What is it like to be the first startup in your industry? The first to disrupt? The first to see the problem and know that you can fix it? I’ll Go First, a podcast from The Globe and Mail, takes us on a journey to find out.
Shyra Barberstock: There are some really amazing indigenous entrepreneurs out there making a difference. How can we get these positive stories out? Because we’re not seeing them in the news, and how can we create more opportunities? Some people might be surprised to know that there are some communities that are actually really thriving and they don’t need our help.
[Theme music fades in: upbeat, digital]
Takara Small: From the Globe and Mail, this is I’ll Go First.
TS: I’m Takara Small, welcome to the show where we sit down with people who’ve seen a problem with the world, and decided to fix it.
The unemployment rate for Indigenous people is nearly double that of Canada as a whole.
And yet, a 2017 survey found that two thirds of Indigenous business owners struggle to find indigenous employees.
So our guest on this episode wanted to help make those important connections that can spark entrepreneurship.
SB: Hi I’m Shyra Barberstock and my company is Okwaho Equal Source and we’re an Indigenous consultancy and design thinking firm.
TS: Shyra Barberstock saw a vast, untapped resource of indigenous talent across Canada but what she didn’t see was positive portrayals in the media of indigenous people and their businesses.
[Theme music ends]
TS: Because Indigenous talent isn’t just a labour pool. It is thousands of years of knowledge and culture.
So how do you find those entrepreneurs? How do you connect such diverse communities so they can become the next success story?
Like with so many modern questions, the answer is the internet which is why Shyra and her husband built a social network.
And when they launched the Okwaho Network, they found that people who aren’t from indigenous communities wanted to connect with them as well. Conservation organisations in particular are waking up to the benefits of working with Indigenous people.
In fact, the duo got so much interest they launched a second company, their consultancy agency called Okwaho Equal Source.
Commercial: This episode of I’ll Go First is brought to you by National Car Rental, where you can skip the counter and choose any car in the aisle. Keep listening to learn even more ways to stay in the driver’s seat when you’re travelling for business.
TS: What inspired you to create the company?
SB: Well, back in 2013 - that’s the same year that I met my now husband.
SB: So he’s Mohawk and I’m Algonquin. He’s originally from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory and my first nation community is Kebaowek First Nation in Kebaowek Quebec. I think what really inspired us is back in that period of time, I was going to Western University and I was taking First Nations studies and I was also taking geography. And my husband at that time was working in some of the local First Nations and at that time we used to have these really long car rides where we would go from London, Ontario, to Tyendinaga because he actually missed home and that’s quite a ways away from London. I mean, that was probably a good four to seven hour drive depending on what route you take. So we took this route every, I would say every couple of weeks. He really missed home so we visited a lot and we’d have these really intense conversations. We both really wanted to do something to see positive change. We saw some of the challenges in the communities. For me, one of the things that I saw taking First Nation studies is I felt like a lot of the times when we talked about business, I feel, I felt like it was negative. It’s really important to talk about that stuff because there are some real issues but then on the flip side, a lot of First Nation communities, some of them have actually done really well with economic development and business. There’s some really amazing Indigenous entrepreneurs out there making a difference. And for my husband, he really wanted to see more positive examples of economic development.
TS: Uh Huh.
SB: So there’s a few things that inspired us. One, you know, how can we get these positive stories out because we’re not seeing them in the news. How do we do that? and how do we create more opportunities so that Indigenous people and Indigenous communities can take advantage of opportunities, economic development, joint ventures, entrepreneurship, etc.? And so we had one of these life defining moments where we were on one of these really long car rides and we just looked at each other and we just said, why don’t we stop talking about it? Why don’t we actually do something about it? Why don’t we create a social network that’s built by Indigenous people, for Indigenous people? And so we decided to create it. It took a whole entire year because he had a full time job and I was in full time undergrad. But we, we did it! After a full year we were able to launch the Okwaho network, that’s what it’s called, in 2014. And it’s a social network and we had originally built it for indigenous people in Canada, but we actually ended up having people from other countries join.
TS: Oh wow.
SB: So Indigenous people from Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand. And we also had a whole bunch of non-Indigenous people join as well. So we discovered that non-Indigenous people wanted to find better ways to connect with Indigenous people.
TS: Where did the name come from?
SB: My husband, as I had mentioned, is Mohawk and in his community, they have clans and Okwaho means, Wolf, in the Mohawk language. And so that’s his clan Okwaho, Wolf, but we also loved the idea of the imagery of the Wolf. They travel in packs, you know, which was the whole idea behind the social network, which was to help build everyone up and to create a pack, basically.
