On February 25th, 2016 I went to the Aboriginal Women’s Business Entrepreneurship Network Conference at the Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, ON. Their tagline for the event was: Inspire, Educate and Empower. This event was hosted by Native Women’s Association of Canada under the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. This particular event was initiated in 2012 “with the vision and goal to: provide a safe, supportive, collaborative, empowering and culturally supportive environment that addresses the unique challenges of Indigenous entrepreneurs and aspiring Indigenous entrepreneurs; to enhance, develop and accelerate growth for current and aspiring female Indigenous entrepreneurs in a sustainable way through programs and resources and to promote Community leadership through volunteerism as a reflection of respect and reciprocity and will be paramount to the foundation of the Aboriginal Women’s Business Entrepreneurship Network.”
I found out about the event through Facebook, the Glittering World of our time. I RSVP’d for this event for various reasons. First, there was no registration fee and two meals were provided! Secondly, I wanted to start making connections with Indigenous community, and this event was very specific to my current aspirations of starting a business in Toronto as a Somatic Practitioner. Thirdly, I don’t know a whole lot about the administrative and business side of what being a Somatic Practitioner means. I know that I have the technical skills and experience as well as support, but how do I make a living doing what I am passionate about?
The event happened on the same day as a winter storm in the area, so flights were delayed and a few women were late or didn’t make it to the event which was unfortunate because the agenda had very informative and inspiring panelists. Before we get to the panelists, I want to mention that it was so great to have two meals provided free of charge for this one day event. Breakfast was incredibly tasty and you could peruse the vendors stationed next to the breakfast bar before or after you got your fill. One business I got a card for as Life Sustainers, Health Food/Nutrition Store. I bought a skin cream from them and find it to work well on my dry skin this winter in Toronto.
To begin, our MC, Waneek Horn-Miller, a retired Olympian, welcomed us into the space. She then turned the stage over to Elder Marilyn Capreol, Shawanaga First Nation, who led us in a morning prayer. As a guest on these lands, it’s always important for me to acknowledge and participate in the ways of the local custodians of these lands. Listening to the language, prayers, and meeting another Elder is such a privilege and honor. It also reminds me that after such a grand process of genocide, we are still here, especially the women--what a way to begin the day!
Our keynote was delivered by Tuesday Johnson-Macdonald, Tap Resources. She is a powerhouse! She shared stories about her journey to being a business owner. What stood out for me was her sharing of her “secrets” as she called them. She had started her business and found herself in a hump, a stagnant place where she couldn’t seem to move beyond. This is when she realized she had to face some of her secrets, traumas holding her back. She mentioned that dreams and secrets work together in that you might have dreams but that secrets hold you back. One of her secrets was that she had been left inside her home as a six month old baby when a fire broke out, and it was her grandfather who ran back inside and rescued her. Her grandfather passed a couple days after that fire, but it wasn’t before her parents thanked him and also said their goodbyes. The doctors told her parents that they either could go in and bid her goodbye or leave her at the hospital to give her a fighting chance. The parents left her there heartbroken, and for six months she had no touch, voice, or any other human contact while she recovered. She mentioned that this was very formative for her, the lack of contact from her parents in such formative months. She also told about her sexual abuse and how that formed her view of herself. She stressed that your business is reflective of yourself, that if it is stagnant, to engage in self reflection and work to mend and move through secrets. This was the most memorable part of her speech.
She did share advice about what she’s learned as a business person. She mentioned that it’s important to develop a business plan with business experts, to get out of your comfort zone, to know that there is a fear of failure that keeps people from learning and growing from failures, to join professional organizations of interest to you to prevent isolation, to practice thankfulness and to see the gifts of adversity, to seek mentorship in one-on-one or in Mastermind Groups, to make a vision board, to be a social entrepreneur where you develop relationships that work both ways, to know that you are inherently creative, to focus on what your passion is as a way to make a living, to recognize your own limitations, to create a lot of partnerships, to challenge yourself, to heed Elder’s wisdom and teachings, to inspire youth, to honor your gifts, invest in your business first, and to celebrate everyday successes. As our keynote, Tuesday really set the stage for the rest of day with her courage, vulnerability, tenacity, humor, and encouragement.
