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Business and Reconciliation (92)

Soar program aims to lift Indigenous entrepreneurs to new heights

September 24, 2023

New business accelerator plans to guide 5 successful indigenous companies to become big-name brands

A woman with long hair and wearing an apron leans over a huge table, She's cutting a very colourful roll of fabric with flower and leaf designs.
Joanie Corbeil, an employee at Mini Tipi, cuts fabric for one of the company’s blankets. Mini Tipi is one of the businesses enrolled in a new accelerator to help Indigenous companies become big-name brands. (Christian Patry/CBC )

CBC News: The co-founder of a new accelerator for Indigenous entrepreneurs said successful First Nations business owners kept telling her they wanted to grow but felt stuck on a plateau. “There was this gap that once you cross the million dollar mark, how do you take the next step” said Sunshine Tenasco, who is Anishinabe from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que.

So she tapped into her network and persuaded the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), mobile payment company Square and others to back Soar, an accelerator programlaunched this summer that aims to help five Indigenous companies reach what Tenasco calls “the next level.”

Now she says the companies are “learning to fly together.” This week, the company founders shared their insights about growth with hundreds of other Indigenous business owners at a virtual summit.

Indigenous business leaders and academics say First Nations people are increasingly interested in starting companies and note that having more big-name Indigenous brands is key to establishing economic independence and examples of success.   

“We need our youth, our aspiring entrepreneurs to see themselves in these large successful companies, and see that they can be successful without sacrificing who they are as indigenous people,” said Michael Mihalicz, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU).

Indigenous entrepreneurs get a boost at Soar conference

WATCH | Turning First Nations companies into big-name brands: Duration 2:01

Almost 1,500 Indigenous entrepreneurs are attending the Soar conference to network and get support for their fledgling businesses.

Click on the following link to view the video:

5 companies, 1 goal

The five businesses in Soar’s first cohort include Wabanaki Maple of Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick, Sequoia Soaps, based on the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec, Mini Tipi of Gatineau, Que., Cheekbone Beauty of St. Catharines, Ont., and Indi City of Calgary.

Each company already has more than $1 million in annual revenue and the accelerator’s ambitious goal is to increase their revenue by five times in just a year. “It’s almost scary,” said Trisha Pitura, the co-founder of Mini Tipi, of the target. Mini Tipi works with Indigenous artists who produce fabric patterns with authentic First Nations symbols and designs to make blankets, shawls, ponchos, bags and mittens. 

Pitura, from Nipissing First Nation, near North Bay, Ont., started the company with partner Mélanie Bernard in 2016 when the two new moms both worked out of their basements.  

Now they have eight workers and a 7,000 square foot factory in Gatineau, Que. Pitura says they’re rebranding and launching new products as part of their efforts to achieve the big jump in revenue.  “It’s really exciting to have the opportunity.”

Two women stand near a large table covered by a blanket featuring Indigenous designs like an eagle. Ponchos and bags hang in the background.
Trisha Pitura, right, with her business partner Mélanie Bernard look at fabric in Mini Tipi’s factory in Gatineau, Que. The company works with Indigenous artists to make ponchos, blankets and bags. (Christian Patry/CBC )
Indigenous business drive 

Statistics Canada estimates there are 37,000 Indigenous-owned businesses in Canada, but the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business puts that number at over 50,000 businesses.   

Census data reports indicate more than 54,000 Indigenous Canadians are self employed, a number that has been increasing for years.   “Indigenous entrepreneurs remain one of the fastest growing demographics of entrepreneurs in Canada,” said Mihalicz, who is an Indigenous adviser at TMU, “I see this continuing many years and decades into the future.”

Tenasco knows all about the drive to start a business. As a young entrepreneur in 2009, she appeared on CBC’s Dragons Den.  The experience ultimately inspired her to create her own business contest, Pow Wow Pitch, which began in 2015 and provides funding for Indigenous startups.     

An Indigenous woman wearing a black short sleeve top, long silver earrings and a blue bandana over her hair, stands with one had on her hip, smiling at the camera.
Sunshine Tenasco, the co-founder of the Soar program, wants to see more Indigenous faces involved in all aspects of entrepreneurship and have Indigenous businesses achieve mainstream success. (Submitted by Sunshine Tenasco)

Pow Wow Pitch is still going on, and all the companies in Soar are alumni of the contest.  