TS: You were adopted. You didn’t grow up in an indigenous home. What was that experience like for you?
SB: I had a good upbringing and I’m actually very close with my parents and my siblings that I grew up with. So I’m really fortunate with that. I didn’t actually discover that I was Indigenous until I met my birth mother.
Shyra: When I was 21 years old. So I had no idea.
TS: What was that experience like when you found out?
SB: It was actually a big shock for me because I had just been brought up in the suburbs of London, Ontario and Newmarket mainly. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in the schools that I was in. I had never even met anybody who is indigenous when I was going to school and then when I met my birth mother, she looks a lot like me, but she’s got a darker complexion than I do and when I met my birth siblings, they’re also darker than I am. And then once we started to talk about it, that’s when it really hit me that I was a different culture than I had been brought up.
And I remember looking at the the adoption records when I was 18 and it said I was Native American. When I read the words Native American at that time I didn’t necessarily know what that meant. I couldn’t connect with it because I had never actually met anyone who was Native American at that time.
TS: You mentioned that you decided to attend Western University and connect with the indigenous community and learn what it meant to be Indigenous. What, to you, does it mean?
SB: That’s a really amazing question. I hadn’t actually... nobody’s... surprisingly, nobody’s ever asked me that before. That’s a really good question. It’s a journey For me, so for me it’s about connecting with who my ancestors were to try to figure out who I am as an Indigenous person. So that’s been a really big part of the journey for me. And also trying to connect with what does it mean to be Algonquin? What does it mean to be Anishnaabe? So that’s a really big part of it. And I’m also really proud. I’m really, really proud to be Anishnaabe. When I think about the history of Canada and everything that’s happened and the amount of resilience and strength that must have taken from my ancestors for me to even be here. I’m very proud of my heritage.
TS: I can see you tearing up a little bit. Is it emotional for you to, to think about and talk about the resilience and strength that it takes to be Indigenous and how far your community has come?
SB: I would definitely say so I think it is emotional because when you look at the history of what’s happened in Canada with residential schools and things like the Sixties scoop and, and in that dark history of Canada, which Canada is still coming to terms with, then yes, it’s definitely emotional. It took a lot of resilience for all of our Indigenous ancestors to be able to pull through because a lot of them didn’t make it. Between disease and the residential school systems and everything that happened. So I’m very proud of my ancestors because of the resilience and because they pulled through.
TS: And I think it’s something that more Canadians need to learn about and need to know and with the platform that you’ve created, it’s giving also a lot of non-Indigenous people, as you mentioned, a chance to connect with and work with indigenous people. Any surprises there that you’ve learned or really great milestones that the platform has achieved since launching?
SB: The fact that I went international was really exciting. Our second official member of the Okwaho Network when we first launched it was a Maori from New Zealand.
TS: That’s a little far - *laughs* that’s a little far away from Canada.
SB: Yeah that was really unexpected. I actually e-mailed that member. And, you know, at that time I was like, you know, welcome to the Okwaho Network. I hope that you enjoy it and how did you hear about us?
TS: And how did they hear about you?
SB: He had heard about it through basically the press release that we had put out.
TS: Oh, wow.
SB: Which was really exciting because we thought that only mostly people from Canada would read it, but he had read it in New Zealand.
It’s also opened the door to other platforms and community building. So one of the things that I’m very excited about is the Indigenous climate hub, and the Indigenous climate hub is a platform that was built after it was basically co created. So the idea was co created by a group of Indigenous climate change leaders back in 2018. They wanted one place where they could find resources, where they could have access to funding and where they could share their stories. Because one of the things that came out of that was these stories coming out of the communities are so important. Some of these communities are using technology in amazing ways and if one community can solve a problem that’s similar to another community, then getting those stories out there is really important. So I’m really excited to say that after the gathering, we worked very, very closely with that group and also with Indigenous affairs, which is now called CIRNAC, now it’s live. These stories are being shared nationally and probably globally.
TS: Why do you think Indigenous communities are inherently and uniquely positioned to talk about the dangers of climate change and the time that we’re in now?
SB: Well, if you look at we’ll look at the history of Canada, for instance, as history shows us that Indigenous people have been here for over ten thousand years, ten thousand years of living that closely with the land and oral culture and stories being passed down and Indigenous knowledge, which is so, so deep when you think of the amount of generations that was that was passed through. So I think that Indigenous people are uniquely positioned to be able to deal with climate change because we still have a lot of those stories being passed down. I remember watching a documentary about the Inuit people and listening to the older Inuit people talk about how the direction of the wind has changed and where the ice used to be and how it’s melted and how wildlife has been affected. And that knowledge is really important because they’re the carriers of our history, but they’re also carriers of a lot of wisdom that could potentially help with the projects that people are doing with climate change.