Following Tuesday’s keynote, we had the Finance Panel: Let’s Talk Money, Working with Financial Institutions. We had Catherine Roque, Business Development Bank of Canada and Clint Davis, TD Canada Trust for this panel. Catherine opened this portion with prompts from Waneek with the statement that money is a tool and a skill set. She mentioned that Indigenous businesses are a growing market segment. Clint followed up by stating that there are 1.4 million Aboriginals in Canada and of those 60,000 of the 100,000 Inuit who live in the world are in Canada. clinton was very fun with his trivia questions about where Inuit also live in addition to Canada. (Hint: Alaska, Russia, and Greenland) He mentioned that First Nations/Metis/Inuit businesses brought in 30 billion per year with a growth rate of 5.7%. Of this 30 billion, 1.2 billion was business generated by small businesses. He said that TD Bank initially invested a couple hundred million dollars for an Aboriginal business and it grew so much that now there is a sole bank dedicated to Aboriginals, First Nations Bank.
Waneek asked the panelists about what small businesses considering a loan at a bank three things they should consider. Clint mentioned that banks like to know how prepared you are in terms of identifying risks for your business, how to mitigate those risks, and in what creative and innovative ways you might do that. Catherine mentioned that banks throw around a lot of terms and jargon, but that they are happy to explain and discuss terms such as term, interest rate, payback period, and amortization to name a few. Banks want to see an achievable plan with insight into past performance especially since banks usually are conservative in their assessment of your business. Banks usually have a sense of what risks are inherent in certain business, like opening a restaurant. Apparently half of restaurants that open don’t make it. Banks want to know if your financial performance is consistent and if you have strong management skills. If you have collaborators, what skill sets are they bringing in? Banks work with both passion and hard technical skills to help your business plans and goals. They mentioned that most small business owners actually reinvest into their own business and take a smaller portion home. Additionally, they mentioned that there are some challenges for banks in terms of who they are investing in. Startups have a harder time getting loans due to a high percentage of failure. Another point banks look into is is your collateral.
Waneek asked if there was a difference between target consumers, on/off reserve issues for businesses, and what role your credit score plays into business loans. Essentially, both mentioned that you can ask why a bank turned you down for a loan, to become familiar with your credit score (which is a part of your financial self, but not the total of who you are), and that you can learn from banks turning you down for a loan. In terms of partnerships and reserve or off reserve businesses, the Inuit for example, have an advantage based on an agreement that businesses have to have Inuit partnership to operate on their reserve. They said that it doesn’t so much matter who your target consumer is in consideration for a loan.
If there is an option for scaling up your business that might be an opportunity for a partnership with someone else. You have to make sure they are the right person, financially strong, and are not using your Indigenous business for leverage as a name for their brand.Also, you have to like your partner. In any case, Indigenous businesses in certain agreements should be 51% owners and take home 51% of profit, not 10% as some shady business contracts have done. Other things to consider for a partnership is to be a part of the ownership structure and bottom line. Finally, it’s important to outsource parts of your business that you might not have the skill set for, such as access to a lawyer, wealth management planning, and accounting/taxes so all your ducks are in a row.
To finish this panel, they emphasized that small businesses consider what gives them the competitive edge in terms of marketing, brand, and product. Once you have a sense of that, you can figure out your business proposal to bring to a bank to get their support.
MARKETING & BRANDING
We moved on to the next panel before lunch. It was the Marketing & Branding Panel: A Brand is a Story That is Always Being Told. The three panelists for this session included Jennifer Taback, Design de Plume, Jay Pitter, The Placemakers & University of Guelph Faculty Member, and Waneek Horn-Miller, Manitoba Mukluks Brand Ambassador. To begin, there was a statement made about how your brand is your reputation and that who you are as a person impacts your business, especially in the age of social media. As a prompt, the panelists were asked where someone should begin with their marketing and branding for their business. Jennifer mentioned that a place to start would be with yourself. She stressed that your brand is your reputation. She also reminded the audience that they are already creative and to tap into that creativity in the selling of their product. Jay mentioned that they prefer the use of the word in its verb form, “branding” as a way to put forth that her ancestors were stolen and literally branded. This was a practice that separates her person from an often dehumanizing practice of business. She then mentioned that branding then is a personal story. What is the story you are selling? How does this help Aboriginal business owners push back and against cultural practices and values of being humble and authentic inside of a type of work that emphasizes aggressiveness and dehumanization?
