Nearly a decade ago, Geena Jackson wondered, ‘Why isn’t there a show on national television showcasing Indigenous entrepreneurs and their talents?’
Ms. Jackson, CEO and executive producer at Sparkly Frog Clan Productions, had spent over 20 years championing and supporting Indigenous entrepreneurs while working for the Squamish Nation Trust. She met phenomenal founders with incredible stories to tell and saw the struggles and barriers they faced, and she was determined to give them the opportunity to shine on a national stage.
“Watching shows like Shark Tank and Dragon’s Den, I loved those shows,” says Ms. Jackson, who is a member of the Frog Clan of the shíshálh (Sechelt) Nation on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. “There’s dedication, risk, sacrifice, self-belief, self-doubt – everyone has a story and a village behind them that’s there to support them.”
Ms. Jackson wanted to create that sort of opportunity for Indigenous entrepreneurs – a show where the judges would also be prominent Indigenous business leaders.
This fall, her dream comes to fruition in the form of The Bears’ Lair, premiering on APTN in September as the network’s first ever reality show. The show will feature 18 Indigenous business owners presenting their businesses to a panel of “bears,” including Dave Tuccaro, owner of Tuccaro Group (“one of the first Indigenous billionaires,” Ms. Jackson says); Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB); Rob Louie, owner of Indigenous World Winery and Distillery; and Ms. Jackson herself. Winning entrepreneurs will take home $180,000 in prize money, a wealth of business products and services and ongoing mentorship from the bears.
Monica James is a guest judge on The Bears’ Lair and regional manager for client diversity at BDC, one of the show’s biggest sponsors. She notes how the show’s approach stands apart from more combative business shows that are strictly about return on investment.
“Instead of asking questions to decide if you’re going to invest, our job as judges is to uplift the contestants – to ask what we can do to support them, and show them the worth that they have, and that they deserve to be here,” says Ms. James, a member of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation who has worked closely with hundreds of Indigenous entrepreneurs over the years.
The Bears’ Lair showcases the importance of Indigenous self-ownership and self-determination, says Ms. James, values that are in line with BDC’s purpose to ensure all Canadian entrepreneurs have access to the resources, financing, advice, networks and tools they need to succeed.
“Diversity and inclusion are part of our business strategy and our company values,” says Ms. James. “Our approach is to listen to what entrepreneurs need, learn by working with organizations that serve these communities and then act to provide tangible solutions.”
Ms. Jackson notes that while The Bears’ Lair has all the drama, suspense and excitement of the other business competition shows that came before it, the common thread connecting the participating entrepreneurs is a drive to give back to their communities and create a business that will sustain them financially while also making a difference.
“We have people who are growing sustainable food for Northern communities, we have a group with dogs who sniff out opiates on dry reservations, we have people who create salves for arthritis,” Ms. Jackson says. “Everybody has a purpose. Everyone wants to make their community, or our world, a better place.”
Showcasing Indigenous values
One of the Indigenous business owners on The Bears’ Lair is Mallory Yawnghwe, a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation #125 in Treaty 6 Territory. Ms. Yawnghwe is the founder of Indigenous Box, a subscription box and corporate gift service featuring products created by Indigenous artists and makers from across Canada, from soaps to food items to jewellery and artwork.
Ms. Yawnghwe said when she first heard about The Bears’ Lair, she thought it was a great opportunity to showcase Indigenous values. “For Indigenous people it’s not about how much you have, it’s about how much you give,” she says. “That’s what makes you successful as an Indigenous person.”
She says she created Indigenous Box in March 2021 to be a champion for others and put money back in the pockets of Indigenous entrepreneurs.
“I wanted to champion them because I’ve needed champions in my life,” Ms. Yawnghwe says. “My whole life I’ve lived with anxiety about not being enough or being too brown. I wanted people to see us for who we are and allow kids to see themselves in these spaces and know that they belong here, just as much as anyone else.”
While she can’t reveal too much about her time as a contestant on The Bears’ Lair, which taped in March, Ms. Yawnghwe says it was an uplifting experience being surrounded by Indigenous people on set. (Ms. Jackson says that in creating the show, she and the other producers made it a priority to support as many Indigenous people as possible, from the cast and crew to catering, makeup and wardrobe.)
“In the trailer, I was a crying mess,” Ms. Yawnghwe says. “I’m just a kid from the rez, and I never saw people who looked like me, or people who acted like me, in these modern spaces.”
She notes that The Bear’s Lair comes at a time when Indigenous women are taking their place at the economic table in Canada and there is a “profound shift” happening in the country.
