Jeff Ward, who is Ojibwe and Métis, is the founder and chief executive officer of Animikii, an Indigenous technology company that creates digital products and provides website and software development services. In 2003, he left Silicon Valley to found the business, whose aim is to empower Indigenous-focused organizations and leverage technology as a force for cultural, economic and social impact.
In 2019, Mr. Ward was named to the Business In Vancouver list of 40 outstanding leaders under the age of 40. Originally from Manitoba, he now lives on the traditional territory of the Lekwungen peoples, also known as Victoria.
What does being Indigenous mean to you?
There’s so much to learn about what this means, and while I’m grateful to have grown up in my culture, I feel a sense of responsibility to pass those teachings on to my children and give back to my community. One of those teachings that I carry with me in the day-to-day is that we’re all related. We’re all relatives. I am you, and you are me, and it’s through that relationality that things are brought into clarity. This also connects relationality to land and water. That’s one aspect of what being Indigenous means to me.
How do you maintain your health and well-being?
I would turn to Medicine Wheel teachings to be reminded whether to focus on the mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional. For example, when I forget the smudge on a regular basis, it can take me a while to realize how that affects me in different ways. When I forget to focus on my physical health, it affects everything else and causes rippling effects. When I remember those teachings and I can balance those four aspects of The Medicine Wheel, then that is a way I can recenter and focus on health and well-being.
Can you walk us through your career?
My parents were nurses, and so my whole life I wanted to be a doctor. In high school, this thing called the internet came out, and I learned how to make websites, and a few people made the mistake of paying me to make them a website. I got bit by that entrepreneurial and technology bug, and my family’s hopes and dreams of having the first doctor in the family went out the window. As a young Indigenous technologist, when the internet was becoming more mainstream, I had the opportunity to live and work in Silicon Valley in California at 19 and lived there for a few years.
After coming back to Canada, I wanted to find ways to use my skills and give back to the community that raised me. Having some early experiences developing websites for organizations like the Métis Resource Centre, which was run by Senator Thelma Chalifoux, the first Indigenous woman in the Senate of Canada, and after having a very capitalistic, materialistic experience in California, I wanted to utilize my skills for the benefit of Indigenous peoples. I created Animikii in 2003, and I’ve had an Indigenous focus to the work ever since.
Are you focused on Indigenous organizations, or is it broader than that?
As long as the work that we do supports Indigenous innovators through our technology, we want to focus on that. Our work contributes to creating equitable outcomes for Indigenous peoples or advances reconciliation efforts. We want to lend our expertise.
Is there anything about what you do that is different from non-Indigenous technologists?
That is through the lens and the worldview that our technology and solutions are created. Our values reflect the Indigenous values’ system from Ojibwe teachings, which include love. A lot of technology has been brought to the world without some of those values, and we’re the only technology company I know that centres love as a value.
Indigenous people have always been technologists. We’ve always been entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, and we’ve always brought technologies to the world. I have a whole TED talk on this, and we’re trying to change perceptions around what is tech and what is Indigenous tech. Our team creates these opportunities through ethical tech and technology that can support Indigenous data sovereignty, for example.
How do you operationalize that as a business leader?
We have to work within many colonial systems. And so for us, it’s finding ways to decolonize how we work. For example, going into a pandemic, we asked ourselves what was the loving thing to do for our team. We thought about how we can support our team in regard to time off, making time to connect, sharing circles or to provide opportunities for people to get set up at home. Any time things get tough, it’s about filtering our decisions through the lens of our values.
What does leadership mean to you?
I think it’s about being of service to others, leading by example, lots of listening, speaking last and really just understanding that folks that are in the canoe with you could literally be in any other canoe. There are super smart, talented people that have chosen to jump in the canoe with you. It’s about paddling in the canoe alongside everybody.
Have you noticed the difference between non-Indigenous and Indigenous leadership?
The Indigenous leaders that I admire and respect think holistically across a lot of areas of the business, and also centre relationships and reciprocity. It’s not just their relationship with their shareholders or their employees and partners, but relationships that consider decisions across generations and the effect that those decisions have not just today, but for tomorrow as well.
How can Canadian companies and organizations learn from Indigenous people and practices?
We need to operate successful business entities that are sustainable and profitable, and to be sustainable doesn’t only include money. It also means considering the businesses’ effect on the planet, the community partners, employees and rights holders. I feel that Indigenous leadership in business really shows that you can build a successful company with purpose, and that is of service to all of those aspects.
How can non-Indigenous people in Canada be better allies, supporters or advocates for Indigenous peoples?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has made 94 calls to action. In those calls, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is mentioned a bunch and serves as a framework for reconciliation. A lot of folks haven’t read the TRC. I think we’ve learned that even despite all of these movements, including the TRC and the MMIWG inquiry, Canadians still have not sought out the truth. And up until recently, Canadians never really understood the magnitude of all of that. So, non-Indigenous people need to do their own learning and not do it at the expense and labour of Indigenous peoples.
What is your vision for the future through the lens of reconciliation?
It’s a journey, and I’m committed to taking steps in that direction. I’m not sure if it’s something where we will say, yes, we have reconciliation with a big checkmark. That is certainly not the case today and very likely will not be the case in my lifetime or maybe in many generations. But I do feel it is a worthy endeavour that I want to bring my whole self to every day. And again, it’s back to that idea of relationality. When you think of things at that level, it really provides a lot of clarity. So reconciliation is the buzzword today and I know that there are other words and very likely other words that will come into the regular usage over the years. I just bring it back to my teachings of all my relations, and that’s how I see the reconciliation movement through.
What would you suggest as a first step for those seeking to learn more about Indigenous history, peoples, and culture?
We did create a website called #Next150 challenge, which is part of the Indian Horse film which premiered a few years ago. In that website, there are a series of reconciliation-focused challenges that include a lot of self-learning and includes things like books and diversifying the voices that you follow for your news. There’s a lot there.
What is your advice to Indigenous youth reading this?
We’re all rooting for you. You have a community behind you, and we want you to take chances to learn along the way to find the passion in your life. You got this.
Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at Forbes.com since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.
Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women Association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawà:ke.