In terms of social media use for your business, best practices included keeping professionalism at the forefront. You might have both a personal and professional page, and you might also have them interact. In social media, these two pages often reflect each other anyway. Some other tips were to keep posts short and to not spam friends. Social media can be used to show the world what you care about and your values. You can articulate that with integrity. It’s also a space to amplify things of importance to the world. Jay, for example, mentioned that she takes photos of herself doing something, so that she is telling a story inside of a certain context. She’s also careful not to post or repost something without giving it context or a certain angle. She would clarify or expound on a post so as not to keep a post within a “victimized” perspective for example, and to highlight ways that a community is also resilient, brave, etc.
Social media not only includes your personal inspirations and dreams, but also your political self. The question of how political you want to brand to be was a good point to bring up in this panel. Do you want your brand to be political on purpose given that social media can give you a platform? Jay had a great point in stating that we are political bodies and it’s also okay to be silent if it keeps you safe as there is often a cost associated with being political. As such, she gave an example of how she and a colleague share the workload of giving each other’s communities a voice by Jay attending Indigenous events and vice versa. She mentioned that having cultural allies is a source of strength for the work and business someone has.
Diving into other aspects of marketing and branding, Jennifer reminded the audience to consider that this process is ongoing and to keep in mind who you are selling to and what their problems are. Jennifer pointed out that if you see a lack of something, does that give you an impetus to create a business for it. It’s important to do your market research and see who your competitors are. Jay offered up a step by step assessment: 1) What is my idea? 2) Why is it urgent now? 3) Why am I the best person to execute it? She stressed that timeliness, value proposition, and how specialized your idea is as important to keep in mind. She reminded the audience that some of us get stuck in not having a formal degree or accreditation. She stressed that there are other skillsets and technical skills you can bring in if you don’t have those just yet. Additionally, what are the key messages of your business? What are the three things to link to your idea and brand and how will you say it differently each time you tell your target audience about what you are offering. She said it was like you are engaged in a conversation with people and look for what is not being said and not being said fully. How do you strategize to get that story out there about your brand?
This panel ended with reminders from Waneek to not devalue your brand, especially when dealing with your own community who might ask for discounts or bargains when you know your work and brand is worth more than what is being offered. She also pointed out that we must demand quality work from each other and ourselves. What’s more, integrity on delivery and work is paramount. Finally, demand honesty of self and clients. I learned a lot from this panel and it began to concretize for me what three things I wanted to tell my target audience about my business and what I can offer them.
We broke for lunch but not before Elder Marilyn Capreol told us that Kim Wheatley had to make a spirit plate and then gave us directions about how to proceed to lunch. Lunch was very delicious and dessert was super yummy! It was a great time to do some networking and table hopping to meet other attendees. Mostly, it was to discuss further the previous panels and ask each other at our table questions we wished we had asked of panelists as we didn’t get the opportunity ask the panelists. I did manage to get some business cards from attendees. Artist Raven Crow and I chatted for a quick minute. Shana Pasapa and I talked about the possibility of Six Degrees Community Health hosting a self defense workshop on the near future. Shaha is the Head Instructor at POW Defense in Regina. And, I took a quick moment exchanging cards with Jenn Harper, founder of cheekbone beauty before getting ready for the next half of the conference.
WORK & LIFE BALANCE
After lunch, we had Beverly Blanchard, Native Women’s Association of Canada speak to us about work life balance. She led us through a body awareness process of reminding us to breath and be mindful of our shoulders. She had great insight to how the body is an integral part of your business, in that if you are not tending to the health and wellbeing of your body, then you are not investing in the most important aspect of your business: you! She stressed that boundaries are integral to self care . She offered up how her work led her to become a healer and to learn about how her body needed time to rest, replenish, learn to say no, and to learn how to balance all the demands on her time and energy. Once she realized that this was a process other people, especially women endure, she started offering healing as part of her work in the world to help women come to a similar space of investing in themselves so that they can fully show up for their families and work. This session was a good reminder for me to focus on how my body was doing in a room full of new people with a lot of information coming at me. It was great to come back to my breath and to be reminded that who I am in body/mind/spirit has a huge impact on how my business is doing.
This was one of my favorite panels because the informative given by the panelists: Andre Morrisseau, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, Janene Wilson, Pland4Ward, Deborah Nixon, Facilitator and Coach & Canadian Executive Service Organization, Heather Abbey, ShopIndig.ca and Kiowa Sage & Canadian Executive Service Organization, all seemed to come from very humble and real experiences as they moved through different phases of their business.
