Raven Smith is an entrepreneur, growth strategist, and start-up advisor currently living in Boston. She is a member of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation in the Yukon Territory.
My First Nation, located in the Yukon Territory, has a long history of entrepreneurship: long before the Klondike Gold Rush, the Chilkoot pass was our historic trading route with the coastal Tlingit people. In recent years, I've watched my home community of Carcross emerge as a growing tourist destination, infusing energy in our community and seeding a thriving local economy.
I now live in Boston amid its thriving start-up culture. In the collision of my worlds I see a future in which aboriginal communities are increasingly achieving economic self-sufficiency. Young aboriginal entrepreneurs and investors are driving this change. They understand that business and entrepreneurship provide our path to economic independence.
At the root of the urban aboriginal renaissance is the desire to simultaneously contribute to the rich fabric of our cities while strengthening our connections to traditional culture. This renaissance is also reflected in aboriginal peoples increasing and proud presence in private enterprise.
The statistics underscore this emerging story. The Business Development Bank of Canada reports that there are more than 27,000 Aboriginal entrepreneurs in Canada, 30 per cent more than the 1996-2001 period. TD Bank says that aboriginal small business is growing at a rate that is six times faster than in the non-aboriginal market and that aboriginal entrepreneurs tend to be about 10 years younger than non-aboriginal entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurship is about developing innovative solutions to peoples' problems. A critical first step is to understand the particular problem facing consumers or a business. Aboriginal peoples, on and off reserve, have a unique perspective that can serve as a powerful source of innovation. Success in business is not at odds with aboriginal identity. Rather, entrepreneurship is a powerful vehicle for celebrating our identity, and sharing it with the world.
Take Lisa Charleyboy, who in 2013 launched Urban Native Magazine, an online lifestyle magazine. Ms. Charleyboy's magazine focuses on the lifestyle of young, modern, yet culturally connected aboriginal peoples. Not only is Ms. Charleyboy herself an example of how rising native entrepreneurs are re-shaping their industries and cities, her magazine exhibits how urban aboriginal peoples are blending their new urban environments with a renewed focus on native culture.
Or take Sean McCormick, founder and CEO of Manitobah Mukluks (headquartered in Winnipeg), which was recently named Canada's fastest growing footwear company by PROFIT 500's list. Mr. McCormick sums up his aims: "I dream of a day when we're not a business helping a community; but rather, a community helping ourselves…we will continue to build the dream of building a vibrant, global brand that Aboriginal people can feel proud of – and be part of."
These aboriginal entrepreneurs are motivated by more than profit. They have a desire to contribute to their communities. Sociologist Rochelle Côté has studied urban aboriginal entrepreneurship and found that "many entrepreneurs saw the ability to support their communities – whether through reserve-based development projects, mentorship programs or scholarships – as a fundamental element of their approach to business."
What does this mean for Canada? The Centre for the Study of Living Standards Report in 2009 says that an increase in aboriginal Canadians' level of education by 2026 to the level of non-aboriginal Canadians in 2001 would yield a cumulative $179-billion in GDP. Fostering aboriginal entrepreneurship is an important step towards economic independence. It will also enrich aboriginal communities and Canada.
This is exemplified by Skwachàys Lodge in Vancouver, Canada's first Aboriginal boutique hotel and a unique social enterprise that channels its profits to support indigenous artists in-residence. The hotel also runs a fair trade gallery showcasing the work of Native artists.
We need more Lisas and Seans. We need more social enterprises like Skwachàys. We need more support and mentorship for Native youth so that they can find their voice in the workplace and see entrepreneurship as a viable option. We need more opportunities for the young and growing aboriginal population to connect to each other. And we need networks for funding and mentorship that infuse Canadian businesses with the richness of native culture.
Fostering aboriginal entrepreneurship is the key to achieving economic independence in our communities. It's as an important vehicle not only for personal fulfillment, but also for uplifting our communities and strengthening our culture.