Since 2010, the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada has gone from having very few Indigenous students and paying little attention to Indigenous issues in its curriculum to having a lively programme that welcomes Indigenous leaders and others interested in doing business with Indigenous communities. Today, it has an Executive MBA programme focuses on Indigenous business development and relations between businesses and Indigenous communities. In addition, it has developed travel study programmes and classes intended to introduce MBA students to issues involved in building relations with Indigenous communities. A team of people, led by the programme director and founder, Mark Selman, has designed the programme and built a community of leaders that is quickly growing both in size and influence.
I spoke with Mark Selman, about the EMBA, why business schools should embed Indigenous issues into the curriculum and some of the challenges that the programme faces.
What is the Aboriginal EMBA (ABL)
The EMBA ABL is a version of the regular EMBA that is focused on issues of concern to Indigenous Peoples. Thus, it deals with efforts of Indigenous nations to develop economic and business activities as well as understand the interactions between business and Indigenous communities/nations. Along the way, it covers most of the core content usually included in an MBA programme, but with a focus on how it applies in an Indigenous context.
Like other EMBA programmes, the ABL programme builds on the experience of its students, people who have been in leadership positions for Indigenous governments, businesses, service organisations and community groups, as well as experienced managers. The programme is open to both Indigenous and non- Indigenous students.
Why was it launched?
The programme was launched because we had seen that there were many Indigenous leaders who had had a lot of leadership experience, but lacked some of the tools and knowledge that are commonly taught in business schools at the graduate level. Given that Indigenous businesses are growing quickly and that many Nations are controlling significant assets, the Beedie School of Business thought there should be a way to make this kind of education available to Indigenous leaders. In addition, many businesses are finding that having strong relations with Indigenous nations is a critical factor in terms of their success.
What have been some of the challenges?
There are lots of challenges. Many Indigenous leaders have had bad or mixed experiences with educational institutions and are suspicious about whether mainstream institutions can respond adequately to their needs. It is a challenge for some instructors who are good teachers and know their subject matter but may not understand Indigenous issues and contexts. While this challenge exists, many have been excited by the opportunity to learn.
Also, the programme operates within the existing framework of the EMBA and with the same schedule of fees. This means that the programme is quite expensive ($54,000) for some of the students who want to take it. Finally, different students want different things. Some are very concerned about whether the standards are as high and the content is the same as other EMBA programmes. Others are more concerned that the programme responds to and respects Indigenous interests. So some people are concerned that we put too much focus on using Indigenous cases and just want to study business; others think we should focus only on Indigenous cases. Of course, we try to maintain a balance.
What about some of the successes?
Our successes are our students. Seventeen of the 23 people from the first intake have graduated and we expect 4 more to graduate over the summer. The second cohort is larger and we are recruiting for the third cohort, which currently stands at more than twice as many acceptances as we had at this stage in our last recruiting cycle. We expect to need to increase the frequency of offerings to meet demand.
More specifically, we have seen people turn ideas that they developed in the programme into real opportunities for themselves, for the organisations they work in and for their communities. One is a Member of Parliament. Two are leading new initiatives on behalf of multiple Nations. We believe that we are developing a community of leaders with links across the country. The networks of connections they built through the programme will be a big part of what makes them successful.
How can business schools integrate Aboriginal business topics and issues into their programmes? Why should they?
Senior executives I speak with tell me that of all the issues they have to deal with, the most challenging and the one they spend the most time on is community relations and, specifically, Indigenous relations. While this may be obvious in the case of, say, a pipeline company, I have also heard it from financial institutions, land developers and many others. The issue of reconciliation, and how we as a country can move forward, is obviously moving to the top of many agendas. Thinkers such as John Ralston Saul have argued that Indigenous influence on Canada as a whole is much deeper and more profound than most non- Indigenous people have realised. Yet, the gap in terms of education, incomes, and health of Indigenous peoples is still huge and unacceptable. All Canadians need to understand these issues better and business schools can help future and current leaders understand and manage these relationships as well as provide tools that will help Indigenous people be more successful.
It is not that difficult to embed these topics into the curriculum as long as there are people who are willing to study, learn and listen to these issues. Eventually, Indigenous people will be better represented in institutions such as Universities. In the meantime, it is important for others to step up and make space for these topics and make sure that institutions are more welcoming to Indigenous students and others who can help them be more responsive to people who have been left out of key discussions and have been prevented from gaining access to key intellectual resources.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
I recently spoke to leaders at an institution that made a special effort to recruit Indigenous people into their business programmes and then watched helplessly as few of succeeded. That’s not the way to do it. Institutions need to cultivate relations with Indigenous leaders who can help them adjust to the needs of Indigenous students. They need to look at everything, from whether the look and feel of their physical spaces shows respect for Indigenous cultures to whether they have appropriate resources that focus on Indigenous topics to whether they know enough to be able to show respect to the different Indigenous cultures of potential students.
Second, it is important to aim high. Some strong Indigenous applicants have been shortchanged by previous institutions and have gaps in their academic background and skills. On the other hand, many have experienced a wide range of very challenging situations and bring huge amounts of accumulated wisdom borne of having to deal with many and varied challenges. The net result is that classes can be conducted at a very high level, even if some students are struggling with specific aspects of academic writing or accounting. No one wants to come to a watered- down or second-rate programme, so institutions need to recruit their best and hardest working faculty to teach in these kinds of programmes.
Third, it is critical to realise that programmes that address Indigenous concerns and the concerns of businesses working with Indigenous communities are going to be multi-cultural and intercultural. There are seven different major language groups of First Nations in British Columbia alone, and many more across the country. So, a class of Indigenous people, with a few non-Indigenous people with interest in the field thrown in, is highly multicultural. Understanding this and making it a rich learning environment is part of being able to make this kind of programme work.
This post is part of a special month featuring examples of business programmes in Canada, Australia and New Zealand focused on Indigenous Peoples. For more visit primetime.unprme.org.