In terms of mentoring, three topics were mentioned in the opening of this panel, networking, contacts/communication, and empowering people. This led into a point about how mentoring can have depth in terms of who is supporting you and inspiring you. For example, our ancestors, elders and youth can be mentors; how are we pulling them along and who is pulling us along? Who is pulling with us? This was such a beautiful point.
Another panelist mentioned that life’s lessons also offer mentoring. In addition to life’s lessons, there are different types of mentors all with different qualities that can be helpful, such as how forgiving they are, how graceful they can be, and how much they believe in you. One panelists offered that prayer has been very helpful as well as believing in yourself. A mentor can do concrete things such as giving a letter of recommendation or reminding you to remember what your original vision of your business? One panelist recommended the book, The Dip by Seth Godin as a book to reread (only 40 pages or so) when she is in a dip, a space where you can either keep going or give in. She said that there are going to be many dips in life of your business and you have a choice each time you find yourself there.
One panelist mentioned several key things to keep in mind as a mentor. One thing was whether or not you are offering assurance to your mentee. Are you listening to them and believing in them? Another is honesty. How honest can you be in your assessment of their questions or where they are with their business. Can you as a mentor push people to the next level, can they give you permission to go deeper, to get out of their comfort zone so they can see their potential? Mentoring also relies heavily on relatability or commonality. Do you fit as a match to mentor based on the type of business or skill set you have to offer? Is there loyalty and consistency in your mentoring partnership as some relationships can last a very long time. What knowledge are you seeking or bringing? How does your mentor related to your situation and are they good people to test ideas out on?
This panel ended with reminders about reassurance of a mentor as a mentee to let you know if you are on the right path. Mentors can write letters of recommendation. Mentors can also offer contacts of people they know to help you on your road to success. And, mentors offer a sense of familiarity and an ally in the process of making your business fruitful.
As this session closed, I thought of all the wonderful mentors I’ve had in my life and how some consider me their formal or informal mentor now.
EMPOWERS AND DRIVES YOU AS A BUSINESS OWNER
The final panel opened up with a question about what empowers and drives the panelists in the work they do. The panelists included: Melissa Hardy-Giles, Origin Operator Recruitment and Training, Jennifer Podemski, Redcloud Studios Inc., Carla Robinson, Carla Robinson Media Productions, and Angela DeMontigny, Young Native Fashion Inc. & DeMontigny Boutique|Gallery.
Jennifer started us up by saying that she prefers to stay grassroots, that her identity and culture is what she leans on to leave a legacy, a story for others to follow. She also likes to run her business from home since she is a mother and that her business is both rewarding and has it struggles. Melissa chimed in saying that she wants to reach women out there and to motivate them. Carla mentioned that she has always had an entrepreneurial spirit. She appreciated the conference for bringing people together and giving energy to each other as a way of reminding us of how much power we have. She also is a parent and that figures into how she runs her business. Angela mentioned that she would like to preserve traditional and cultural skills to showcase and pass on via training others in the line of her work.
EXPERIENCE WITH FAILURE
The panelists were asked what they’ve learned from their experiences with failure. Carla had a great quote, “If you fall flat on your face as least you’re moving forward.” She followed up this hilarious quote with some sage advice: roll with it, ask for advice, work through the problem, and just do it. Melissa learned the hard way in a previous job that she values what the company stands for above the bottom line. Once she realized that this previous company only cared about making money at the expense of her values and the community’s health, she decided she didn’t want to work for this company. Angela remarked that there are always learning curves and that some actions are not from you. The learning curves are teaching if you let them teach you. Jennifer mentioned that failures are also opportunities and that some things aren’t meant to be. Waneek has a very beautiful story she told of when she didn’t win at the Olympics after she trained so hard that she felt she would win. She delayed her return to her community and it was her mother who told her that the community was eagerly awaiting her return so they could celebrate her in spite of her not winning if only because she was an Olympian, their Olympian. She said that there is always a potential to fail but it helps you know when you’re succeeding. She said we have the power to change the story and narrative to align with the path of our truest self. She learned that, “We may fall and it might hurt so much, but our people will pull us up.” When she said this at the end of her story, there was not a dry eye in the room because it touched that part of us that knows we come from communities pulling for us, especially during our hardest moments, to celebrate our efforts and hard work.
