Indigenous entrepreneurs say business resources, funding are inaccessible for their communities
The City of Toronto partnered with the Pontiac Group to open the Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ICIE) to combat this problem
By: Amanda Pope
Grant after grant. Loan after loan. The process of seeking for, applying to and hoping to receive financial assistance to support her business ideas has become a tiring cycle for Indigenous entrepreneur Jamie Medicine Crane.
Over the past 16 years of being a business owner, 39-year-old Medicine Crane has submitted countless grant or loan applications but more often than not, she has been unsuccessful in getting them. She said that this familiar pattern of being declined for funding as an Indigenous entrepreneur is discouraging.
“At first it’s the feeling of disappointment,” said Medicine Crane, who is Blackfoot from Kainai and Piikani First Nations. “Sometimes it feels like it overtakes you in a bad way … I feel like it takes a bad impact on my self-esteem and makes me question if I’m doing the right thing.”
Medicine Crane is one of many Indigenous business owners who face barriers when attempting to access funding. A recent study suggests that since 1996, Indigenous entrepreneurship has increased at a rate five to nine times the pace of the general population in Canada. Despite this rapid growth, many businesses fail due to Indigenous entrepreneurs’ lack of social capital in comparison with their non-Indigenous counterparts– meaning who they know and their network matters.
Medicine Crane is the founder of Brave Woman Botanicals and Designs which are natural healing products for the mind, body and spirit, and a clothing line inspired by Indigenous history. She said it is frustrating to apply for grants or loans because it is less likely for an Indigenous entrepreneur to receive them when competing against several non-Indigenous business owners who have more connections.
“Sometimes you may not know the people so you may not get them,” Medicine Crane said. “You’re competing against I don’t know how many people for one grant that’s only a small part of your entire equity or apart of a project that you are doing. They might put millions of dollars into it but at the same time, we have so many people applying to the same grants and loans.”
The study also explains how access to education and funding are primary reasons why Indigenous entrepreneurs succeed or fail.
Shawn Adler, the founder of Pow Wow Cafe, said business resources and mentorship programs for Indigenous entrepreneurs do exist, but they are not easily accessible.
“There’s not enough training, financing, funding or education out there for Indigenous business,” said Adler, who is a mix of Jewish and Anishinaabe. “If there is [support], I don’t know where you find out about it.”
When Adler, 40, became a business owner and opened his first restaurant in 2003, he could not take out a loan from a bank because they were unwilling to financially support restaurant-based companies. He received some financial support from an organization once called Aboriginal Business Canada. But other than that funding, he has worked hard to save his own money to open and build five restaurants, one cafeteria and one chip truck over the past 16 years.
Adler said that there is a lack of support for Indigenous innovation and he would not approach a bank now to receive financial help because he says “it’s a waste of my time.”
Both Adler and Medicine Crane said there is a need for more business and financial resources targeting Indigenous entrepreneurs specifically and not just for anyone to apply to.
“It’s really important that we create these opportunities to support our Indigenous entrepreneurs because I know a lot of entrepreneurs out there that are struggling,” Medicine Crane said. “By providing more funding opportunities, by providing more support opportunities, so that [Indigenous] people can create these positions or opportunities for themselves and others, is really vital to our entire economic society.”
In order to provide these resources Indigenous startups need and support Indigenous innovation, the City of Toronto has partnered with an Indigenous business called the Pontiac Group to open the Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ICIE).
The ICIE will be a 16,000 square-foot space located at the corner of Dundas and Jarvis streets for Indigenous entrepreneurs, social enterprises and not-for-profits. Nina Gesa, an economic development officer for the City of Toronto, said construction on the building should be finished in Fall 2019 and open in 2020.
“The Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship is seen as an incubator that will serve the Indigenous community,” Gesa said, “that will be operated by the Indigenous community for Indigenous entrepreneurs to provide business supports for individuals … who are looking to build businesses and various enterprises.”
Gesa said the mission for the space is to provide a home for Indigenous entrepreneurs looking to access workspace for building their companies, advisory support and business resources.
In Spring 2018, the City of Toronto contracted the Pontiac Group to consult with Indigenous communities on what business resources they needed that are inaccessible, Gesa said. The Pontiac Group is a team of Indigenous venture builders and corporate outreach specialists who provide niche marketing and Indigenous communications. Their goal is to unite Indigenous Peo
ples and business groups.
Gesa said the consultation participants discussed topics of governance and leadership, space, culture and services. The City is currently reviewing their findings to publish a report and replicate this business model to help Indigenous business owners outside of Toronto.
“Most Indigenous Peoples don’t know about the services,” said Jonathon Araujo, the co-founder of the Pontiac Group who is Odawa from Wikwemikong First Nation. “If they were told about the services, they just don’t know how to access the services and that’s been a real problem.”
In response to this problem, Araujo said the goals for the ICIE are to be the catalyst for change and for Indigenous communities to become the flourishing communities of the future.
Medicine Crane said she supports the creation of the ICIE: “I think that that’s great and I think that we need more of those centres right across Canada because we do have entrepreneurs right across Canada and it would be great to have that kind of support in every major city.”