Lynn-Marie Angus had a problem.
A co-founder of Sisters Sage, a Vancouver-based soap company, Ms. Angus had been hearing from customers that the glass bottles used for a liquid soap product were sometimes broken during shipping.
Ms. Angus, who describes her heritage as Gitxaala, Nisga’a and Métis, had removed the product, introduced in November, from her website. But she didn’t want to give up on it, as customers kept asking for more. She looked into protective packing materials but that seemed counterproductive for a company that promotes sustainability.
On a Zoom meeting this past Sunday, three other women, also Indigenous business owners, brainstormed solutions with Ms. Angus, offering up ideas such as biodegradable packing material or trying to get the product placed at packaging-free retailers, including one in the Lower Mainland.
At the retailing suggestion, Ms. Angus lit up, seeing a potential way to sell the product without the headaches.
“Oh, that’s a great idea. Thank you,” Ms. Angus said, before the virtual breakout room closed and returned the women to a Zoom meeting with about 20 people signed on.
In a follow-up interview, Ms. Angus said she was confident she’d find a way to keep the product in her lineup and had already spoken to prospective buyers.
That pattern – talking through problems and sharing mutual support – is a staple of the Lift Circle, a virtual gathering for Indigenous women entrepreneurs. An offshoot of the Indigenous Lift Collective Inc., a not-for-profit corporation registered in 2018, the Lift Circle held its first one-hour meeting on Feb. 17, 2020. It’s gathered every Sunday since, including this past week, when a Globe and Mail reporter was invited to sit in. There are now about 260 people in a Lift Circle directory, including artisans, musicians and tourism operators. There is no fee to join and women come and go as their schedules allow.
The circle is designed to create conditions for Indigenous women to succeed, said Teara Fraser, chief executive officer of Iskwew Air and a director of Indigenous Lift Collective.
“That matters to me because it’s the fastest, most natural, most effective pathway to economic reconciliation in our country because those women are going to uplift their families and communities,” she said.
Ms. Fraser, who launched her airline in 2019, is one of 18 women to be featured in a DC Comics graphic novel called Wonderful Women of History, scheduled for release this year.
Indigenous women in business can face multiple barriers, including difficulties in obtaining financing. A 2020 report on Indigenous women entrepreneurs by National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, an umbrella group for Aboriginal Financial Institutions, known as AFIs, found 78 per cent of the women surveyed used personal savings to start their business. The survey, which included responses from 115 entrepreneurs, found many businesses were small but created community benefits, including jobs and education opportunities.
For Indigenous women, starting a business can be a way to reclaim language and culture as well as building economic independence.
Denise Halfyard grew up in Terrace, B.C., and describes herself as Wet’suwet’en, Tsimshian and Gitxsan.
She founded The Frog Radio, an internet radio station focused on North American Indigenous artists, after attending her grandmother’s traditional funeral in early 2020. The ceremony, with its feasts and songs, strengthened her resolve to study Wet’suwet’en language and promote Indigenous culture. The Frog Radio is named for the Wet’suwet’en Laksilyu, or Little Frog, clan.
When an acquaintance told her about the Lift Circle, she was skeptical, wondering what she would get out of it.
She soon began to look forward to the sessions, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic meant fewer face-to-face connections.
“To be able to come together in the city, with these women – even though it’s online – and to have that support I didn’t even know I was missing, it’s been such a blessing.”
The Lift Circle has also been a refuge for Naomi Nicholson.
Ms. Nicholson and her husband run Chims Guest House on Tseshaht First Nation territory in Port Alberni, B.C.
Ms. Nicholson launched Chims – bear in the Nuu-chah-nulth language – as an Indigenous-themed getaway in 2018. The pandemic forced her to temporarily close in the spring of 2020. A federal pandemic loan, obtained through the Nuu-chah-nulth Economic Development Corporation, helped her invest in a new suite and serviced RV sites on her property. She hopes to offer “isolation vacations” when the pandemic ebbs.
She discovered the Lift Circle in early 2020, when she was despondent over her floundering business.
“It was really good to float me along while I was in that depression ... just to know that there were other successful Indigenous women. That was the strength,” Ms. Nicholson said.
Women in the Lift Circle talk about new businesses, family updates and job openings. They talk about how COVID-19 has affected their families and communities. There is laughter and sometimes tears and, always, support.
“I’m a proud, stubborn Indigenous woman who doesn’t like to ask for help,” Ms. Halfyard said.
“And the Lift Circle has taught me how to do this without feeling like I am burdening them with my request, without making me feel like I am weak for asking for help.”
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