5 Indigenous Entrepreneurs Creating Social Change in Their Communities

"Integrity, compassion, empathy, and love. I like to call these Indigenous values."

By Meghan McKenna

Date June 21, 2018

In commemoration of National Indigenous Peoples Day, we’re taking a look at how five entrepreneurs across different industries are implementing Indigenous values. They’re inspiring younger generations, creating social awareness and placing giving back to their community at the core of their business strategy. “Entrepreneurship is a big part of Indigenous heritage,” says Sunshine Tenasco, founder of Her Braids. “We used to call it trade—we have already done so many trades, we are just reawakening to entrepreneurship.”

Mark Marsolais-Nahwegahbow, Founder, Birch Bark Coffee Co.

What was the inspiration for your business?
We as First Nations are storytellers and visionaries and I knew that we had major water problems for decades on some reserves. As a First Nations entrepreneur, I decided to create a First Nations coffee company that would not only bring certified organic, fair trade coffee to people, but would also add value and raise money to purchase certified water purifiers for every home on every reserve and community for free. Water is a fundamental right and without water, there is no life.

How is your business making a difference in the community?
A better way of life through clean drinking water. We’re socially responsible and use washable and biodegradable cartridges that are eco-friendly and will reduce the need for shipped in plastic water bottles, reducing the overflow of plastic in landfill sites. As a First Nations entrepreneur, my communities will see my passion and understand my vision to instill a regained faith to tackle ongoing concerns in the community. I want young people to believe in themselves and understand that when they set goals and have a purpose, they can achieve anything they want and challenge any roadblocks in front of them.

How is your culture reflected in your business strategy? Why is this important?
My business is 100% First nations lead and owned, and I believe in dealing with real Indigenous issues. The story behind my company is for my people and my sharing of our third world-like conditions in Canada from an Indigenous lens. The names of my coffee blends are reflective of all Indigenous people, First Nations, Metis and Inuit people and their stories. Each blend tells a story of our traditions and things that are meaningful to our people.

 

Jenn Harper, Founder, Cheekbone Cosmetics INC

What was the inspiration for your business?
Over the last ten years, I knew I wanted to do something to support my Indigenous community. In 2014, I got sober after years of alcohol abuse and the next year I had a dream and woke up at 2 AM with a plan. I knew I wanted to make lip gloss and sell my product to create scholarships for First nation youth. Fast forward to January 2016 and after business advisory boards and thousands of hours of work, Cheekbone Beauty Cosmetics INC was born!  We donate 10% of all profits to FNCFS (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada), more specifically, Shannens Dream. To take our contributions one step further, this year decided to sell a ‘Lip Kit’ with 100% of the profits going to FNCFS to empower Indigenous youth.

How is your business making a difference in the community?
Aside from the funds we’ve donated, we want to make a positive impact on Indigenous youth any way we can. We support our local school board by sharing our story about resilience with them, and how social enterprise is an important business model. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people throughout North America have embraced our brand.  At one of my first speaking opportunities, a young lady with long blonde hair and blue eyes came up to me with tears streaming down her cheeks. She said “I am Metis, I have never told anyone. Your story has inspired me to connect to my roots and do something to help.” I realized at that moment the power of Cheekbone Beauty, my years of shame will help others to release their shame and together we can change the narrative about Indigenous people.

How is your culture reflected in your business strategy? Why is this important?
After my recovery, I had to rebuild my life. I needed a new foundation. I truly believe every business succeeds when it is built with a solid set of principles. That way any future decisions can be made easily. Because Cheekbone Beauty was built to empower Indigenous youth, every decision is based on that, as well as integrity, compassion, empathy, and love. I like to call these Indigenous values. My people historically have done everything based on our love for the land, we have always nurtured and cared for everything and everyone. Cheekbone Beauty uses this value system. We need to teach our next generations how to bring this back. The circle of support, togetherness.

Sunshine Tenasco, Founder, Her Braids

What was the inspiration for your business?
Her Braids was created out of frustration with the inequality First Nations communities face with regards to clean water. Two and a half years ago, I started to do beadwork and taught others how to create tiny beaded pendants – which is how I came up with the idea for my business, now my full-time career. Her Braids is committed to bringing awareness and helping make clean drinking water in First Nations communities a reality, one pendant at a time.

How is your business making a difference in the community?
Her Braids runs workshops to discuss the need for clean water in First Nations communities and some of the realities First Nations face in Canada. As well, 10% of our profits from our e-commerce store, powered by Shopify, go directly towards the David Suzuki Foundation’s Blue Dot Movement. I hope that this shows Indigenous youth specifically, that they can create positive change doing something they love.

How is your culture reflected in your business strategy? Why is this important?
My culture is reflected in everything I do. It is part of who I am. It is part of my core values. To me, entrepreneurship is a big part of Indigenous heritage. We just called it trade – we have already done so many trades, we are just reawakening to entrepreneurship. So much of my business is re-education for our communities and to show them the opportunities as entrepreneurs and letting them know about the technology that helps lower the barriers to entry.

Paula Ikuutaq Rumbolt, Nooks (Keenan) Lindell and Emma Kreuger, Co-founders, Hinaani Design

What was the inspiration for your business?
At Hinaani, we were all creatively minded and all motivated to make a positive impact in our communities, so when we came together with the idea of starting a business it seemed like the perfect fit. Inuit have always taken pride in clothing and fashion as it was more than just a ‘look’, it was a means of survival in the Arctic and we see our modern take on Inuit clothing design as a way to survive the cultural shift of today’s Arctic.

How is your business making a difference in the community?
We aim for our designs to offer a sense of pride in self, language, culture, community, and tradition while acknowledging the modern present. It gives Inuit and northerners a positive way to show their pride on their sleeve, literally, and that can be important especially in a world that is at times overwhelmingly bombarded with images of Euro-centric notions of design, beauty, and style. We want to show that the Inuit and the Arctic have a perspective on design that is also beautiful and worthy of acknowledgment.

How is your culture reflected in your business strategy? Why is this important?
From the beginning, our business strategy was never based on the highest profit margin. Inuit culture believes in sharing what you have, working together, minimizing harm; these are values we have placed on ourselves and as a business to live up to. We feel it is important to embody these and other traditional values in each action we take as a business because it reflects who we are and what we promote through our designs.

Sydney Jacobs, Founder, Ken’niwá:’a

What was the inspiration for your business?
The inspiration for my business comes from the onkwehonwe perspective, which is multidimensional and holistic, and a life philosophy. Growing up on the Mohawk reservation of Akwesasne and spending my childhood dreaming of a world where Pocahontas wasn’t the only representation of my culture really impacted me to start a business that was about providing children access to their culture and language.

How is your business making a difference in the community?
Everything we do today has an effect on the 7th generation. So, you have to ask yourself, what kind of world do you want them to live in and what can you do today to make that happen?

Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. Ken’niwá:’a was created to bring kaniénkehaka culture to the next generation of akwesasronon, as well as other nations. Proceeds from the purchase of any kenniwaa product go towards education and revitalizing Kanienkehaka culture.

How is your culture reflected in your business strategy? Why is this important?
Generations past fought for everything I had. It’s my turn to use the gifts I was given to give back and for me that’s through art and storytelling. Traditional philosophy is woven into Ken’niwá:’a and is a driving force in everything we do. This includes picking sustainable materials, providing fair wages, keeping toxic elements away from our children’s clothes, and making sure manufacturing keeps it out of their water and air.

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