Supporting Indigenous Entrepreneurs – Gustavson School of Business

In Canada, the Indigenous population is the fastest growing in the country. Through a succession of victories in high-profile Supreme Court decisions, First Nations in Canada have asserted their rights over their traditional territories, thus making business and government reliant upon a license to operate from First Nations when they wish to conduct business on their territories.

With 60 billion Canadian dollars in projects planned and underway in the Northwest of British Columbia Canada, there are many opportunities for entrepreneurs and small businesses to help deliver these projects. In particular, businesses are eager to partner with Indigenous-owned businesses in a whole range of industries from tourism, to forestry, to mining, to energy, to training, to name but a few.

In order to help Indigenous communities in the area develop their entrepreneurial skills, the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business offers, in partnership with the Tribal Resource Investment Corporation (TRICORP), the North West Canadian Aboriginal Entrepreneur programme. I spoke with Heather Ranson, Associate Director at Gustavson’s Centre for Social and Sustainable Innovation, and Dr. Matt Murphy,  about this award winning initiative.

What is the Northwest Aboriginal Canadians Entrepreneurs programme?

The Northwest Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs (NW-ACE) programme is a collaborative effort between indigenous communities served by Tribal Resource Investment Corporation, regional and provincial governments and the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business to bring first class entrepreneurial learning to the Indigenous people of Northwest British Columbia (BC). The primary aim of the programme is to enhance the self-sufficiency and full economic participation of Indigenous people in the many exciting projects underway in their traditional territories by helping prospective entrepreneurs start and grow their own businesses.

The programme includes a 6-week modular skill-based curriculum aimed at developing entrepreneurial expertise, followed by a 12-week Entrepreneurial Mentorship. Interested candidates apply by sending a letter of interest and are selected by TRICORP, the funding partner.

How did this programme come about?

The philosophy guiding the programme is founded on the belief that perhaps the NW-ACE can – in some small way – reverse the damage done to First Nation communities through colonisation. NW-ACE used this philosophy to guide the following three implementation strategies:

  • To ensure that the Indigenous communities served through TRICORP own and control the programme, the intellectual property and the trademarks for the NW-ACE programme. If the university were to own the curriculum for the programme, it would just be another example of colonialism.
  • To take the university to the Indigenous community rather than expect the Indigenous participants to travel to the university. The parents of many of the participants in the NW-ACE programme are from the generation of Indigenous Canadians who were taken from their communities and shipped off to residential schools. This programme should not be associated with the deep pain inflicted by a colonial approach of residential schooling, but should rather attempt to reverse it.
  • To enable Indigenous people in the Northwest to become full peer-to-peer partners in the Canadian economy as business owners, rather than just employees. The ideal prospective Indigenous participant would already have a skillset that can be leveraged to start a business that would ultimately become a supplier to one or more of the various corporations driving the development projects in Northwestern BC.

NW-ACE is a collaboration between several partners. How does this collaboration work?

The success of the NW-ACE programme is only possible through extensive collaboration that spans regions, communities, institutions and faculties, including:

  • 28 professors, administrators and business professionals from the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, Faculty of Education, Office of Indigenous Affairs, Executive Programmes and others at the University of Victoria
  • 6 representatives from Tribal Resources Investment Corporation, an Aboriginal Capital Corporation
  • 25 Indigenous communities, 13 urban centres, and 9 First Nations spanning a geographic area of over 600,000 square kilometers in Northwest BC
  • 15 representatives from the private sector economy
  • 4 representatives from Service Canada, a branch of the Federal government
  • 2 post-secondary institutions (University of Victoria and Northwest Community College)

NW-ACE is a non-credit programme, although, students can receive credit for the course through North West Community College. However, most students take the programme to start their entrepreneurial endeavours.

The relationship between our school and the funding partner is critical.  Gustavson does not “own” the material taught in class, the funder does.  This gives them control and helps build Gustavson’s credibility when we go into a new community.

What challenges have you faced? 

The major challenge of this programme is to get entrepreneurs up and running a business in such a short time.  Some students need to finish apprenticeships, some need to conduct further market research and some are up and running shortly after the programme.  For students who need additional support after the programme, an alumni programme is in place as well as a mentorship programme.

What has been the impact of the initiative?

Out of 91 graduates from the first 6 cohorts of the NW-ACE programme, 21 have started new businesses. Four additional cohorts with a total of 63 participants will graduate ready to launch their businesses in the Fall 2016.

While we typically measure our impact in the number of businesses started, there are other impacts as well.  Some of our students have gone on to further their education, which will assist them in their ventures further down the line.  Others have had important self-realisations and pivoted their business ideas to better capitalise on their talents.  Some of the softer impacts have been developing a strong relationship between business in northern communities, TRICORP and Gustavson.  Also, students’ self-confidence and ability to develop ides into business plans are also stronger.

How can business schools integrate Indigenous business topics into their programmes?

Understanding the interests and issues of First Nations will help us prepare future generations as this part of the population gains a larger voice. Indeed, by working with Indigenous communities now, we can support them to have a stronger voice.

At Gustavson we work with First Nation communities to bring them into the classroom. For example, Patrick Kelly, a member of the Leq:amel First Nations and consultant and adviser in this space, is part of the Dean’s International Advisory Board, helping direct the strategy of the school and advising on issues important to Indigenous students and the community. He spends time with our MBA students, to help them understand the Indigenous perspective on business in dedicated classes and professional development sessions.

We regularly consider issues that come up in popular media and help students understand what that means for business. A good example of this is the three classes we spend in the BCom programme on Human Rights and the importance of free, prior and informed consent that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) outlines as critical in relationships with Indigenous communities. As the Canadian government is currently working to implement UNDRIP, and many Canadian firms impact Indigenous communities, this topic in particular, will become even more important for business in the future.

We also bring our students out to visit and support First Nation business projects. Professor Matt Murphy has taken MBA students to visit the T’Sou-ke Nation’s solar community project, which powers a First Nation on southern Vancouver Island. Dr. Murphy is also working with a group of MBA students who are designing plans for T’Sou-ke Nation to commercialise their clean-energy model.

Do you have any other programmes supporting Indigenous business/leaders?

University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business in Canada welcomes Indigenous students into all of their business degree programmes. Since Indigenous students that enter these programmes do not have to self-identify as such at any time during their education, the school doesn’t have statistics on the number or proportion of participation of Indigenous students in these courses. Our Executive Programmes are actively engaged in a variety of programmes in communities with local Indigenous Partners including Tribal Resources Investment Corporation (TRICORP), Service Canada and the Provincial Government. We also have an Executive Programme on Indigenous Business with Universidad ESAN in Peru to deliver a community relations programme to twenty-one post-graduate students. These students are already working within community relations in Peru — primarily in the mining sector. They come to British Columbia for a week in order to understand consultation and stakeholder negotiation with extractive industries. The students also have the opportunity to meet with the Kamloops Indian Band, the New Afton mining company in Kamloops and the Tsleil-Waututh in Vancouver.

What’s next?

We plan to expand our First Nations programmes to more communities across the country, partnering with other universities to expand our reach. Also, our BCom programme is consulting with other faculties on campus to understand how we can better attract Indigenous students to the programme, and support them while they learn with us.

Executive Programme is continuously launching new programmes led by Dr. Brent Mainprize with our partner TRICORP, such as expanding the entrepreneurs programmes across Canada and creating a social media and website training programme that will allow communities to take ownership in the design and implementation of their websites and social media. Other projects are also in the works!


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


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