Sunshine Tenasco has spent years working with Indigenous startups as the founder of Pow Wow Pitch.
In the annual competition, emerging Indigenous entrepreneurs from diverse sectors such as technology, food and fashion pitch their ventures to a panel of judges. The event has been operating successfully since 2016, but Tenasco says participants have struggled to find support after the startup stage.
“There was a gap in the ecosystem for entrepreneurs who were making $1-million in revenue to take that next jump to $3-million or $5-million,” Tenasco reveals.
“That was interesting to me because [our Indigenous entrepreneurs] were not finding the help that they’re looking for in this space. So that was the rationale: How do we get these Indigenous businesses that are very well known … to the next level?”
To fill that gap, Tenasco launched SOAR, a year-long accelerator that supports high-growth, Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada. The accelerator, now in its inaugural year, is working with five predominantly women-owned Indigenous companies making more than $1-million in revenue. The goal is to increase each company’s revenue fivefold over the 12 months.
SOAR provides executive-level training and mentorship, organizing meetings with major buyers and establishing connections between successful Indigenous business owners. Its co-presenters and partners include Square, BDC and Futurpreneur.
Tenasco says the initial cohort is special because all five entrepreneurs have successfully participated in Pow Wow Pitch in previous years. Some of them – Jenn Harper from Cheekbone Beauty, Jolene Johnson from Wabanaki Maple, and Michaelee Lazore from Seqouia Soaps – have even been judges.
When selecting participants for SOAR, Tenasco says it was important to ensure entrepreneurs were committed to expanding their businesses in revenue, size and audience. “Some entrepreneurs don’t want to grow their business and they’re comfortable with however much they make, and that’s okay.”
Lazore, founder and CEO of Sequoia Soaps, says the opportunity to actively work toward growth – in community with other Indigenous entrepreneurs – is what drove her to apply.
“My hope was to find out and discuss up close and personal what challenges everybody is going through. Is it the same type of challenges that I’m having? Or is there an easier way to do things?”
For Lazore, scaling her business by five times was an important goal. But participating in SOAR has also helped her understand how to grow Sequoia Soaps over the long term. One hurdle Lazore faced was learning how to delegate certain responsibilities as the organization scales.
“My business, and I think all the other businesses that are part of SOAR, were started by the founders themselves and maybe one other employee at the very beginning,” Lazore says.
“When you start like that, you’re doing everything. And my challenge has been to let go of things and let employees take care of them so that I have more of my focus on things that can scale the business.”
For Lazore, new and different goals provide a sense of community. At SOAR, she found other entrepreneurs on a similar path and was able to connect with them in-person over a week of mentorship and workshops held in Toronto this June. The entire cohort has been present in each other’s lives and work ever since, she says.
“The in-person conference was a really intimate atmosphere … and when you’re nice and relaxed, you really get to talk about things and have a good time,” Lazore says of the conference.
“And we’re all still connected – we can message each other or even call each other if we have to. Going forward, it almost feels like a camaraderie where if I have any issues or I need a different perspective, I feel comfortable to be able to reach out.”
For Tenasco, the experience of the inaugural cohort encapsulates why she launched SOAR in the first place. It also builds on her work at Pow Wow Pitch, which has supported countless Indigenous entrepreneurs over the years.
“As long as [the entrepreneurs] feel like they’ve grown – whether it’s financially, whether it’s intellectually, emotionally, whether they feel supported, whether they don’t feel alone – I think that’s what I’m looking for and that [to me] is success.”