TS: So there are a lot of Canadians who are interested in working with or alongside Indigenous communities. How would you suggest they go about doing that?
SB: First of all, I think that it’s important for Canadians to know that Indigenous communities are very, very diverse. So I think it’s important to look at which group of Indigenous people or, you know, First Nations or Metis or Inuit or whichever group it is you want to work with. And then really learning the history of that area and the history of those people. It’s really important to have that background and to be very, very open minded. I think the first step is always education, learning as much as we can about Indigenous people and about the history of your region. How many people can say, you know, you know, who are the traditional peoples of this land? Who are the traditional peoples of Toronto? Who are the traditional peoples of Ottawa? You know, that’s a good first start. And then knowing what the history is, knowing what your treaty is, you know, was a treaty signed in this area? Because actually we’re all treaty people. And the other thing as well that, I think is really important and I really promote is Indigenous-led. I think sometimes when we’re reading a lot of different news articles we’ll see communities that are really struggling. And it can actually be really heartbreaking when you hear some of those stories. And I think sometimes it can give our minds a message, like “all communities are in crisis. They need my help.” Like if they’re not an Indigenous person. And sometimes that can actually create issues. I think I think it can come from a really good place. But I think that it’s really important that people realize that Indigenous people are very resilient and that a lot of the times the answers might already be in the community. Some communities are definitely in crisis and they might actually want help and they can assert what that is if they want that help, especially if it’s from indigenous or non-Indigenous people. But some people might be surprised to know that there’s some communities that are actually really thriving and they don’t need our help.
TS: So there isn’t a lot of diversity in the startup and entrepreneurship world in Canada. Does that make it challenging for you sometimes to interact in and to engage?
SB: It can be challenging at times. I mean, sometimes not at all. Sometimes things just really click. They really Jive. You find people. You really connect with them. And, you know, we’ve got some really great clients and we felt really great relationships with. We’re on a hugging basis with them, you know. So I always try to get to the place where my clients and I get along enough that we hug when we see each other. You know, that’s the type of relationships we like to build. But I’m gonna be honest, because there have been challenges. I mean, there have been situations where we’ve received comments like “oh, you’re not what we thought Indigenous people would be like.”
TS: Whoa, what does that even mean?
SB: Exactly. You know, and or “oh, you don’t well, you don’t represent the average Indigenous person” because both my husband and I we’re very well educated, we’re articulate. We have a very successful business. And when people say that I’m not really sure how to respond. And it makes me sad because it makes me think, what is their perception of Indigenous people that they would think that we’re outside of the norm?
TS: Mm hmm.
SB: I know a lot of Indigenous scholars. I know several indigenous people with PHDs. I know, you know, I have a few people in my network that are Indigenous and they’re millionaires because they are really smart in business. But what was the perception of those people that would say that to us?
TS: Uh hmm. How do you tackle that perception? Do you feel like you have to constantly educate those type of people? Which I imagine can just be emotionally draining.
SB: It can be emotionally draining and it can catch you off guard at times. I mean, we try to. Of course, we’re in business, so we always maintain professionalism. But but it is - it can be tough. Like I can say that. I mean, one thing that I’m happy of is that I think that we helped to blast stereotypes. I mean, both my husband and I, we have our business and we’re also PHD students at Queens. Within the next couple of years, we will both have PHDs and we’re subject matter experts. And, you know, we’ve opened up a lot of doors, which are pretty exciting, right? And it doesn’t even matter at this point that we’re indigenous. I mean, we are a couple that have gotten into business, have done really well and we’re also very strong academics.
TS: So tell me a little bit about the wedding fund.
SB: *laughing* Oh, yes. So that’s, that’s kind of a fun story. So back in 2013, when we first met and we started dating, we actually got married within seven months.
TS: Ooh that’s soon.
SB: We knew we wanted to be together but we were in our 30s so I think at that point we knew what we were looking for and we are definitely a real match. So we got married within seven months and this story's kind of funny because this is where I'll tell you I'm incredibly shy. I did not want to have, like, a wedding where you have a lot of guests and it's all the family and the food that just terrified me. And so he's also very shy as well. And so the two of us decided we were going to elope. So the two of us eloped and didn't tell anyone. So we're both very good secret keepers. So the two of us eloped in September 2013. And we didn't tell anyone that we got married until after we were married.
