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Clint Davis says 'the keys to success for Indigenous businesses starts with medium and large companies opening their procurement processes up to support underrepresented businesses beyond their normal suppliers.'Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Clint Davis, Inuk from Labrador, is the president and chief executive officer of Nunasi Corp., an Inuit development corporation headquartered in Iqaluit. Mr. Davis has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Acadia University, a law degree from Dalhousie University and a master of public administration from Harvard University, where he was a Canada-U.S. Fulbright scholar. Before his appointment at Nunasi, he was the CEO of North35 Capital Partners, a business and capital advisory firm that worked with Indigenous governments and economic development corporations to achieve growth. Mr. Davis also served as the vice-president of Indigenous banking at Toronto-Dominion Bank. In 2016, Mr. Davis received the Indspire Award for Business and Commerce.

How has your upbringing influenced your perspective as a leader?

My mother was quite young when she had me and so I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather was a hunter, fisherman and a trapper, and while he was on the land, my grandmother raised nine children on her own. As a child, my family would go to our cabin on the coast of Labrador every summer for fishing and berry picking. It was, and still is, a very remote area. There was no running water and no electricity, only the woods and the river. In the time we spent there, it was really all about living off the land, like in the old days. Those years on the land were very formative experiences for me.

Then as I got older and was working primarily in urban areas, I considered myself particularly blessed to have experienced that. Now, I really cherish those memories and ground myself in those feelings of gratitude, despite all the mosquitos.

How has your Inuk identity influenced your career?

It has influenced and continues to influence my value system and how I make decisions, particularly professional ones. Looking at my résumé, you can clearly see that I have a followed a certain path in the work that I’ve been a part of. It wasn’t only because I thought learning about Indigenous law, policy or business was intellectually stimulating, it was because the positions and organizations were connected to bigger issues that I cared about.

The fact that my community was going through the land-claims process really drove my interest in Indigenous law and policy. It was also the foundation of my interest in big-picture issues, that is improving the socio-economic position of Indigenous people through greater participation in the Canadian economy. Throughout my career, I have always looked for ways to contribute because I possess a certain skill set and I thought that I could be of value in that regard. So being an Inuk is something I’m extremely proud of and my identity has heavily influenced me in so many important ways.

Having worked in both the public and private sector, how do you believe business can learn from government?

I believe government is very much about balance. Working in public service, you’re always weighing different interests, considerations in distributing your financial resources and the complex consequences of the policies you employ. You get used to asking the question: How is this having an impact on our citizens and improving society?

On the other hand, I believe different industries and companies are beginning to realize that business is bigger than simply maximizing shareholder wealth. I believe that is why there is a rise in popularity of ESG [environmental, social, and governance] and socially responsible investing. I think that business is beginning to see the need for balance and wading into issues and considerations they’ve never had to do before. Some of these include Indigenous rights, the environment, as well as equity, diversity and inclusion. Most of all, I think that government has a lot to teach business in terms of just being a better corporate citizen.

Could you briefly describe today’s “Indigenous economy”?

The two significant drivers of the Indigenous economy are Indigenous entrepreneurs, which there are over 30,000 across the country, and community-owned businesses or development corporations. While there exists a great diversity in their approaches, structures and strategies, there are also a few key things they tend to have in common. These generally include a foundation in Indigenous values, a respect for the land, a long-term vision of business and a value for culture. Further, based upon research from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, despite individual Indigenous-owned businesses being on the small to medium size, every entrepreneur puts a priority on hiring, training and developing Indigenous peoples.

What are three keys to successfully supporting Indigenous businesses and business owners?

The keys to success for Indigenous businesses starts with medium and large companies opening their procurement processes up to support underrepresented businesses beyond their normal suppliers. Establishing hard targets for these businesses will create a new market and customer base for Indigenous businesses. Further, the amount of money that the Government of Canada spends each year versus the amount of money that they could be spending on Indigenous business really pales in comparison to what they could actually be doing. Recently, they have committed publicly to 5 per cent of their procurement spend for Indigenous business. Once this happens, it will have a profound impact on the Indigenous economy.

I think some of the other keys for support and success for Indigenous business, particularly those that are in the communities, is the need for basic infrastructure. While this certainly pertains to things like buildings and roads, it also extends further in this day and age. When everything is online, it’s very hard to run a business if you live in a community where you have limited connectivity.

Finally, beyond only offering debt, we need more organizations injecting equity into Indigenous businesses. For example, I think organizations like the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association or Raven Capital Partners are absolutely vital in providing that necessary capital for startup businesses through co-investment and financial innovation opportunities.

What advice do you have for Indigenous youth reading the column?

Dream big, focus on your education and stay very close to your identity and be proud of it. My wife and I constantly say this to our three children. I believe this will help Indigenous youth have a positive impact in their communities, in their nations and in the world at large.

Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:

For Mi’kmaw educator Marie Battiste, inner growth is essential to be a leader

‘Our survival utterly depends on living in nature, not apart from it,’ Indigenous rights advocate says

For Senator Murray Sinclair, leadership is defined by humility

Trust is the foundation of leadership, says Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation

We must prioritize economic reconciliation, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business CEO Tabatha Bull says

For Tracy Bear, leadership begins with accountability, service and connection to the land

For APTN chief executive Monika Ille, leadership means honouring her Nation’s history

Pause, think, listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on using Indigenous approaches to leadership

About the series

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.

Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.

Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, 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 he 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.

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