Ask Mark Selman at the Beedie School of Business how he would measure the success of its executive MBA in aboriginal business and leadership, and he would likely point first to Ian Campbell.
Mr. Campbell is a hereditary chief and cultural ambassador of the Squamish First Nation in British Columbia and has been involved in negotiating land-use deals worth billions of dollars. "[He] has emerged as a real leader on the business side, not just the cultural side," says Dr. Selman, director of the EMBA.
But Mr. Campbell, among the first graduates of the program in 2015, is just one such example, he emphasizes. From the community centre employee who got funding for a new daycare facility to the band office clerk who set up her own consultancy, "we have lots of tangible success stories where people have taken a look at doing things in a new way and made it happen."
Dr. Selman designed the EMBA at Simon Fraser University's Beedie after years of involvement and consultation with Indigenous communities. It took in its initial cohort in 2012, was the first of its kind in Canada and has added to the efforts of other schools, particularly in the West, trying to reach an often marginalized demographic.
"Research shows that nations that do best in terms of economic development are the ones that have the strongest governance, and that in turn reflects the commitment and culture of the community," he explains. "So we are not in a position to understand that fully unless we spend a lot of time talking to Indigenous people."
The University of British Columbia has also been working with First Nations students, through its Ch'nook Indigenous Business Education Centre. Not only are Canada's Indigenous populations growing, says Frances Chandler, director of the Ch'nook program, "but so many of them are entrepreneurs. It makes good sense to get as many Indigenous people into business and into learning about business as we can."
The Ch'nook program has three components – an aboriginal management program that teaches students new skills for starting or improving a business; scholarships for business students from colleges and universities across British Columbia and at the University of Calgary; and a new Indigenous business education program, piloted just last summer.
The centre also acts as social hub, says Dr. Chandler, "so aboriginal students in any program can get together, where they are comfortable, and have a place to go if they are struggling."
It was originally founded in 2001 by an Indigenous professor in UBC's faculty of education and her husband, a business professor.
"They were looking at, how can we deal with those populations that are maybe not getting into university?" Dr. Chandler says. "And, then, how can we support them while working through their degree?"
Those are issues that are also tackled at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business through its Indigenous Business Education Partners (IBEP) unit. Its director, Peter Pomart, describes the unit as "a leadership incubator for students."
Originally started in 1994, its name reflects its goal of doing "everything in partnership," he says, "with corporate partners, with donors, and with our tutors. The work we do is really facilitating relationships to benefit our students' experience as they work on their BComm [bachelor of commerce]."
Mr. Pomart works with a full-time recruiter who attends career fairs in First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities. "We also have a fairly robust scholarship pool," he says. And agreements with regional colleges allow business students to expand on their diplomas by completing Asper's bachelor of commerce with two more years of study, and apply for bursaries to help pay for that.
IBEP also offers a social component, says Mr. Pomart. "Our staff is very proactive in setting up appointments with new students coming straight from high school, as well as rural students, and putting them in touch with any resources they may need."
They do that together with the University of Manitoba's Indigenous Commerce Students Club, which is partly funded by IBEP. "They assist us by putting on social events and creating the environment where new students can find their place, find a home, here at the Asper school," he says.
Asper's aboriginal business studies major, meanwhile, is the only one of its kind in Canada. It features courses offered jointly with the university's department of native studies.
"This major helps companies engaging with Indigenous communities with the knowledge they need as it relates to development projects or diversifying their work force," says Mr. Pomart.
For Dr. Selman at Beedie, meanwhile, any business school hoping to attract more First Nations students will have to recognize that cultivating relations with aboriginal leaders is key to adjusting to the needs of aboriginal students.
"Most business schools do not have Indigenous faculty members, or faculty members who understand Indigenous issues very deeply," he says. "And all the things about university that make it an elite place for learning can also make it really hard to get over some of those problems in a creative way."