TS: So what did your parents say?
SB: I was really terrified but on both sides our parents knew that we were very unconventional people and it actually didn’t surprise anyone. And after the initial shock, it was just welcome to the family. Congratulations.
TS: And then the wedding fund was…?
SB: I’ll tell you about the wedding fund. So when we first created the Okwaho network we had actually made the rounds trying to get funding for it like any startup. We went to everyone and we told them what we wanted to do and we were really hoping to land a small loan, or we were hoping to land a grant to get it started and no one would give us funding. Where the wedding comes in and where this gets really funny is because we eloped and no one saw that coming, we didn’t realize it, but our parents had actually saved up some money in case we ever got married. We, of course, didn’t know this. It was a modest amount, but - the perfect amount for a startu!. So the joke that we share is that we’re true entrepreneurs because we took that money... we did not go on a honeymoon. We didn’t buy ourselves any presents. We used it to completely buy software. And we built the Okwaho network with the wedding fund.
SB: We now take our parents out for dinner once a year and give them updates on the company because technically they are our first investor.
[Music break - calm, relaxed]
TS: You’re a little shy at times.
SB: How did you discover that? **Laughs**
TS: How- as an entrepreneur, how can you be shy when you’re such a trailblazer?
SB: I’m a little frightened now.
TS: No - you shouldn’t be you’ve accomplished so much!
SB: That’s a really great question. So I did start off incredibly shy when I was younger. I was one of those people. If I was in class and the teacher spoke to me, I would turn five shades of red and then I would turn another five shades of red when I thought the students were looking at me turning red. So I was incredibly shy. The idea of public speaking would have terrified me. And there’s a couple of things that I think have really helped me with that: One, when I started teaching computer software in my 20s, that really helped a lot because it forced me to get up in front of adults on a regular basis and to teach them. That really helps. But I think that throughout this journey, especially through entrepreneurship, I’ve had to push myself regularly to do things that have pushed me outside of my comfort zone. So after the Okwaho network launched in 2014, we started to get a lot of requests - so my husband and I started to get a lot of requests for public speaking because we are a woman led company, which is pretty cool. I’m really proud about that. I’ve been asked to sit on panels as a woman entrepreneur, to represent women, to represent indigenous women. And I’ve had to push myself out of my comfort zone because I’ve done everything from panels to keynotes. I’ve spoken to groups over a hundred people. I MC’d an event once, you know, I facilitate. I’m still very shy. You can actually see that if you put me into a very large group of people and told me to walk around and network, you would actually see how shy I am. But I actually, strangely enough, love public speaking. I really love being able to connect with people in that way. And I love the conversations that I have after that, because you really get those connections.
I think that you can start off being really frightened of something. But if you continuously push yourself, it’s possible to get over it and I’m definitely... I’m definitely an example of that, because if you had told me 10, 20 years ago, you know, you’re going to be on stage, you’re going to be giving presentations, you’ll go to different countries and they’re gonna be looking for your subject matter expertise. I would have laughed at you. I would have said, there’s no way. **laughs**
[Music break - upbeat, bouncy, digital]
Commercial: I uh, hear you rockin the pods, fellow control enthusiasts. You’re plugged in, expanding your mind, drinking deep from the cup of knowledge. Well let me fill your ears with a little more knowledge. Only National Car Rental lets you skip the counter, choose any car in the aisle, and go. Podspeed business pro, podspeed. Go national, go like a pro. Subject to availability and other restrictions. Requires enrollment in the complimentary Emerald Club.
TS: Let’s do Rapid Fire! So rapid fire, I know it sounds scary but it’s really fun. I’m just gonna ask you a couple questions you have to answer as quickly as possible.
SB: *Whispers* Oh no
TS: **laughs** What do you do for fun?
SB: I play piano and I paint.
TS: What motivates you?
SB: Making a difference.
TS: Tell me about your perfect day off.
SB: Perfect day off is reading a book and going to a painting class.
TS: How many hours on average do you sleep a night?
TS: What’s your greatest fear?
TS: What’s the one word your friends would use to describe you?
SB: **Chuckles** Entrepreneur... no, leader! I’ll say leader.
TS: What’s your favorite thing to do to de-stress?
SB: Play music, so I’ll play piano, play guitar.
TS: Favorite hobby?
SB: Creative writing.
TS: What’s one product you can’t live without?
TS: OK, so that’s Rapid Fire. It was fun, right?
SB: **Laughing** It was kinda scary
OK. So the next part you’ll like then. Because it’s called the big three. But you can take as much time as you want to answer. OK. So the first one: what’s one piece of advice you tell your younger self?
