The power of Indigenous entrepreneurs

A new entrepreneurship program helps Indigenous students add value to Indigenous communities rather than extract resources

WARNING: This story contains references to residential schools. The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of Residential School experiences. 1-800-721-0066.

Kevin George (BA '22) was a student in an entrepreneurship program the day it was revealed that 215 unmarked graves were found at a former residential school for Indigenous children in Kamloops, B.C.

When the tragic news was shared, George remembers all teaching about business models and startup funding was paused. “We were supposed to do our final presentations that day,” says George, an Indigenous psychology student enrolled in the new Indigenous Entrepreneurship Training Program (INDENT). “But with guidance from our mentor, we took some time away from the program. Instead, he offered us space to connect with one another, a talking circle."

Like so many times before and after that day, George had to deal with the trauma of colonization and genocide of Indigenous people in Canada. But the people he met through INDENT, which is based at Waterloo’s St. Paul’s University College, helped on that day and beyond. “The program was about so much more than skills and funding,” George says. “It was the connections I made with others that really made a difference. The huge takeaway from the program for me was the encouragement and acceptance from my community.”

Entrepreneurship empowers Indigenous communities

Jacob Crane

INDENT program manager and entrepreneur Jacob Crane says participants are showing a strong desire to build ventures that solve problems in their own communities. “Their ideas are about language preservation or restoring cultural practices and traditional ways of life. That’s what separates Indigenous entrepreneurs from other entrepreneurs. Indigenous entrepreneurs look to keep the value in the community, whereas traditional entrepreneurship extracts from the community.”

Entrepreneurship is extremely empowering. It really puts you in the driver’s seat of your life. It’s something that we, as Indigenous people, need to get back to. It’s the most decolonizing structure of work that you can do.

A serial entrepreneur, Crane says entrepreneurship is uniquely suited to Indigenous people because it allows them to build a career on their own terms. “Entrepreneurship is extremely empowering. It really puts you in the driver’s seat of your life,” Crane says. “It’s something that we, as Indigenous people, need to get back to. It’s the most decolonizing structure of work that you can do.”

George, who already has a business selling juices and cleanses, was inspired to launch a non-profit venture for Indigenous youth. His idea, called Toolbox, would give young people music studio fundamentals and encourage them to tap into their own creative talents.

George says he has had a complicated relationship with his Indigenous heritage. Intergenerational trauma, systemic barriers and discrimination have resulted in a disconnection from culture, community, family and land. He’s grateful for the teachings of his Cree grandmother from Alberta, as well as his family from the Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southwestern Ontario. George is re-establishing connections and reflecting these strengths in his entrepreneurial endeavours.

From house framing to a toy company

Crane said some examples of other ventures being developed through INDENT are a house framing business and a children’s toy and puzzle company that integrates Indigenous languages into the puzzle pieces.

An integral part of the INDENT program includes work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities for students, and education for organizations about providing meaningful workplace opportunities for Indigenous youth.

With the support of the Business and Higher Education Roundtable and the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation, WIL opportunities will include Indigenous-led businesses and businesses that operate in Indigenous communities across the country.

The curriculum and training delivered during the pilot will be a modification of the WIL opportunities currently offered by GreenHouse, a nationally recognized social innovation and entrepreneurship community for University of Waterloo students at St. Paul’s University College. St. Paul’s is also the academic home for Waterloo’s Indigenous Studies minor program offered to all students.

“We need to get back to solving problems within community. The answer to poverty and all these problems within Indigenous communities is innovation,” Crane says. “There need to be more Indigenous entrepreneurs doing what they love.”