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Benjamin Ryan, chief commercial officer at Air North and president and CEO of Chieftain EnergySUPPLIED

Looking to succeed in business in Canada’s North? Work with your neighbours, says Benjamin Ryan, chief commercial officer at Air North, Yukon’s Airline.

For Ryan, who grew up in the North, working with First Nations communities is a natural part of doing business. Air North, which was founded in Whitehorse, Yukon by Ryan’s father in the 1970s, has always had a close connection with Indigenous groups. It became a partly Indigenous-owned enterprise in the early 2000s when Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation purchased 49 per cent of the company. And in 2014, Air North partnered with the Kluane First Nation to launch a subsidiary, Chieftain Energy.

“Our view is that the single biggest driver of economic growth over the next 25 years will be increased economic participation by Indigenous groups, both as investors and as skilled employees in the local workforce,” says Ryan, President and CEO of Chieftain and a graduate of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business in Ottawa.

Ryan says his career path was greatly influenced by his time at Sprott. He graduated with a double major in information systems and finance from Sprott in 2012, enrolling in the school because of its reputation for progressive-minded education and because his father is a Carleton graduate.

He says many of the most influential learning moments at Sprott were extracurricular opportunities. For example, he participated in the student investment fund, researching stocks in the energy space, and he was a part of Sprott’s CFA Institute Research Challenge team where he worked on a project on renewable energy.

“That is what got me really interested in the energy sector,” he says.

More than anything, Ryan cites the soft skills he learned during his time at the school as a key source of success in the real world of business.

"Of everything I’ve learned, the things I use most are organizational behaviour, human resources and marketing," he says. "My academic experience also taught me how to be part of a team."

These skills developed at Sprott have served him well. Ryan was the driving force behind the success of Chieftain Energy. Chieftain was initially founded to provide Air North with access to fuel storage and tanker trucks, lowering its operational costs. But when the airline purchased an energy firm called Environmental Refueling Systems in 2017, new business opportunities cropped up.

Chieftain soon forged working relationships with several under-served First Nation communities, providing the burgeoning business owners operating there with secure access to a scarce commodity in the North: energy.

“It is very important to our company to help indigenous-owned businesses thrive and grow,” Ryan says. “A lot of our growth is coming from working with local Indigenous communities, and jointly figuring out how to enhance energy opportunities.”

While successful partnerships like this demonstrate the benefits to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses, Canada’s 1.4 million Indigenous people also face enormous social and economic barriers preventing many communities from thriving.

Statistics Canada data show Indigenous Canadians are more likely to live in sub-standard housing, experience food insecurity and have poor access to clean water. They also experience employment rates below the overall national average in part due to reduced access to post-secondary education opportunities.

Economic development is critical to overcoming many of these challenges. Yet according to the National Indigenous Economic Development Board, while Indigenous Canadians make up four per cent of the nation’s population, they account for just 1.5 per cent of Canada’s GDP.

Ryan’s alma mater, Sprott, is hoping to help change this paradigm by developing programming related to Indigenous-focused business education. Linda Schweitzer, interim dean for Sprott, says they are currently seeking to hire a full-time, tenure-tracked faculty member with expertise in this area.

“We want to provide programming that can give people in First Nation and northern communities the knowledge and tools they need that are relevant to them and their communities,” says Linda Schweitzer, interim dean for Sprott School of Business. “We need curriculum, research and grad students in this area – there’s a lot we could do. But first we need an expert to help guide us.”

Having an experienced educator with this kind of knowledge is critical because of the unique needs of Indigenous communities, she adds. “For example, do we want to take students out of [their] communities for four years, or do we want to think about different ways of delivering programming?”

It is very important to our company to help indigenous-owned businesses thrive and grow.

Benjamin Ryan, president and CEO of Chieftain Energy

Schweitzer says the school aims to fill the opening soon and possibly offer a course on Indigenous-focused business this fall. A complete program of study in the field likely would not be in place for at least two years, she says.

While plenty of details remain to be fleshed out, one thing is clear: These educational programs are needed not just in the North, but across all of Canada.

“We often hear from communities about the need for educational opportunities in this area, and that’s partly why we are thinking about how we can contribute and have an impact,” Schweitzer says.

Ryan agrees Indigenous communities have distinct needs, and their businesses have characteristics that students in business schools today are generally not learning about.

“This kind of program would definitely be of interest to a lot of people doing business in the North,” Ryan says. “There are numerous examples of growing and successful First Nation enterprises in the North. Many of these businesses have a strong social mandate and deep ties to First Nation culture and to local communities, and these aspects are simply not taught in mainstream business programs.”

He adds, “Learning first-hand by working in the North has been very fulfilling to me, and I expect many Canadians would be interested in pursuing a fulfilling career in the North as well.”

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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