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How one Indigenous woman entrepreneur started 3 businesses and an event series to support her community
By ATB Financial 14 December 2020 8 min read
In 2016 Delilah Mah launched her first business, Mah Art, after 10 years of working with a national organization supporting First Nations economic development in Canada. “Entrepreneurship is this big puzzle. I wasn’t always given the pieces, but as I went along the pieces came,” she says recalling all the administrative steps required to get a business started, such as licenses, securing insurance and business banking.
Quickly after, Mah launched a photography business to “capture the beauty of our Indigenous women and to honour and respect their circles, diverse histories, cultures, languages, identities and stories.” By 2017, with two successful businesses, Mah knew it was time to start the consulting business she’d always been thinking about. BravHer Consulting supports re-framing the relationship between Indigenous people and planning. Mah channels her experience in community economic development to offer program development, business plans, event planning, branding services and board development support.
As she added more pieces to her entrepreneurial puzzle, Mah ran into the typical challenges that come with running a business, like writing and maintaining a business plan, ensuring her time tracking was set up appropriately and doing her taxes correctly.
“I knew two other Indigenous women and they also ran home-based businesses. We shared the struggles and challenges of trying to figure out the day-to-day operations of our businesses. Sometimes it can get overwhelming and, for me, my comfort was knowing that there were other women—that have become close friends—that were in the same boat. It gave me the thought ‘You’ll be okay because you’re not the only one struggling’,” she says.
Building community, developing relationships and networking is foundational to an Indigenous approach to being in the world and it’s also a big piece of being an Indigenous entrepreneur, says Mah. It’s been a key part of her success and a major theme when it comes to how she gives back to Indigenous communities.
For Indigenous entrepreneurs like Mah, the lack of strong networks is one of the many systemic barriers to succeeding as business owners. Identifying and removing barriers to success for Indigenous peoples is one way Canada’s business sector can actively live up to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to provide equitable access and support to these communities, specifically Economic Reconciliation.
The Indigenous economy is robust
Entrepreneurship is far from new for Indigenous communities. Mah herself discovered her family lineage includes French voyageurs. “When you look up the word ‘voyageurs,’ you learn they were independent contractors. They were entrepreneurs,” she says.
Today, Indigenous entrepreneurship is robust. In Canada the number of Indigenous business owners is growing five times faster than the number of self-employed Canadians. Indigenous women, like Mah, are starting businesses at twice the rate of non-Indigenous women.
Across Canada there are more than 50,000 Indigenous-owned companies that contribute more than $30 billion annually to Canada’s economy. Of that, about $12 billion comes from Indigenous entrepreneurs, according to the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. They estimate that the Indigenous economy will reach $100 billion by 2024.
Barriers to Indigenous entrepreneurs
Indigenous entrepreneurs are succeeding despite systemic discrimination, such as historically oppressive policies and societal bias. Indigenous peoples remain largely disadvantaged in business communities, including entrepreneurial circles. Barriers to entrepreneurial success for Indigenous people are complex and interconnected and include:
- Access to capital
Securing funding is a major issue for Indigenous entrepreneurs. A survey by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) called Promise and Prosperity found that 31 per cent of Indigenous entrepreneurs cite it as a barrier to growth. As a result, less than 20 per cent get loans from banks and 65 per cent of Indigenous entrepreneurs use personal savings to fund their businesses.
A lack of historical relationships between banking and finance institutions and Indigenous communities contributes to this, says Todd Evans, Export Development Canada’s national lead for Indigenous exporters. According to a report on Aboriginal Entrepreneurship by The National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, access to banking branches on-reserve is limited.
Indigenous entrepreneurs who do connect with financial institutions for business loans or lines of credit often do not qualify because they don’t have the collateral needed or face institutional bias because historically, they are seen as higher risk, says Evans. The CCAB’s survey found that 45 per cent of Indigenous businesses say meeting the requirements for lending makes it challenging to access funding.
Another institutional barrier to accessing capital for Indigenous entrepreneurs living on reserve is Section 89 of the Indian Act. It states that “the real and personal property of an Indian or a band situated on a reserve is not subject to charge, pledge, mortgage, attachment, levy, seizure, distress or execution in favour or at the instance of any person other than an Indian or a band.” It also states that a creditor cannot seize any assets on reserve in the case of defaulting on a loan or agreement. Often, the result is that those Indigenous entrepreneurs living on reserve cannot use their homes as assets to secure a loan.
