Aspiring entrepreneurs take note: aboriginally owned businesses are thriving all across the country, and now is the perfect opportunity to take advantage. Not convinced? We compiled a list of five up-and-coming and already successful startups by young aboriginal entrepreneurs.
A decent night's sleep was at one point a rarity for 33-year-old Kasp Sawan, who spent much of his adolescence toughing it out on the streets of East Vancouver. Once an abuser of drugs and alcohol, he has since broken away from his tumultuous past and embraced his status as a Cree man and natural performer.
Kasp spent much of his 20s piecing together a successful music career, recording alongside prolific artists like Run-DMC and Moka Only. Winner of best hip hop album at the 2008 Canadian Aboriginal Awards, his desire to inspire has now evolved into an organization called KASP Entertainment, an acronym for ÔÇÿKeeping Alive Stories for the People.' He describes it as an organization that showcases talented aboriginal performers, singers, and motivational speakers at special events, celebrations, conferences, and workshops, with the aim of helping young people build self-esteem and put their imaginations to use through music and story creation.
Growing up, Kasp recalls his father as a drug dealer, pimp, heroin addict, and alcoholic. Because of this, he went through his fair share of abuse. His poor living conditions were made obvious to his peers and he was often teased for his appearance, not to mention the colour of his skin. That's where my motivation came from, says Kasp, to educate youth about the importance of knowing who you are and the importance of learning your culture and learning your roots. It doesn't matter if they're black, native, or Chinese'I tell them it's important to know who you are. Talk to your elders and they'll respect that, and it will go a long way with your education and maybe even your future business.
Kasp stresses he doesn't do clubs; he does communities. Dedicated to a life of sobriety for more than four years, he says, I don't drink, I don't do drugs, and it's important for me to show these kids that you can choose other things. I could have went and sold drugs, I could have went and sold heroin, and I could have took over my dad's business. Instead, I took what I learned and turned it into music and turned it into selling my product, which is helping people.
His final piece of advice?
Be committed to do what it takes to have what you want. Don't give up. Do the small things and changes that will help you get a step closer to a successful business. Everybody uses the word ÔÇÿtry' and everybody can just try to go to school, or try to be successful, or try to start a business. Instead of saying ÔÇÿtry,' do it!
It was a serious rollerblading accident that sparked 29-year-old Lara Yanik's entrepreneurial spirit. With a body gradually healing from fractured bones and bruises, her doctor sent her to a series of Pilates classes for rehabilitation. These classes led her to develop a passion for the discipline, which she has cultivated into many successful businesses today.
In the past decade, Yanik has taken part in various physiotherapy courses across the country. I travelled all over Canada; I took instruction from Pilates instructors in Montreal, in Calgary, in Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, and in the United States, she says. At 20, the young M├®tis woman opened the doors to her first full-blown Pilates studio in her family home. I had no idea what I was doing and just went for it. People would find out I was the owner and they couldn't believe it. They were like, ÔÇÿWhat? But you're a child!'
Despite her age, she matured quickly in order to match the rapid growth of her business. Before she knew it, she owned a 1,500-square-foot studio, with her concept for the Neu Spine underway. According to Yanik, the product makes Pilates easier to perform, since it provides lower back support while doing core exercises. So far, it has received wide attention from North America, Germany, Japan, and the UK. Yanik was the proud (and shocked) recipient of BC's Young Female Aboriginal Entrepreneur award in 2011, and says she was hardly prepared to give her speech to the 800 attendees. I didn't even think I could breathe. I was just standing there like, ÔÇÿHi guys! ...' It was intense, she admits.
She has since launched Connect Zing, a website that pairs an individual's personal tastes and interests with events being run by local businesses. Users can sign up for free and discover news and events at their favourite nearby companies , while businesses can register for a small fee and advertise their services. Every other business usually has to hire a graphic designer but this is actually all do-it-yourself, says Yanik. Businesses sign in, they upload a logo, upload their pictures, they write a little blurb, and the website creates the profile for them.
For those interested in starting their own companies or developing their own products, Yanik advises: Don't be afraid to fail because initially, you're going to fail. She believes fear will cripple you when faced with obstacles or important decisions. However, if you actually can cut through the fear and trust yourself and others, I believe that even with failure, you will triumph. Whatever it is will be a learning lesson and it will ultimately bounce you to the next step.
Creatively, Franco-Métis siblings Janelle and Jérémie Wookey are totally in sync 90 per cent of the time. The other 10 per cent, they fiercely disagree. As co-founders of Wookey Films Inc, a production company that specializes in documentary and non-fiction television programming, the duo has successfully transformed their combined seven years of experience in Winnipeg's CBC/Radio-Canada newsroom into a nationally respected business.
Long story short, we became obsessed with the family camcorder in the summer of 1998 and now we have Wookey Films Inc, says 27-year-old Janelle, adding that the pair's dynamic is unique in that they both have a direct hand in writing, shooting, directing, and editing any given project. Somehow it works. We're still in the process of finding and defining our individual roles.
