institutions that are lending there’s the requirement of security, and that can be difficult depending on life circumstances, especially for First Nations people who are living on a Nation and don't actually own their property.”

Tradition

While Mandeville says that there are many specific challenges for Indigenous entrepreneurs, she also points to a few helpful programs. AWE offers Next Step to Success, and the Indigenous Growth Fund (IGF) recently raised $150 million to support fledgling business owners. But Mandeville says that there’s always room for more.

“It’s a missed opportunity to have an underrepresented community, whether women, Indigenous, or immigrant, be marginalized in the world of business,” she says. “Especially now that the pandemic has caused us to move so quickly into the digital world, and there are new opportunities to access markets from wherever they might be.”

Digital commerce has helped, but for Yawnghwe there’s a certain amount of tradition in what she does. She may not be able to meet her suppliers in person, but she still makes room for Zoom meetings with a cup of tea at hand. It’s also important for her to make sure that any agreement is equitable for both her and the artisan.

“It’s all about going back to the old ways, connecting with people and building relationships,” explains Yawnghwe, who says that the second box will be announced on June 13.

“That’s the foundation that makes the box work for everybody.”