SB: Don’t neglect your health because as an entrepreneur, that was the one mistake that actually both my husband and I made was putting everything business ahead of our health. So it’s something we’re actually catching up with right now.
TS: Did something happen to help you reflect upon why that’s important?
SB: We reached a period of time - we’re coming out of it now - but we reached a period of time where we felt so, so burnt out, you know, just like complete exhaustion. And it was just from basically putting everybody and everything ahead of ourselves. So the workaholic schedule... answering emails late at night, not taking weekends off for months, not taking vacations for years and it really took a toll on our health. So one of the things that we’ve changed this year, actually this year was the big wake up call, is that we’re sleeping more. We’re taking more days off. We’re starting to shut off our emails at night and it’s really exciting because the two of us are reconnecting with our hobbies again. So there was actually a few years where I wasn’t doing all of the hobbies that I’m so excited about that I talked about earlier, because a big part of especially me when I was younger was the arts. It was composing music. It was singing. It was creative writing. It was drawing. It was all those different things and all those things went to sleep for, I would say, a good three, four or five years because of all the business and all the school. And this year I realized that I absolutely need those things in my life. So being able to reconnect with the artist side of me has really helped a lot. Taking that downtime that I need has really helped a lot. And the other thing that I did this year, which is helpful and I’m going to mention this because this might be helpful to other entrepreneurs, is I deleted the email app off my phone. I’ve deleted all social media apps off of my phone. And now it forces me to go onto a laptop computer to check those things, which is good because I go on my laptop computer during working hours but in the evenings and the weekends, not having that on my phone has actually reduced a lot of my stress.
So I’d recommend that to any entrepreneur if you’re feeling stressed out. Delete all those apps off your phone and force yourself to go on your computer.
TS: I may take that advice.
SB: It’s great advice
TS: Adapt into my personal life because I do feel that stress. Right?
SB: You’ll feel better.
TS: Where do you see yourself in five years?
SB: I’m actually really hoping that in five years from now I would have written a book. It’s really important to have more books from an Indigenous perspective, especially in things like business and economic development. So I really want to contribute and I’m also very creative. I’m really, really hoping that some of my creativity can get out there as well, you know? So whether it’s like songs that I’ve written or poetry or if I could finally write a fictional novel, I would love that. And then in terms of Okwaho, I’m really hoping to build out the education side of Okwaho. Okwaho is all about social impact. It’s all about community building. So I just really hope that in five years from now that that expands.
TS: And is there one particular moment or situation that really helped define your career, that helped define your company?
SB: Just the fact that my husband and I are co-founders of this company together. You know, that’s been a really amazing experience. It’s not always easy when you’re married to the person that you’re a co-founder with because you can put stress on each other when times are stressful. But it also means that that person will never get sick of you talking about work because you’re in it together. So we’re on this really exciting journey together and just seeing how much we’ve been able to achieve together is pretty incredible. Not many people can probably say that about their significant other. So really, we’re really a team that’s been really exciting.
TS: Are you constantly talking business? Because obviously you’re both incredibly dedicated to your company, but you also have a relationship.
SB: *chuckling* Yeah, that can actually be a bit of a challenge because I have to admit, you know, sometimes on a Friday night or on Saturday, we'll go for a nice dinner and it's meant to be, you know, like husband and wife on a date. And then all of a sudden it turns into a business strategy meeting and I'm writing on napkins. And I have a new business idea… **laughs**
[End theme fades in]
TS: For listeners who want to get in touch with you, where can they find you?
SB: The best place to go is actually Okwaho.com. That’s our corporate website and if you’re interested in the social network, so that’s theokwahonetwork.com, that’s where you could find that. And then the Indigenous climate hub is indigenousclimatehub.ca
[End theme fades]
TS: That was Shyra Barberstock, thanks to her for sharing her story.
Amanda Truscott: I was like are you sure? Really? Me? I am the least technical person in our company and I also have the least amount of experience in mining and the guys were like… yes.
TS: If you’re enjoying the show then leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps people find us so please do it friends!
We also want to hear your story. You can reach me online @TakaraSmall on Twitter and Instagram or you can email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ll Go First is a Vocal Fry Studios production. Our producer is Jay Cockburn, with research by Cecilia Keating. Our executive producers are Kiran Rana and Katie Jensen.
For more stories about entrepreneurship, visit theglobeandmail.com and Subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts.
I’m Takara Small, this has been I’ll Go First. Subscribe now so you don’t miss the next episode.