“The last residential school closed when I was 10 years old. Canadians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – can feel this shift, where people are suddenly looking to Indigenous people to help design what the future is going to look like in Canada,” she says.
“It’s our responsibility as Indigenous women to be the gateway to our communities, and to showcase to the rest of Canada the legacy that we hold as Indigenous people. It’s not just trauma, we are more than that. We inherited a legacy of greatness. We just want to showcase that and show people just how incredible, powerful and uplifting being Indigenous really is.”
Ms. James points out that Indigenous entrepreneurs face obstacles in accessing financing and capital for their businesses: According to a 2017 report by BDC and the National Aboriginal Capital Corporation Association (NACCA), 43 per cent of Indigenous small business owners consider access to financing as an obstacle to growth.
BDC has a long tradition of supporting Indigenous communities, she adds. For example, with 900+ Indigenous clients across Canada, BDC offers the Indigenous Entrepreneur Loan, which provides up to $350,000 in financing for existing businesses and gives back part of interest paid on the loan to a charity of the entrepreneur’s choice. They also worked with NACCA to design and structure the $150-million Indigenous Growth Fund to increase access to capital for Indigenous business owners.
Support of women entrepreneurs is also a priority for BDC, Ms. James notes. Through it’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, the bank provided over $1.7 billion in financing to women-owned businesses.
“We offer free online and offline tools to help entrepreneurs finetune their business knowledge and succeed no matter what their challenge,” she says. “We also have a team of employees and partners who are our ambassadors across the country, they are all knowledgeable, passionate and ready to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.”
Co-opetition, not competition
Ms. Jackson says it was important in creating The Bears’ Lair to create an environment where participants could feel safe and supported as they pitched their businesses. All participants received professional business coaching from seasoned entrepreneurs Tamara Goddard, Orene Askew and Kristin Kozuback in advance, and the show was positioned as a “co-opetition, instead of competition,” she says.
Matricia Bauer, another business owner featured in the program, is the owner of Warrior Women, a business based in Jasper, Alberta. Warrior Woman offers tours, “plant walks” and cultural experiences incorporating Ms. Bauer’s Cree heritage, and she also makes teas, salves and Indigenous bitters infused with local botanicals.
Ms. Bauer says it was inspiring to connect with the other entrepreneurs taking part in The Bear’s Lair, and she appreciated how comfortable the panel of judges made her feel as a contestant.
“They were so proud,” she says. “They’re all Indigenous entrepreneurs and business people in their own right, and they recognize [our] spirit and tenacity. They know what it takes for an Indigenous person to be in this space. I think they really want to see us succeed, and even if we don’t advance in the show, they still have an invested interest because they’re our people.”
While Ms. Bauer said she anticipated the exposure that would come from a competition show like this, she didn’t expect all the connections and friendships she made as a result of her time on the show.
“I’m really surprised at how heavily invested I was in the other contestants. It was like, ‘I’m competing with them,’ but you couldn’t help but admire each other at the end of the day,” she says. “It was hard at certain points to see who advanced and who didn’t, because you want everyone to win. But we all did win in some aspect.”
Ongoing mentorship and support
Ms. James says that being on the show as a mentor and judge was a moving experience.
“It was very emotional for all of us, and for the contestants too. They had to share their truth and their stories, and that can be traumatic,” she says. “One of the things we share as First Nations people – 100 per cent of us have been affected by residential schools.”
She notes that BDC’s support of the show is part of its ongoing efforts, inside and outside the bank, to be a true partner for Indigenous and women entrepreneurs who are pursuing their dreams.
“We want to be sitting on the same side of the table, to really be a partner to these entrepreneurs, not just a banker,” she says. “It’s about using our platform to elevate and uplift women entrepreneurs and Indigenous entrepreneurs, to give them the opportunity to be heard and the space that they deserve.”
Ms. Jackson says the mentoring relationships between the bears and the contestants that have been forged on The Bears’ Lair will continue well beyond the show. She notes that a program like this can have a “ripple effect” that benefits not only the 18 entrepreneurs on the show, but the wider Indigenous communities watching at home.
“Having someone from your community be on national television and be able to go, ‘That’s my cousin!’ – that’s awesome. It’s going to excite communities, families, it’s going to show that these are people that are creating connectedness and healing their community in one way or another,” she says. “That ripple effect will inspire others.”
Ms. Yawnghwe says she thinks The Bears’ Lair could really “change the game” for how Canadians see Indigenous business.
“Bears’ Lair is a huge opportunity to get a glimpse – just a glimpse – of what Indigenous empowerment looks like,” she says. “It’s bringing Indigenous values to Canadian commerce. And we’re doing it on our own terms.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with BDC. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.