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Class is in session for Indigenous entrepreneurs

Collaboration is key in developing courses for Indigenous students in Canada, Australia and the U.S.

university of victoria indigenous
Ceremonial hall doors at UVic's First Peoples House by Squamish artist Xwalacktun (Rick Harry).

Outside the classroom, business schools are redefining relations with Indigenous communities by learning to listen.

In 2013, the University of Victoria’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business founded the Indigenous Advancement of Cultural Entrepreneurship (I-ACE) program. The program bills itself as Canada’s only Indigenous co-designed entrepreneurship program delivered in First Nations communities and centred on their priorities. Since then, the school has worked with 67 Indigenous communities in British Columbia, producing 604 graduates and 200 start-ups.

“We only do these programs when we are invited in to do so by communities or nations,” says Brent Mainprize, a Gustavson professor of entrepreneurship and Indigenous economic development, of I-ACE. “We work hand in hand with the community and nation to find [external] resources so we [are] not taxing a nation’s budget.”

Former Haida Nation council president Miles Richardson says the success of I-ACE, which initially received $1 million in funding from the Bank of Montreal, demonstrates that business schools “need to be flexible in their approach and delivery.” As chair of the National Consortium for Indigenous Economic Development, a University of Victoria research initiative with Indigenous governments, Richardson says First Nations communities are seeking a productive economic relationship with Canada.

“To do that, our people need to be trained and educated, and to gain capacity we have to do it in a way that is consistent with our values and who we are as a people,” says Richardson.

In Australia, the University of Melbourne, in partnership with Indigenous leaders, designed a culturally safe on-campus executive education program for Indigenous entrepreneurs in 2012. The university’s Faculty of Business and Economics added a graduate certificate in Indigenous leadership in 2019 that can ladder into degree programs.

“We are creating as many pathways into business school as we can for Indigenous people,” says Mitch Hibbens, a Wiradjuri tribe member and program director of the entrepreneur program.

Sometimes, topics define the relationship.

Recent specialty programs at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University, which include certificates in tribal leadership, gaming leadership, and tribal finance and accounting, came at the request of the 38-tribe Oklahoma Tribal Finance Consortium.

“A growing number of tribes need assistance with finances and accounting,” says Julie Weathers, director of Spears’s Center for Executive and Professional Development. “The people in those positions rotate in and out, and so there is a lot of learning that needs to take place quickly.”

Vancouver Island University (VIU), with Heiltsuk Tribal College and North Island College, delivers a seven-month Indigenous Ecotourism Training Program for eligible students supported by their local bands. The program’s instructors travel to Indigenous communities to teach. VIU also offers other credentials that can feed into a business diploma or degree.

At Manitoba’s Assiniboine College, located on the traditional territories of Treaty 1 and Treaty 2 First Nations, the business faculty delivers an in-community advanced diploma in Indigenous financial management. “The more we can include the community in [the] development of the course, the more meaningful it will be for the students who eventually take the courses,” says business dean Bobbie Robertson.

That responsiveness is essential, says Mike Henry, dean of business at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, which works with the Indigenous-led Tulo Centre of Indigenous Economics to design courses in demand by local communities.

“Indigenous communities are taking control and saying, ‘This is what we need,’” he says. “Non-Indigenous communities are starting to listen closer and respond to what Indigenous leaders need, not what we think they need, to manage their own affairs.”

Jennifer Lewington is an intrepid reporter and writes regularly on many topics, including business school news.

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