Born in Saskatoon 32 years ago, Rachel Eyahpaise had an upbringing that was anything but stable. A member of the Sakimay First Nation, she was a permanent ward of the government until she turned 18, in and out of so many foster and group homes in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia that she lost count.
The soon-to-be-married mother of three says she learned to be strong early on. When Ms. Eyahpaise (pronounced yah-PACE) wasn't at one of the two residential schools she attended, she picked up a hobby to help pass the time. Around Grade 3, she began knocking on neighbourhood doors, selling homemade frozen drinks. Her entrepreneurial streak has been with her ever since. Ms. Eyahpaise is now in the process of launching two of her own small businesses.
"Some [foster and group] homes were good, and some were bad," Ms. Eyahpaise recalls. "I would act out if I didn't want to be where I was. I learned to value the good relationships and learn different qualities from the families who opened their homes to me. Being 15 with nowhere to go was terrifying, especially when I was running out of foster or group homes to go to."
But as a result: "I learned to be independent and responsible at a very young age and had my own apartment when I was 16," she says. "When I was about eight, I used to go door to door to sell Slurpees that I had made myself through my own machine. I always knew that I wanted to be in business."
Ms. Eyahpaise is now getting two ventures off the ground in her home town: GROW-FN.CA, a social-media platform dedicated to First Nations communities and people, and Bannock Express, a catering company that specializes in items made with traditional bread, such as tacos, burgers, and pizza.
Like anyone who has successfully launched a startup, Ms. Eyahpaise was confident her ideas were strong enough to grow into something bigger. She just needed a hand getting from point A to point B.
Helping her turn concept into reality for both of her businesses is Empower, a program for aboriginal entrepreneurs run by Saskatoon business incubator Ideas Inc.
The organization provides all sorts of resources to aspiring business owners, the key ones being physical space in its modest brick building (whether it's to hold meetings or set up a temporary retail store), coaching, and mentorship, all at no cost.
Ideas Inc. executive director Depesh Parmar says that while starting a business can be a daunting task for anyone, it can be especially challenging for aboriginals – who represent the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population and also the poorest. And while many First Nations people in Saskatchewan are advancing their education or working in the trades, he says more and more seem to be gravitating toward the business sector.
"There's an appetite for aboriginal entrepreneurship," Mr. Parmar says. "We've started to see a new trend where there are a lot of aboriginal people that have all these ideas but they just don't know where to start. They are also faced with barriers, like [lack of] child care, basic education on how to start a business, transportation and cash flow."
The tough part is finding a starting point: "How can you start a business without any money to pay for a lease or to pay for coaching or to pay for office space? It's hard to pull off something like this without resources," he says. "We want to lift those barriers."
Empower launched last summer, taking in a total of five entrepreneurs; five more will join this spring. Coaching comes in the form of guidance with everything from developing a business plan to devising marketing strategies to applying for grants and securing other sources of funding.
Participants also have access to a roster of mentors to turn to for insight at any time. Among them are a café owner, the president of an engineering consulting firm, the head of a nationwide jewellery store and a developer. Sponsors of the program include Saskatchewan Blue Cross, mining company BHP Billiton, Alberici Western Constructors, the Government of Saskatchewan and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.
Ms. Eyahpaise has found Empower's support invaluable. Among her greatest challenges so far have been coming up with a marketing plan and drilling down effective time management, given that she's juggling three kids under age eight, working well into the evenings, while bootstrapping capital for her GROW-FN website via earnings from Bannock Express.
After she catered for a couple of small groups, word of her freshly made food spread fast and orders spiked.
"People can't get enough bannock," Ms. Eyahpaise says. "You can't get it anywhere else and there's a huge demand for it. We were having growing pains, and the team at Empower really helped with that. It opened up the doors that have allowed me to keep trekking forward. They give you all the tools you need to succeed."
Ms. Eyahpaise, who has applied to be on CBC's Dragon's Den, has also applied for full-time space at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market. She has hired people to help her with the baking as well as delivering orders. As Bannock Express grows, she'll direct profits to build her website, where she ultimately hopes to provide an overview of every single First Nations band in the country and where indigenous people can post their own art, talent, and business profiles.
Bob Joseph, founder of the Port Coquitlam, B.C.-based Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc., says that more programs that help aboriginal people succeed in business are desperately needed.
"There can be some really broad systemic barriers [to indigenous people starting their own businesses]," says Mr. Joseph, who teaches courses in working effectively with aboriginal people. "Some of the barriers are tied to residential schools…which were kind of lesser education."
Then there's a limited pool of role models within the community, as Mr. Joseph, who started his company with his wife 12 years ago, can relate to himself. "Both my parents didn't participate a whole lot in the economic mainstream or the business mainstream, so it can be hard to learn the philosophy behind them," the Gwawaenuk Nation member says. "Going into business is a great big learning curve."
Accessing significant capital for business startups can also be extremely complicated for status Indians because of tax laws, he says, with many turning to commercial lenders and special loan programs.
"There's lots of extra paper work and rules and regulations," Mr. Joseph notes. "The financial stuff definitely gets a little bit technical."
The father of two teenagers says that although there are resources available to indigenous business owners through various government bodies, it's hard to find comprehensive guidance from the idea stage to the up-and-running phase – and even rarer to find ongoing mentorship.
"What I found frustrating was the business-planning piece," he says. "Should I incorporate or stay a sole proprietor? What are the insurance requirements? What does the province want me to do in terms of paperwork? What about WorkSafeBC [workers' compensation]? There are so many policies and regulations you just stumble upon along the way."
Adds Mr. Joseph: "I would have loved to have had a coach or a mentor, because so much of it just doesn't make any sense at first. It can be overwhelming."
Sarah Gaudry applied to the Empower program after several years working in the claims department at an insurance company. A Métis with a knack for clothing design and personal styling, she knew that the office life wasn't for her but needed help on how to turn her passion into a profession.
While she's been learning how to build a website for her company called The Knick, Ms. Gaudry has also filled a retail space at Empower, selling items she makes herself and the vintage clothing she sources from around the world – something she wouldn't have been able to do on her own at this stage of the game.
"They were able to provide free space to showcase my product, which has been so great," says the Moosejaw-born Ms. Gaudry, 31. "It's been great to have customers be able to touch and feel and experience your products first-hand. They also provide mentorship and coaching, which is great, especially when starting out as a new business owner and you're not sure where to source your answer from. You have expert opinion at your fingertips.
"It's pretty scary, challenging stuff," she adds. "But it's definitely rewarding to see your idea come to life."
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