Based in Winnipeg, Wookey Films was launched in 2012 and has since seen several projects go to air across the nation. Our biggest project so far is Mémére Métisse, which is a half-hour documentary that premiered on opening night of the ImagiNATIVE Film Festival in Toronto back in 2008, says Jérémie. It's a doc about our grandmother's coming-to-terms with her Métis identity. We were also really excited to be a part of the 8th Fire series, where we produced, directed, wrote, shot, and edited 12 short documentaries, mainly about Métis identity.
Despite the initial positive response, Janelle reminds aspiring producers and entrepreneurs that media is a tough business to crack. In fact, their luck can be accredited to working entry-level positions at CBC and APTN. This isn't a project that started a year ago when we scaled our hours back at CBC and took the preliminary three-day small biz workshop, she says. It's something we've (sometimes unknowingly) been working towards since we were kids fooling around with the home video camera, through to the creative communications program at Red River College.
They both believe Winnipeg is an incredible city for a company like Wookey Filmsone of Canada's only Franco-aboriginal production companies'to thrive. They both claim, you can't beat the people here!
According to the Wookey Films' website, the company aims to produce content from a young and modern perspective. The pair believes they belong to a very unique age bracket; right in the middle of Generation X and Y and Janelle says they've grown to understand how to reach out to both. This is especially relevant for corporate and commercial projects designed to deliver messages to these demographics.
Over the course of the last year, what we've been able to learn is that there's a lot to learn and no one place to learn it all, says Jérémie. There's a million pieces to the puzzle and you have to collect them from all sorts of people'from accountants to sound recordists. It seems it's a jump-in-and-learn-as-you-go process.
Janelle agrees. Ultimately, (and we know this is a total cliché), for the two of us to be able to make a living doing what we love to do, never dreading going in to work'that is success, she says. And if we can nab a Gemini while we're at it, that would be okay too.
When you start a business, the name is going to be everything that you are, says Massey Whiteknife, president and CEO of ICEIS Safety in Fort MacKay and Fort McMurray, AB. The name ICEIS has remained close to Whiteknife for many years: a self-invented term that asserts meanings of strength, independence, power, and beauty.
My company is 100 per cent aboriginally owned and operated, says Whiteknife, an openly gay Cree male in his early 30s. We sell safety supplies, we sell environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, and then we do training and safety consulting. He also runs two programs'the Get Ready program and the Eclipse Renewal program'that help aboriginals obtain full-time employment by receiving necessary fundamentals such as life skills, anger management, and assistance with drug and alcohol addiction.
There's a lot of communities and remote locations that don't have access to this sort of training, says Whiteknife. Our training is unique. After we finish the program, we write resum├®s with them and then we send out the resumés to the 1,200-plus companies that I am associated with.
Initiating his business didn't come easy. Although he knew he was destined for entrepreneurship, many believed Whiteknife wasn't cut out for it. As a child, he was bullied relentlessly. I spent a lot of time at home, so I knew when I was young that I wanted to be my own boss and have my own store. I always had that entrepreneurial spirit because even when I was working, I didn't want to be just like everyone else, he admits. People would say that being gay is not accepted, that people would not want to work with me, and a lot of people wanted to guide me into saying I was straight. But in the end, he knew making the sale ultimately came down to education, not his sexuality.
After taking a youth entrepreneurship course, (where he learned the basics of business, gained insight from professional mentors, and developed a solid business plan), his sales soared. By 2011, Whiteknife received the Youth Entrepreneur Award of Distinction from the Alberta Chamber of Commerce, upon which Fort MacKay offered him and ICEIS Safety the Community Safety Award. He reminds aboriginals that there is a lot of work in Alberta for aboriginal businesses and there are endless relationships to be built.
The thing that I always tell aboriginal businesses or any young entrepreneur starting out is that you're going to have to sacrifice, have that dedication, passion, and work extremely hard at it, because there's always going to be some doors that are going to close. But there's also going to be a lot of doors that are going to open as well, and it's what you do with those that are going to define your success in business.
Although the business experience of Nooaitch First Nations Sharon Bond-Hogg is slightly more seasoned than those mentioned above, she identifies with younger demographics by keeping up with virtually all forms of social media. Her business, Kekuli Café in Westbank, BC, has been nominated for many prestigious awards and recently won the 2013 Aboriginal Tourism BC Food & Beverage Award. She says her proudest moment was being featured on the Food Network Canada segment of You Gotta Eat Here with John Cattucci.
If you're feeling discouraged or uncertain about entrepreneurship, Bond-Hogg stresses that it's all part of the game. There are so many risks: your time, your family, your health, she says. Are you ready to jump into your business with both feet and take over if someone doesn't show up for work? I think that perseverance, time, and never giving up are key to owning your business.
She says if she had Facebook and Twitter back in 2005 when she opened her first concession stand, she'd have well over 10,000 followers today. (So far she sits at a little under 6,000.) Social media is a really great tool for business, says Bond-Hogg. How else do you get your name and business out there? You really need to connect, acknowledge, and share. I engage with other people's social media and help to support them, which in turn helps my social media strategy for my business. You gotta give to receive!