Angela mentioned that you also find strength that you didn’t know you had in achieving balance. Melissa reminded the audience to take care of yourself, exercise, and to maintain your health so that you are strong enough to help others. Jennifer offered up to ask for help when you need it. She said she’s not afraid to fail anymore and that she says no to things more often. She stressed knowing who you’re doing it for when you’re saying no to a project. In her case, it is her family. Carla said to make sure you make time to be with family and that you have a choice to say yes or no due to family obligations. She said her family comes first. She finished by saying that it’s important to get rid of blocks, much like what Tuesday said earlier in the day, and to unearth parts of yourself as a process of self discovery, letting things go, and to learn to listen to your instinct more. Melissa mentioned she has a supportive spouse and appreciates she can work from home. She also says she has the freedom to reward herself for her hard work. Most recently, along with her husband, they were able to travel and give something back while enjoying their trip. She emphasized how much going to gym alleviates stress for her.
There were some beautiful insights into aha moments for the panelists. Jennifer mentioned that whenever she sits down to eat with her children and sees herself feeding them, she knows that’s because of her work. Her work is feeding her children. Melissa said when she’s able to help people become leaders that she knows she’s doing the right thing. Angela said when she saw people wearing her products that was exciting and revelatory. She told a story about how Indigenous designers were making a mark in a competitive when another designer from Italy remarked how cool the Indigenous work was. She reminded us to know yourself, keep your own vision and to do what you want to do. Waneek told us another amazing story about her work with other Indigenous athletes when she was revving them up before the games. She encouraged them to fight for every inch and second on the playing field as they had every right to be there. She told them and us that only women are allowed to declare war in her tribe, so she remembers how exhilarating and powerful it was to say this to a group of athletes who were reminded that they have the power, skills, and ability to leave a legacy.
FINAL PIECE OF ADVICE
What sort of advice would you give yourself if you could say something to your younger self with regards to your business? Jennifer put forth the idea of loving yourself and to stop judging yourself. Carla said that she would remind herself that business happens in phases. She would tell herself to have confidence and develop a sense of self worth and someone who accepts compliments about her work. She also said that the process of this work is to build it up one way at a time. She mentioned meditation as a way to assess where you are and to remember it’s a journey. She finished by saying that you should do what feels right. Angela said that she would tell herself to do something that scares you on a regular basis because it will help you grow. She also said it helps to set goals for yourself and to take risks. She reiterated not comparing yourself to others since we are all on our own path. She said that there is a timing in everything and to keep going, to not give up. She said that our thoughts and energy manifest themselves. She stressed that if you can see it you can be it. Self visualizations work well for her now. Melissa talked about she would tell herself to run with her own gifts and to not let others tell her otherwise about what she is capable of. She mentioned having a mentor is important and to not forget where you come from. She said to stay with your passion, to not focus so much on the bottom line, or you’ll lose your drive.
Waneek finished out by saying that we need each other and to love other women! I appreciated this final sentiment especially since capitalism is so bent on putting us through the grinder using a deficit model, of pitting us against each other when in reality we are the best resources for each other.
I am reminded of Lyla June Johnston’s latest poem, “Indigenomics”, (https://www.facebook.com/notes/lyla-june-johnston/indigenomics/10153848403271007) where she talks about “Selflessness: The foundation of the traditional Navajo economy.” The particularly powerful opening lines in the poem stands out to me since a majority of the women present at this conference are mothers states,
“When the dried kernels burst open, like a love that cannot be silenced, they release a special powder that feeds us and teaches us how to think.
Her love sounds like dried corn cracking beneath the weight of stone, snapping open like prickly pear blossoms in the summertime.
She is teaching us without speaking that you only need two stones to feed a nation.
For hours the women would grind corn together. Not for themselves, but for others. To resuscitate a failing economy these are the only words you need to know: For others. For others. For others.”
This conference was most certainly a practice of grinding two stones together, grinding kernels of experience, knowledge, hard won freedom, and love for ourselves, our families, our clans, our communities, and our collective futures. I eagerly await the next conference when we all learn from each other again. Elder Marilyn Capreol closed us out with a beautiful song to remind us of how much power we all have and how powerful we are when we’re united in song and prayer.