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Entrepreneur's peers warned her she wouldn't be successful

As an Anishinaabe Métis woman, I am a proud indigenous Canadian. Born in Winnipeg and raised in Regina, I had lived in many cities across Canada and have worked in recruitment and search for 28 years. In 1996, I returned to Winnipeg and found myself working in executive search with one of the larger human resources consulting firms.

It struck me one day that there was a need to specialize in placing clients from diverse backgrounds. I saw the talent in the indigenous community of Winnipeg but no one was tapping into it. I believed this would be an exciting opportunity for the firm and I was willing to build this new area of business.

However, working for a consulting firm meant that if I launched into this, most of my hours needed to be spent on work for which the company could charge their clients. The owners didn't believe this was a profitable venture but they were in agreement as long as I did it on my own time. So I did.

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This initiative quickly became a success. Government departments, crown corporations, academic and financial institutions and resource companies looking to diversify their workforce and build bridges into the aboriginal community were keen to find qualified indigenous candidates for executive positions and boards. After a couple of years, about 30 per cent of the revenue of the firm was related to indigenous business and search, not just in Manitoba, but right across Canada.

The word got out in our community that I was leading this initiative and providing opportunities for our peoples. About once a week, someone would spontaneously show up at our office to drop off resumes of their relatives who were accountants, engineers, lawyers and other professionals.

Despite the new business, not everyone was thrilled about these visitors to the office. At the end of the day one Friday, a colleague warned me, "You can't have these native people sitting in our reception area."

I am never at a loss for words, but I was that afternoon. I went home hurt and angry. I decided on Sunday to offer my resignation Monday morning.

I would start my own firm and do what I love and know best. That was in May of 1999 and I decided to work from my home since I was a startup with no capital to invest in a lease. If the business was not successful by the fall, when my two teenage sons would head back to high school, I would look for other work.

Some of the challenges I faced were typical of a startup. I couldn't solicit my clients from the other firm by virtue of the contract I had signed. My competitors warned me that existing without an office was unprofessional and told me I would not be successful. Getting financing was tough, too, as several banks turned down my request for a line of credit although my credit was good and I had savings. But business quickly boomed, in a few months I had to hire staff.

Ten years ago, after my son Brock Higgins finished playing junior hockey and graduated from university, he joined me in the firm. This has been one most rewarding personal experiences in my business. I have been able to watch him become great in his work and love what he does. I get to talk and collaborate with him almost daily and Brock is now a major shareholder. He is based in our Ottawa office and is now the managing partner nationally. We both have a strong desire and vision to grow the firm, but are always mindful and incorporate the day-to-day teaching of our elders.

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Over the last 17 years our firm has established a very strong national brand in our indigenous community. We have successfully placed more diverse senior executives and board members across a wide range of sectors than any other firm in Canada. Five years ago, with approximately 75 per cent of our revenue related to indigenous and other diversity search, we made a conscious decision to do more mainstream work. We believe in ensuring cross-pollination of people between our communities and mainstream Canada. It was time to break the silos. So, a couple of years ago, we partnered with Leaders & Co. Executive Search, which brings an international brand recognition and an innovative search methodology.

Initially, I resented my previous company for having pushed me in this direction, given the challenges and frustrations. But slowly I came to the realization that I would have never had the desire or courage to start the business on my own. Looking back now, I believe the whole situation and events were a huge gift and that it was the creator's plan all along.

Brenda LaRose is managing partner of Higgins, an executive search and board search company located in Winnipeg and Ottawa.

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