U of T Mississauga launches Indigenous Entrepreneurship Program

(illustration by Jay Bell Redbird)

Starting a business requires a good idea, passion and commitment – and aspiring entrepreneurs tend to have all three in spades. But Indigenous entrepreneurs may face barriers when it comes to other key ingredients such as business education and access to capital.

Enter Jonathon Araujo Redbird and Christina Tachtampa. The pair run Redbird Circle Inc., which partners with post-secondary schools to deliver entrepreneurship programming that incorporates traditional Indigenous knowledge and values, and they have a plan to help Indigenous Peoples in Canada realize their business dreams.

Their latest partner is the University of Toronto Mississauga. Working with the campus’s ICUBE entrepreneurship hub, Redbird and Tachtampa are launching the Indigenous Entrepreneurship Program.

“We will be looking at entrepreneurship through a dual lens, where we will combine Indigenous knowledge with Western pedagogies to create a new learning framework that empowers the next generation of Indigenous entrepreneurs,” says Redbird, who is part Ojibway and the managing partner of Indigenous venture-builder Pontiac Group.

Redbird and Tachtampa first joined forces in 2019 while participating in the Master of Management in Innovation and Entrepreneurship program at Queen’s University. They identified major gaps in the area of business training and support for emerging Indigenous entrepreneurs and decided to tackle the problem for their capstone project. Their efforts and shared vision led to a business partnership, which has provided consulting services to Queen’s business school.

The key issues that leave Indigenous entrepreneurs marginalized, according to Redbird and Tachtampa, evolved from the legacy of oppression, colonization, displacement and attempted erasure of First Nations, Métis and Inuit in Canada. Lingering inter-generational trauma, ongoing discrimination and persistent systemic racism continue to cause pain and harm, creating barriers to realizing personal, professional and community goals, they say.

Another consequence of historical mistreatment is that Indigenous communities have not had the same opportunities as others to build wealth over generations. As a result, the common route of seeking seed funding from family or friends may not be available. Attracting external investment is also challenging when the current venture capital model favours enterprises with the potential to make lots of money quickly.

“The Indigenous approach to business is not usually about scalability, going public and making short-term profit,” says Tachtampa, a social entrepreneur with a background in curriculum design, youth experiential learning and community development. “They tend to be solo-preneurs who are focused on serving their local communities.”

Redbird Circle’s solution is a business-training framework based on a fundamental part of Anishinaabe culture: the medicine wheel. A long-used teaching tool in many Indigenous communities for transmitting cultural knowledge and values, the medicine wheel’s teachings emphasize respect for the interconnectedness of life. The 16-week pilot program will begin with an emphasis on personal development, healing, reconciliation and community-building. The program will then build on this foundation by focusing on venture or community project-creation based on the identified interests of each participant.

Running from March 22 to June 28, the program will include a focus on human-centric design, market research, financing and pitching. The curriculum was developed and is being delivered primarily by Indigenous instructors and mentors, and will unfold through workshops, peer-to-peer and group coaching with Elders and subject matter experts, opportunities to network with established Indigenous entrepreneurs and opportunities to access financing. The program is open to Indigenous students and alumni from all three U of T campuses, and the first intake will accommodate 16 participants.

“The history of oppression of Indigenous Peoples in Canada creates unique challenges for their participation in entrepreneurship, and we hope this program will help level the playing field,” says Ignacio Mongrell, assistant director of ICUBE.

ICUBE Program Co-ordinator Kasey Dunn adds, “It’s about decolonizing the way we teach entrepreneurship by reimagining what it means to run a successful business in a way that aligns with Indigenous perspectives and insights.”

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