In 2011, the National Household Survey found that more than 43,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada are business owners. Entrepreneurism in Indigenous communities is rising. Entrepreneurship, however, is difficult. It is not something you wake up and start doing. There is planning, thought, and action involved. Being from a culture that is very different from Western society comes with certain challenges that are unique to Indigenous entrepreneurs. This blog is meant to touch on some of the common challenges faced by Indigenous entrepreneurs in the world of business.
I am speaking from a Nehiyaw (Cree) perspective and in general terms. I am not indicating that all Indigenous cultures share the same world views, or that Western ideologies are all the same.
A Nike shoe on one foot, a moccasin on the other…
Many Indigenous peoples live, work and exist in community. The Western business world, on the other hand, can be quite competitive and focused on individual gain. I don’t know a single Indigenous entrepreneur who hasn’t started their business without involving some aspect of their culture or having a mandate to bring awareness to Indigenous issues. Indigenous economic activity tends to be oriented toward the strengthening of culture and benefitting community. For many Indigenous entrepreneurs, a sign of success is community advancement, awareness and building relationships with others. In a Western world view, success is often based on accumulating personal wealth. These two world views do not mix with one another and this can lead to frustration for the Indigenous entrepreneur.
It is important to walk on both paths
Being an entrepreneur is about two paths: the Indigenous and the Western. You must stay true to your traditions, culture, and customs, but learning to navigate a different ideological system will also make you successful. The world of business is not the same as the Indigenous world, but to be successful is to honour both. Being a businessperson also means being able to confidently market yourself and your business. Culturally, we are taught to be humble. Learning this new skill that is out of our comfort zone can be difficult.
The things learned in Indigenous paradigms such as the importance of relationships, balance, creativity, honour, and respect will make you successful in business. However, knowing how to write a business plan, do accounting, how to invoice and keep your records for taxes will also make you successful. The 2016 Aboriginal Business Survey found that only four in ten Indigenous entrepreneurs have a formal business plan, which is typically required documentation for any kind of funding or loans. Stay true to the two worlds that you walk between, as you need both on your journey.
Understanding accounting, marketing, and taxes
A huge part of a business is the work that goes on behind the scenes: in other terms, paperwork. This is not just a challenge for Indigenous entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs in general. Learning how to do paperwork is a must in having a successful business. You can have great customer satisfaction, you can have fantastic products, but if you can’t complete the proper paperwork at the end of the day, your business will not stay afloat.
Marketing is something Indigenous entrepreneurs can find difficult. Traditionally, we were trade people who shared information through word of mouth. Marketing your business through the digital world is very different from traditional information sharing but is necessary in a world of advertisements and digital access
For Indigenous entrepreneurs, there is added confusion regarding taxation. Taxes are different for Indigenous peoples and depend on whether their revenue comes from on or off reserve. This can be a bit tricky to navigate. It is important to know that Indigenous peoples are not exempt from taxes. First Nations people receive tax exemptions under certain circumstances, although these exemptions do not apply to Inuit and Métis. Ultimately, all Canadians pay taxes, but First Nations have options to reduce the amount they must pay.
To find out more about Indigenous taxation, visit the Canada Revenue Agency website.
Living in Rural Areas
Although more than 55.8% of Indigenous peoples in Canada now live off reserve, more than half (56%) of Indigenous entrepreneurs have established their business on reserve and/or in rural areas. Getting resources to start a business in a rural area is a bit more difficult. Four in ten Indigenous entrepreneurs in Canada either have no Internet connection or a non-reliable connection. Access to resources on reserve is a huge challenged faced by those living rurally.
Don’t do everything
Indigenous peoples are inherently creative and multi-talented. I often meet with Indigenous entrepreneurs who want to do everything. They can bead, they can build, they can sing, they can teach, and so on. When starting off, it is important to choose one to three things to specialize in. It is better to cater your business around one thing you can do well, than trying to do many other things at once.
I also find that Indigenous entrepreneurs feel a responsibility to help our Indigenous communities through their businesses. As I mentioned earlier, for Indigenous entrepreneurs, success is often more about relationships and building up community than it is about personal gain. This, in turn, can lead to entrepreneurs doing too much and eventually burning out. Sometimes it can feel like the weight of responsibility in paving a path for your community is on your shoulders. My advice to them is to make sure to take time for yourself and to remember that there is a supportive community to help you. You are not alone.
The journey of an Indigenous entrepreneur can be quite different than someone who is non-Indigenous. There are many catered services to help Indigenous entrepreneurs navigate a new system and reach profitability. Look to your culture for guidance, look to your community for support and keep walking the sweetgrass road to success.