- Access to resources and support
Indigenous entrepreneurs can face multiple barriers when it comes to accessing the infrastructure and wider support needed to help their businesses grow and flourish.
The National Indigenous Economic Development Board identifies infrastructure and infrastructure-related services as critical factors for economic development. When starting and growing a business, a lack of access to services such as transportation and connectivity can dramatically reduce opportunities.
The remoteness of some Indigenous communities mean transportation networks and connectivity, like internet service, can be unreliable. A lack of reliable transportation methods makes getting products to customers difficult. No consistent internet can remove the ability to sell products and services, communicate with customers and manage the business’ finances.
Other elements needed to ensure Indigenous business success include access to larger markets for goods and services as well as tapping into pools of talent for hiring when a business is growing.
Lindsay Davies, community manager of the Alberta South ATB Entrepreneur Centre joined the Community Futures Treaty 7 Business Resource Group as a way to begin participating in Indigenous community networks and contribute to growing and expanding access to resources and support for entrepreneurs. “We meet monthly to discuss how we can collaborate to make upcoming events and services the best they can be from all the different resources we have around the table,” she says.
- Access to business networks
It’s no secret strong support networks can accelerate an entrepreneur’s growth trajectory. For Indigenous entrepreneurs developing a business network can be challenging due to remoteness of communities, ongoing systemic issues and discrimination.
Indigenous-led groups, such as Aboriginal Business Match Group, or Community Futures Treaty 7, are valuable resources for entrepreneurs and budding entrepreneurs to attend. Entrepreneurs can connect with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, partners, suppliers and more that can help them grow their business via mentorship, partnerships and other opportunities.
Davies adds that there are a number of groups that actively support Indigenous entrepreneurs, which are worth exploring to grow one’s support network. They include:
Building strong networks came naturally to Mah. “I always gave back to my community. I’ve always seen the need to do volunteer work, so I sat on several boards and I was on my kids’ school council,” she says, which allowed her to build a network alongside her professional one before she launched her businesses. But building her own network wasn’t enough. Mah wanted to do more.
Breaking barriers for others
After two years of collaborating on business challenges with her fellow Indigenous women business owners, Mah had an idea. “I suggested to these women, let’s do some kind of panel. We have to share our experience openly and challenge the narrative that businesses always need to be competitive,” she says.
In January 2019 Mah launched The Indigenous Women’s Business Panel intending it to only be a single stand alone event. She approached ATB who offered the Branch for Arts and Culture as a location. The event included a DJ, a fashion show and Indigenous vendors as well as a panel featuring Mah and fellow entrepreneurs Miyo Pimatisiwin Productions, Aretha Greatrix, JShine Designs, Jessica Sanderson-Barry, and Wild Woman, Ger Carriere.
It was so successful that Mah ended up running an event featuring different Indigenous entrepreneurs every month for all of 2019. The event series culminated in a gala with awards for Indigenous entrepreneurs and artists. “It provided a space for local Indigenous entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs to come and share their stories, successes and challenges with others,” says Mah. The event became a way for Indigenous entrepreneurs to grow their own networks and solve challenges to starting or growing businesses. Most importantly the Indigenous community of Treaty 6 came together as artists, business owners and people to make it a success.
Mah herself supported from behind the scenes a number of Indigenous entrepreneurs who attended the events. She recalls one panelist discussing a desire to launch a t-shirt company. Mah creates her own line of shirts, and—instead of being competitive—she actively encouraged the woman to pursue the idea. Now, that entrepreneur sells tees and has expanded into sweaters. Their brand is called Northern Life Styles.
Mah’s advice for anyone with a business idea is to go after it. “If you have an idea, don't sit on it. Rather, learn everything you need to know. Seek out people you see doing it to see if they can provide any direction. And then get started. If you're feeling a little bit hesitant and you're a little bit scared or overwhelmed, know that you’re not the first nor the last to go through this, so you can find support and do it too—the pieces will eventually fall into place,” she says.