Tenasco says the businesses all “started out with very little, and then grew,” and that they’re ready to make a revenue jump and become big brands. 

How revenue growth can happen 

Growing revenue by five times in a year would be a challenge for most small businesses, but Soar includes some specific elements to make it possible. The BDC and other program sponsors are setting up meetings between each company and potential vendors, like retailers.

As well, each company is being fast tracked for enrolment in government and corporate social procurement programs focused on using diverse suppliers, including Indigenous companies.  

One of those programs is the Canadian Aboriginal and Minority Supplier Council (CAMSC), which will give the Soar companies the chance to make deals with 120 corporate and government buyers. CAMSC says those buyers have spent $7 billion with Aboriginal and minority suppliers since 2004.     

Finally, the companies will get help with online sales and IT, in the form of grants, plus access to a BDC interest free loan for $100,000 to spend on IT needs.

For example, Mini Tipi is sold in 80 stores across the country, but 60 per cent of its sales are online. The company is improving its website and marketing, but high-profile exposure will be key to reaching more consumers.

A man with a shaved head wearing a grey suit and white dress shirt stands smiling in front of a office window in downtown Toronto, with tall buildings in the background.
Michael Mihalicz, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Toronto Metropolitan University, says Indigenous business owners are one of the fastest growing entrepreneurial demographics in Canada. (James Dunne/CBC)

Pitura says her dream is to land a partnership with the Canadian Olympic team, which she hopes would mean athletes would use their blankets, bags or shawls as part of their ceremonial uniform. She also says more corporate customers buying personalized gifts for clients or staff would help scale up sales.

Another key goal is to increase sales in the U.S. and beyond, and Pitura says her company looks to Manitobah (formerly Manitobah Mukluks) as a model for success on that front, as the brand is sold in more than 50 countries.

New wave of support

Soar is not the only initiative developing First Nations entrepreneurs across the country. CBC News found more than a dozen programs, many of them launched in recent years and more being planned.    

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band in B.C.’s Okanagan region says it’s a positive trend.  “Anything any project or strategy can do that helps native people in business is all good,” he said.  

On the academic front, Ontario’s United College and the University of Waterloo launched a pair of Indigenous Entrepreneurship programs this fall, and the University of British Columbia is a trailblazer in creating entrepreneurial support for Indigenous communities, having started its Ch’nook program in 2007.  

Also, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) has pawâcikêwikamik: Nutrien MakerLodge, a facility at the First Nations-governed educational institution in Saskatoon that offers both a certificate program for students and an accelerator program for Indigenous businesses.

In New Brunswick, the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI), an Indigenous not-for-profit organization, started an incubator in 2017, and has offered an accelerator since 2015.      

An Indigenous man wearing a large traditional headdress with red beads and black and white feathers stands in the sunshine.
Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band is seen at an event on their traditional lands near the Okanagan River. He says seeing so many initiatives aimed at developing First Nations entrepreneurs across Canada is a positive trend. (Submitted by Chief Clarence Louie)
Rekindling entrepreneurial tradition

Chief Louie has a deep understanding of entrepreneurship, having led his band into multiple business ventures over nearly 40 years. The Osoyoos Indian Band now has 13 businesses it says have generated $120 million in revenue in the last five years.

Louie likes what he sees in many First Nations communities.  “Over the past 20, 30 years, people have been getting back on their economic horse, getting back out onto the entrepreneurial Ancestral Spirit and getting into business.”

He says most people don’t realize Indigenous people “were the first entrepreneurs of this land. We were the first traders.” 

Tenasco says programs like Soar can fill a need when it comes to First Nations businesses taking a step into the big time. She says that until more Indigenous faces are involved in all aspects of entrepreneurship and are part of mainstream business, “we haven’t reached our goal.” 


James Dunne, Producer, CBC News Business

James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the CBC News business unit. Based in Toronto, he’s covered business for about 15 years starting with local news, before moving on to the show Venture and co-creating the series Fortune Hunters. His work for those programs won awards at the New York Festivals and Columbus International Film and Animation Festival. James has a master’s degree in public policy and administration and has also worked on special projects as well as the World at Six on CBC Radio One. Contact James at 

with files from Nisha Patel