Taking the long view, EntrepreNorth supports Northern Indigenous entrepreneurs to create transformative change

"I would say the other major challenge ... is just both the effects of colonization and all the healing and reconciliation that still needs to occur across the North and within Canada." 

Why It Matters

In convening partners to launch a Northern impact fund, EntrepreNorth brings a decolonization lens to financial equity and impact capital in the North.

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EntrepreNorth Program Manager Dave de Lugt, right, at a recent event in Rankin Inlet, NU. (EntrepreNorth/Facebook)

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The year has been reflective for EntrepreNorth, an initiative that seeks to connect Northern Indigenous entrepreneurs with support, mentorship and skills to widen their community impact.

Launched in 2018 as a MakeWay project, EntrepreNorth started as a multi-sector design group, bringing together people from the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut to identify how to provide greater entrepreneurial support. 

Benjamin Scott was brought on as a business consultant to facilitate design thinking and strategy.

“The focus at that time—while we always knew there were challenges with access to capital—the priority at that time was focused on capacity building,” Scott said. 

“We kicked off with a cohort-style program that focused on offering some entrepreneurs who are in the early stages an opportunity to develop some new business skills, develop a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, get access to wraparound supports—such as mentorship, professional coaching, and other sort of benefits the program offered.”

With new funding from the Mastercard Foundation, announced in September, EntrepreNorth looks forward to deepening its programming offerings. EntrepreNorth received initial funding through the Mastercard Foundation’s ELeV Program, which allowed the initiative to develop its Entrepreneur Growth Program, Business Ideation Workshops, and a pilot Indigenous Facilitator Certification Program.

“There was also a strong focus on storytelling through the production of business impact videos and EntrepreNorth’s podcast series, Venture Out,” according to EntrepreNorth’s press release.

“The Mastercard [Foundation] partnership is a cornerstone partnership for us,” Scott said, “and it really gives us the ability to grow and catalyze the work we’re doing across the North.”

EntrepreNorth is still seeking additional partnerships to fulfill its vision and mission.

Still, the team is grateful for the security needed to deepen its work across the North, focusing on “creating systems change where it’s where it’s needed most,” Scott said.

“We want to be building off some of our successes and the things that we’ve been learning along the way and, hopefully, offering some of those lessons and learnings to the broader ecosystem of social innovation and entrepreneurship in the North Pacific.”

Five programs

EntrepreNorth has created and implemented five cohort-based programs emphasizing traditional knowledge, skills, and ideas that entrepreneurs can run with immediately. These include land-based, land-crafted products and services in sectors such as local tourism, fashion, food, and the digital space where creators are starting to find their audiences.

The group has always focused on the North because that’s where the gaps were widest, said Scott.

“That’s why we focused on the North and primarily targeting Northern Indigenous entrepreneurs, and hopefully trying to have a strong reach into some of the smaller, more remote communities.”

EntrepreNorth’s work centres on culturally relevant programming, including creating the “multi-directional business compass” to weave together business and Indigenous knowledge systems. It offers a way for entrepreneurs and social innovators to engage with business concepts in a way that speaks to entrepreneurs’ Indigenous cultures.

Differences between northern Canada and southern magnify the need to be attentive to culturally relevant programs. Pressure points include differences in approach to venture capital, the sheer geographic span of the North, and the time it takes to build connections and community.

Those challenges also overlap with operating costs in the North, trying to produce a return on investment and an Indigenous-led social impact workforce, capacity building in the finance and impact financing sectors, and ongoing support post-investment to entrepreneurs and mentorship.

“After five years of running programming, we have a really strong network of 150-plus northern digital entrepreneurs that we’ve worked with. And you know, that has a lot of promise for additional investment into their business,” Scott said.

I would say the other major challenge, and this is not totally unique to the North, but it is within Indigenous communities, is just both the effects of colonization and all the healing and reconciliation that still needs to occur across the North and within Canada. 

“Part of that is ensuring that there’s more equitable finance that flows into community and into the hands of indigenous entrepreneurs with a lot of potential to create added value within communities.”

Vashti Zetzel is a Shuhta Dene (Mountain Slavey) Kaska Dene, German from her mother’s side and Chipewyan, Cree and Scottish from her father’s side. Zetzel participated in Entrprenorth’s circumpolar fashion cohort as the founder of the wearable art company Golden Eye Designs.

“My art became stronger when I started realizing the impact it has had on Indigenous people when they wear it,” Zetzel said in a 2021 video by EntrepreNorth. 

“There’s no limits to my creativity.”

In an interview with the Canadian Women’s Foundation, a funding partner of EntrepreNorth since 2018, Zetzel said, “Being in the program with other women helped me get comfortable talking about where I wanted to take my business while staying culturally grounded.”

“I left the program with so much more confidence than I had when I started,” Zetzel said. “That was a huge part of my healing journey as an Indigenous woman going into business. I now know that I’m in the right place doing the right things and providing a sense of empowerment to women who wear my work.”

When COVID-19 hit, all businesses and organizations were under strain, including EntrepreNorth, which had to pivot to deliver its programming from a distance. The strain also extended to small business owners like Zetzel and Indigenous entrepreneurs.

“I think small business owners are still figuring out how to adapt and pivot and adjust their operations to sort of meet this new normal,” Scott said.

In the North, in addition to getting through COVID-19, forest fires this past summer displaced many people, including small business owners, from their homes, which put a pause on their operations, Scott said.

“I feel like that’s going to be like another event where there’s going to be support needed to help people overcome what’s just occurred.”

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  • Anqi Shen

    Anqi Shen is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in University Affairs, The Globe and Mail, Inuit Art Quarterly, Future of Good, Briarpatch, Bogotá Post, among others. Her short films have been presented by the Independent Filmmakers Co-operative of Ottawa (IFCO) and Scarborough Arts. She lives on treaty land in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.

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