How Indigenous business owners are faring post-pandemic

Indigenous businesses have faced unique challenges during the pandemic, and have learned from them

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Chef Tammy Maki launched her small business in October 2020, while so many other businesses were preparing to shut their doors forever.

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Maki is the owner and CEO of Indigenous chocolate and pastry company Raven Rising, based in Sudbury, Ont. She used to work for her family’s electrical business, before realizing her aspirations were rooted in baking and pastry.

“I decided at the young age of 43 to go back to school and do baking and pastry arts. And that was it.”

Going back to her roots

Maki recently discovered that she was part of the Sixties Scoop: a period from the 1950s to the 1980s when Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in white, middle-class homes.

Maki and her brothers were taken from their birth mother and placed into foster care. She was then adopted into a Finnish family.

“Everything was just kind of piling on top of each other, the business and finding my blood family, and so I really, really wanted to incorporate my journey into my Indigenous identity in this business.”

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She says it’s important for her to share stories of Indigenous people across the globe through her chocolates, and launching an e-commerce business seemed like the only viable option.

The number of Indigenous business owners is growing at five times the rate of self-employed Canadians as a whole. Additionally, Indigenous women are starting businesses at twice the rate of non-Indigenous women, according to a 2020 RBC report.

“I think it might be a little higher than five times,” says Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB). However, she adds that it’s uncertain if this rate has changed over the pandemic.

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What challenges have Indigenous businesses faced over the pandemic?

About two-thirds of Indigenous business owners say that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted their business operations, citing declines in revenue and cancellations of meetings, gatherings and events, according to a 2022 report from the CCAB.

Bull says there’s a higher percentage of Indigenous businesses that may not be able to survive without more support, compared to non-Indigenous businesses, adding that there are more barriers to accessing financial help for the former.

Forty-three percent of respondents in the CCAB survey also reported that they don’t have a current lending relationship with a financial institution.

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“There’s still a bias that women have a higher risk as a business owner, unfortunately,” she adds, which can make things even more difficult for Indigenous women who run their own businesses.

A 2019 survey of over 1,200 entrepreneurs found that they typically received five per cent less funding than their male counterparts, which can make a big difference for a small business.

Access to high-speed internet, especially in rural areas and communities, is also an issue. Bull explains that this has been especially difficult during the pandemic, when so many owners moved their businesses online.

Don Ludlow, vice-president of small business, partnerships & strategy at RBC, says e-commerce has been extremely important for businesses across the board, not just Indigenous enterprises.

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“Small businesses that adopted e-commerce and digital solutions pre-pandemic answered the pandemic in a better position than those who had to quickly pivot and try to get there,” he explained.

What resources are available to Indigenous business owners?

Entrepreneurs should look into digital transformation programs and apply for funding and grants to take their businesses online, says Maki.

She’s also found support from other entrepreneurial women through the PARO Center for Women’s Enterprise — a not-for-profit organization that offers programs and funding for women in business. Maki also built contacts through organizations such as Indigenous Tourism Ontario, the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada and the CCAB.

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Bull says the CCAB offers various tools for supporting Indigenous businesses, like helping them create business plans, land business insurance, or get help exporting and trading their goods. The CCAB also provided grants to businesses during the pandemic and offers an Indigenous Women Entrepreneurship Fund, which provides grants to Indigenous women each year.

Another resource Bull recommends is the National Aboriginal Capital Corporation Association — The NACCA is an umbrella organization for 59 Aboriginal financial institutions across Canada. The institutions have collectively provided $3 billion in loans to businesses owned by First Nations, Métis and Inuit people.

Bull also advises business owners to look out for tools and resources from the government, as well as other businesses and organizations.

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“We’re doing a lot of work to get the information out there quite in advance to ensure that [Indigenous] businesses are ready … for the big infrastructure support bills that are coming down the road.”

How are they preparing for the future?

“[Business owners should] have the flexibility to withstand periodic shocks and surprises … I think the second thing is always investing in your business and keeping an eye on the trends out there,” says Ludlow.

Maki agrees that being adaptable is a crucial skill to have as a business owner — a lesson she learned after closing her pastry consulting business when COVID-19 hit.

Raven Rising has retail partnerships across the country and Maki is currently setting up a brick-and-mortar space with a commercial kitchen and storefront in downtown Sudbury. Her top priorities for 2022 will be to pay off her loan and reinvest in the business.

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“[I will be] keeping ahead of the trends, but also forging some new alliances … And I think exploring e-commerce even more, I’d like to look into exporting.”

She’s hoping to attract traffic for tasting events at her retail space, but says her e-commerce platform will still be integral to the business. Maki also hopes to build on the use of digital tools and social media marketing.

Indigenous businesses have shown extraordinary resilience

“It’s been incredible to me to see Indigenous businesses survive through the pandemic, but — not just survive — also find ways to support the community,” says Bull.

About one-third of Indigenous businesses said they have taken initiatives to support people and/or other businesses in their community during the pandemic, according to the CCAB survey.

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These initiatives included shopping local, participating in Indigenous campaigns, sharing promotional material and content of other Indigenous businesses, or providing discounts on products and services to Indigenous peoples.

“These are businesses that are small or medium enterprises and are struggling themselves. And I think that just really demonstrates Indigenous values, and individuals ensuring that their business supports the community and gives back in some way,” says Bull.

Maki believes it’s important to support other small business owners, even if they’re her competition.

“When I’m in Toronto, I’m going to drop by these other chocolate shops and buy some of their chocolate because they’re hardworking people, they’re entrepreneurs, and they need business, you know?” she says.

“If you’re a small business person, and you’re feeling like you’re not supported, support somebody else. That interweaving … starts with you, too.”

This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.


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