Geena Jackson is a passionate advocate of Indigenous entrepreneurship. She is Vice President of Indigenous Advancement at Allteck Limited Partnership and Canadian Utility Construction. Jackson worked with the Squamish Nation for 13 years managing the Squamish Nation Trust where she assisted in the development of more than 500 Indigenous businesses with Squamish Nation entrepreneurs.
Additionally, she created the Youth Indigenous Entrepreneur Dream Camp, a weekend workshop that teaches youth 11 to 18 years of age about the ins and outs of becoming an entrepreneur and inspiring the dreams of many to do so.
“When people decide they want to be an entrepreneur, it excites me, but the first thing I ask them is ‘why do you want to become an entrepreneur? What is the reason? What is the purpose?” Jackson’s goal then is to attempt to find out if there is a place in the market for that specific good or service.
“You have to be a certain person to be an entrepreneur. You have to believe in yourself. You have to be a risk taker. You have to be patient. You have to want to work long hours. It’s not easy,” Jackson said.
Some people want to be entrepreneurs to gain independence, freedom, or want to improve their community, said Jackson. Some because they don’t want to work for someone else or do want to work unconventional hours.
“Why is the biggest question I would ask somebody when they are thinking about it.”
Entrepreneurs need to have a lot of belief in themselves and their products. It’s also important to have a support network built around them. That can be family, or employees or colleagues that will provide support as entrepreneurs follow their dreams.
Having good credit is also important. Jackson said it takes about two years to really get a company off the ground, and so resilience and specifically financial resilience is also a great quality for an entrepreneur to have.
Jackson said there are a lot of opportunities and resources available for entrepreneurs to move forward at a faster pace than ever, but that doesn’t take away from the need to be really secure.
Being outgoing is a plus, and having the ability to market oneself is important.
“No one’s going to market your product or provide a service the way that you are. So really keeping your brand intact. And having a plan. Knowing what you want and having a timeline of how you want to get there.”
She said when a plan starts to gel, starts to exist, then that’s something to work with.
“When you see an entrepreneur that’s going to succeed, they have a plan.”
Jackson said you have to love what you do “or else it’s just another job. You might as well work for someone else.”
She also advises that the entrepreneur get some experience in providing the product or service before they go into the business of providing that product or service. For example, if you’re interested in opening a restaurant or coffee shop, go get a job in that field to find out how it works.
“So you’re getting paid to go to school for free.” Observe the ordering process or the customer base or the need for the service for a little while. “It’s a great way to research what you want to be.”
To get started, Jackson suggests writing down what you want to do and then research the other people supplying that product or service in your area to see what the competition is.
“If the market is totally over-occupied then maybe take a look or research how you can be different.” In other words, find the niche for your unique service or product.
The next step is documenting the kinds of things you will need for your business — the equipment, the space from which you will sell your inventory, the social or web platform.
“Right down every single thing you will foreseeably need for your business,” said Jackson. “And then add that up.”
Research where the pots of available money are. Jackson said there are a lot of resources available to Indigenous entrepreneurs, and as an example spoke of the federal Business Equity Plan, in which the entrepreneur would need 15 per cent of their own capital, and there is a $100,000 cap on what you can receive from the plan for a business, of which $40,000 is a grant, and the rest is from something called the First Citizens Fund.
And with many of the resources there are great business advisors that can provide help along the journey, including building a professional business plans which can cost many thousands of dollars, for about 25 per cent of that usual cost.
Once an entrepreneur has a product, Jackson advises reaching out to the First Nation of which he or she is a member.
“Most Nations have partnerships or procurement agreements with industry.” The Squamish Nation, for example, provides those industry partners with a business directory for procurement. Check to see if your nation has an entrepreneur list and add your business to help promote yourself.
Also get in touch with your province or territory to ensure your business is known to them for procurement opportunities. The Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business has a directory to look into as well. If you require dollars for membership in such groups, look to your Nation again to see if they have funds to support such business activity.
Industry is really getting involved in entrepreneurism, said Jackson. She mentions Steel River as an example. They have a “huge entrepreneur program where they promote entrepreneurs,” she said, adding that such companies are asking “What else can we do for communities besides employment and training and assisting with Elders, and a lot of social investment focusing on how we can create an economy within our community?”
While already providing a wide range of advice she adds just a little more. “Be patient. And if you fail, it’s just an experience to get up and try something else. And you have to have a hard skin. You have to be able to take criticism because criticism makes us better…. And ask advice from people. Surround yourself with people that are better and smarter and faster and stronger, and not be intimidated by that. Take all the resources you possibly can and the advice that you can and soak it up like a sponge. If you do that you are just going to become a better person and you’re going to learn more. And be humble and be kind and you’ll find your way.”
Jackson said it changes a community when people start to be uplifted. “It’s very rewarding.”