Aspiring entrepreneurs have long benefited from the innovation ecosystem at the University of Waterloo, an environment where entrepreneurship and innovation excel amidst a unique blend of co-op, work-integrated learning opportunities and customized wrap-around supports. 

This traditional innovation ecosystem, however, wasn’t reaching the needs of aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs.

In 2023, United College launched an Indigenous entrepreneurship incubator, Flint Hub, and a diploma in Indigenous Entrepreneurship (INDENT). Drawing inspiration from GreenHouse, Flint Hub provides the infrastructure to support Indigenous students in furthering their entrepreneurial aspirations. The incubator offers a vibrant community of support, rooted in Indigenous knowledges, values of kinship, abundance and reciprocity. 

Since its inception, Flint Hub has awarded approximately $20,000 in funding and supported three ventures, with many more opportunities on the horizon. 

Connie Roy, an Ojibway woman from M’Chigeeng Ontario and hairstylist of 17 years, is one of three Indigenous entrepreneurs who earned $4,000 in a recent pitch competition at United College will receive support to scale her business.

In 2018, Roy founded the first mobile hair salon in Waterloo region, Comfort Cutz, a convenient hair service that primarily serves individuals with mobility barriers. Through her work, Roy helps to give her clients confidence, while keeping them safe in the comfort of their own homes.

She sees her clients at their most vulnerable and witnesses first-hand the impact that her services have on their self-esteem and mental health. “My clients are so happy,” she shares. “For some, they get communication and a visitor. I treat them like they are my own friends and family, and they trust me.”    

“The Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island have always been great entrepreneurs,” says Rick Myers, principal of United College. “Colonialism repressed the entrepreneurial activities of Indigenous Peoples, but not their entrepreneurial spirit. Indigenous individuals and communities are making enormous strides in a host of commercial areas, including tourism, resources and energy.”

To accelerate this progress, Indigenous Peoples need access to a business education that reflects their specific commercial interests and their culturally unique way of engaging in entrepreneurship and economic development. There also needs to be an opportunity to learn directly from the experiences of Indigenous entrepreneurs, with Indigenous knowledges, values and culture as its foundation.    

Flint Hub and INDENT: Supporting the entrepreneurship journey

INDENT is a six-course program that extends the resources and supports provided by United College into an academic offering and enables students to graduate with a diploma from the University of Waterloo.    

“Indigenous entrepreneurship programming goes beyond innovation to the very heart of economic equity and justice,” says John Abraham, academic dean of United College. “At United College, we see our role as supporting the next generation of Indigenous entrepreneurs as they write this exciting new chapter in a long history of commercial and entrepreneurial activities.”  

Jacob Crane, program manager of Flint Hub, adds: “The goal of the Indigenous entrepreneurship program is to shed light and guide students towards fully utilizing the tools they already have. Our role is to support them on this journey.”

Jacob Crane wearing white t-shirt and dark blue jeans.

Jacob Crane (right) during recruiting event in Calgary at the Tsuut'ina Nation Powwow

As an independent business owner, Roy shares that the level of support and resources offered by Flint Hub was very meaningful in helping her develop a business plan with a clear sense of direction and pushed her to follow her ambitions. “I found comfort in talking about the business stuff without being judged by what I know. It’s a learning curve opening a business and the guidance of Flint Hub helps,” she says.   

“Just knowing you have supportive people who are going through the same thing as you are, means everything.”      

Looking ahead, Flint Hub and INDENT will continue to create a pathway for Indigenous entrepreneurs to have a meaningful impact. 

Crane envisions Flint Hub becoming the number one incubator for Indigenous entrepreneurship in Canada. “I really do believe that our cohorts are going to continue to grow and that we’re going to see alumni go after some large-scale funding opportunities.” 

The scope of this programming will broaden nationally as partnerships are deepened with post-secondary institutions across Canada in communities with traditionally high Indigenous populations.  

In the short-term, Roy is pursuing dreams of opening a physical salon space using the money she was awarded at two Flint Hub pitch competitions. Roy’s new salon will be Indigenous-designed and she envisions it serving as a hub to sell artwork and other products made by local Indigenous artists and entrepreneurs. She also dreams of launching her own hair product line.   

Speaking to the impact of her work, Roy shares, “It is such a rewarding job knowing you are making people feel good about themselves. And I always say to myself ‘I’m going to make her look beautiful and feel great’ because if I can increase someone’s self-confidence, that is everything to me.”