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Lisa OBorne, a Métis, Oshawa local and SAP dedicated employee, shares her excitement for SAP Canada’s new mentorship program for indigenous businesses, while at the Oshawa Waterfront Trail on July 12.Shay Conroy/The Globe and Mail

SAP Canada is rolling out a program that will match employees of the global software giant with Indigenous-owned businesses for business counselling sessions.

The program, Pro Bono for Economic Equity, was launched last year in the United States with a focus on Black-owned business, and subsequently expanded to Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom. It’s now being introduced in Canada.

Lisa OBorne, a long-time SAP Canada employee, has signed up as a volunteer counsellor, saying she likes the idea of sharing her expertise with people and companies that may not otherwise have access to such services.

The program is “close to home,” said Ms. OBorne, who is Métis.

“When the community comes together, it’s amazing what you can accomplish – and this feels like a community,” she added.

SAP Canada is a division of SAP SE, which is headquartered in Germany and makes software systems for applications such as financial management and supply chain management.

The program is designed to deliver 10 days of counselling over a six-week period. In the U.S., 48 SAP employees worked with 16 businesses in the first phase of the program, the company says. It was then renewed for a new phase in the U.S. and expanded to other countries.

To be eligible for the counselling sessions in Canada, businesses are required to be Indigenous-owned (defined as 51 per cent or more Indigenous ownership), be based in Canada with the majority of its operations in Canada and have an established business model or revenue stream. Franchise operations are not eligible.

SAP Canada had already been working on reconciliation initiatives, including a strategic relationship formed in 2021 with the First Nations Technology Council, a B.C.-based non-profit focused on “digital equity” for Indigenous peoples.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 issued 94 calls to action, including call to action 92: that corporate Canada adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and use it as a framework for policy and operations.

SAP’s Vancouver development lab – the company’s biggest in Canada and one of its biggest globally, with about 1,600 people – was a key driver in the launch of the program, said SAP Canada president Andy Canham.

“There was really strong support to do something with Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada … using people’s skills and capabilities and passion to get involved to help,” he said.

Indigenous peoples are creating new businesses at nine times the Canadian average, said a 2020 report from by Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business.

As of 2016, Indigenous peoples contribute more than $30-billion a year to Canada’s GDP, with that number projected to increase, the report said.

Many Indigenous-owned companies struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic. A January CCAB survey, the third in a series of pandemic reports, said survey respondents were still experiencing financial losses and staff layoffs, although not to the same degree as earlier in the pandemic.

The report also found that adopting digital technologies and building an online presence were the most common ways Indigenous businesses adapted to the pandemic. Many businesses planned to maintain those changes, “suggesting this digital transformation is permanent rather than temporary,” the report said.

But the Pro Bono program is not about signing up prospective new clients, Mr. Canham said.

“Our team has lots of skills and capabilities that has nothing to do with what SAP does for a living – and those are the things that we really want to take advantage of. If we happen to work with a company that we have a technology that would help, great, that’s fine – but that’s not what the focus is,” he said.

SAP Canada has just begun the process of choosing and preparing candidates for the program, so Ms. OBorne doesn’t know yet how big a company she’ll be working with or even what sector it might be in.

Asked if she would prefer a specific industry, she said she’s focused more on what a business might be trying to accomplish.

Her specialty is “agile transformation” – what she describes as helping people switch the way they think about work and working – and she expects to help prospective clients in areas such as technology, marketing and strategy.

“I want to be able to deliver value and see that business be successful and grow … however I can help the community flourish, that’s want I want to do.”

Editor’s note: (July 13, 2022): A previous version of this story included an incorrect spelling of a SAP Canada employee. It is Lisa OBorne.

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