Last September, after a physically distanced marketplace had just wrapped up, and with a dwindling event calendar, three Six Nations women behind small businesses talked about starting a new project together.
Without a marketplace to sell her products, Cayuga, Ont., beaded jewellery designer Amye Annett-Werner got the idea to package all their offerings together into a seasonal subscription box that would include a rotating roster of other Indigenous artists. Together with Ojibway/Ashkenazi actress Sarah Podemski, who makes modern dreamcatchers, and Mohawk Baltic amber jewellery maker Shelby Johnson, they launched the Offering Box last October and sold out for both winter and spring.
This would not have come to be without the pandemic, Ms. Johnson said. “COVID has really shown me that I need to do what is important to me. I don’t know whether others who have started their own businesses beading, carving soapstone or woodworking feel the same way, but it’s almost as if, right now, our natural abilities are coming to us,” she said.
The jobs lost during the pandemic – 355,000 in Ontario in 2020 alone – have led people to look for other sources of income. For some Indigenous people, it’s a good time to join the rising tide of support for Indigenous, female-owned, local businesses, Ms. Annett-Werner said.
“It’s sad that it is coming out of a time like this, but I do think it’s a great opportunity,” she said.
Subscription boxes became trendy in 2010, but store closings and stay-at-home orders have helped accelerate their growth during the pandemic, with consumers signing up for curated boxes devoted to everything from cured meats to Korean beauty products. Subscribers sign up for the year, and boxes are delivered on either a monthly or quarterly basis. Sometimes individual boxes are for sale, without having to lock into a long-term commitment.
Since they launched their first box, they’ve arranged in-person pickups within their community and mailed out to the Toronto area, the United States and internationally. Each box costs $98 plus shipping, and they want them to remain affordable.
Early in the pandemic, Nehiyaw Iskwew entrepreneur Mallory Yawnghwe launched Indigenous Box, a subscription box containing five to seven Indigenous-made items. The first box went on sale on March 14, 2020, with subscriptions at $299 for the year or $81.99 for a single box. It sold out in the first four days. She restocked and doubled the number of boxes – and sold out within 24 hours. For the summer, she has quadrupled the number of boxes, though Ms. Yawnghwe declined to reveal the exact count.
The Edmonton-based entrepreneur got into the subscription box game because she’d purchased boxes before and always thought, “There should be an Indigenous version of this.” She’s hoping to spread the message to non-Indigenous audiences that Indigenous people also participate in commercial activities. And she wants her Indigenous customers to feel like VIPs, especially during a pandemic.
“People are needing just a little bit of surprise, discovery and something to treat themselves while they’re at home,” she said. “The pandemic has allowed for us to create something using only an e-commerce platform that can reach people.”
She’d seen a few other Indigenous boxes, but “they were all centred around culture and teaching people about who we are,” she said. “I love that idea and I think that it’s needed, but I thought our people [could] support Indigenous entrepreneurship without having to push our culture and our traumas, because I’m a huge believer that our culture is not a commodity.”
The past few years have seen a flurry of bath and beauty products from Indigenous women, made with natural ingredients and environmentally conscious packaging, Ms. Yawnghwe said. She’s looking to include homemade soaps, shampoo bars and other items made by Indigenous entrepreneurs, including food such as smoked dry meat.
Indigenous Box has two streams of business; one has hundreds of boxes going out to individual customers, while the other serves corporate and non-profit clients. Ms. Yawnghwe has created custom boxes for corporations to offer gifts on National indigenous Peoples Day, as well as for universities and their Indigenous graduates.
“We’re participating in commerce,” she said. “I think that now is the time to discover Indigenous business.”
Indigenous peoples contribute more than $30-billion a year to Canada’s GDP, and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business forecasts this number will grow to $100-billion by 2024.
That kind of expansion is evident in the subscription box business. Raven Reads, the Kamloops-based Indigenous book and giftware subscription box, launched well before the pandemic, but over the past year company founder and CEO Nicole McLaren has moved into a new warehouse and fulfilment centre. She needed it for her growing business and to have more space for COVID-19 safety protocols.
Originally launched in 2017 in Ms. McLaren’s basement, with fewer than 100 subscribers, Raven Reads now has a team of eight working out of the 2,000-square-foot warehouse to send out its seasonal boxes to more than 3,000 global subscribers.
“[The pandemic] forced us to adjust our cash flow to allow us to purchase our goods much sooner than usual,” she said by e-mail. “COVID-19 also prevented us from utilizing extra help and volunteers for packing our boxes in our previous location.”
They also faced major disruptions to their supply chain – just like most companies – and have had to expand the team virtually to improve procurement timelines.
“We are still struggling with lengthy shipping times both in terms of receiving our products and shipping boxes to our customers,” she said. “Unfortunately, once freight or parcels are in transit, it can be next to impossible to speed it or track it down at times, which leaves us at the mercy of the carrier.”
The company continues to pivot, offering a new digital platform for its subscribers this month that will have exclusive content, digital media and discount codes from partners. Ms. McLaren sees it as something to offer customers between shipping times, which can include lengthy delays.
Meanwhile, Ms. Yawnghwe finds that having launched an Indigenous subscription box during a pandemic has brought her a lot of light and joy.
“We get stories through our social media and e-mails of how much happiness it’s brought to people,” she said. “We’re placing orders with entrepreneurs across Canada and we’re helping them at a time when their sales have dropped because markets and storefronts are closed, and it’s one little extra boost that makes a small difference.”