Budding Indigenous entrepreneurs in Cape Breton are learning skills to turn their passions into businesses

·5 min read

MEMBERTOU — Rain Poulette has been taking photographs professionally since 2018, working out of their home in Membertou First Nation but they have always dreamed of opening a studio space to grow their business in their own community.

That dream is looking more like a reality since they started in the Cape Breton Partnership's youth entrepreneurship program.

"Now that I'm thinking creatively and thinking more clearly, I know what I want and I know how to get it,” Poulette says.

Poulette, who identifies as non-binary and uses the ‘they/them’ pronouns, first discovered their passion for photography in Grade 5, when their teacher asked them to take photos of fellow students at a science fair in Halifax.

"I grabbed the camera and I had no idea what I was doing with it and I started taking photos and when I handed it back, he was like, 'These are pretty good,' and that's when photography snapped in my head and I was like, 'I need to do this.'"

The 23-year-old has been behind the lens ever since, snapping candid photos of friends or portraits of family and community members. They've gone through many cameras as they learned the art with a bit of help from online videos by other photographers but mostly through practice.

While the artistic side of photography came naturally, the business side of being an entrepreneur was more of a challenge. That's what Poulette says drew them to the Partnership's program for burgeoning entrepreneurs.

The program began in Membertou in February and has been focused on teaching introductory business concepts such as business plans, financing, and the importance of networking and partnering, says Jenna Lahey, the program’s co-ordinator.

The first portion of the program was mostly classroom work with instructor Andrew Button of Mashup Lab in Newfoundland, who has more than 15 years of entrepreneurship experience along with other facilitators in the community including Eileen Paul of the Membertou Entrepreneurship Centre. Those lessons prepared the eight young participants for the mentorship they've just started with seasoned business owners in their field.

For Poulette, who is working with photographers and artists at The Convent, a social innovation hub run by community development organization New Dawn Enterprises, the networking and business connections are invaluable.

"I can meet people who are in the business and who have years of experience and I can learn from them and how they got their own photography business going and learn from the best and see that the best are always learning too."

This is the second of a series of entrepreneurship programs in the five First Nations communities on the island that have been organized by the Cape Breton Partnership.

The first was in Eskasoni in September. Lahey says the concept came out of consultation the Partnership did with Indigenous female entrepreneurs in Cape Breton in 2019. Lahey says the program aims to introduce the idea of starting a business to people at a younger age.

“I’d just like young people to be more aware that they really can do these types of things here, starting your own business is not that scary and that if you have the passion and the drive to do it, they can. It doesn’t matter if they’re in Eskasoni or We’koqma’q, there are opportunities here for them," she says.

Montana Marshall says she enjoyed learning about business plans, pitching an idea, and what her own unique strengths are as part of the program.

She was in her second year at the University of Toronto when the city, along with the rest of the world, went into COVID-19 lockdown last spring.

That time alone in her apartment left her feeling disconnected from her culture.

“So, I actually searched out a beading supply place in Toronto and I went there and I bought some supplies and that’s what I did to feel more connected within myself and go back to my roots,” she says.

Marshall taught herself with the help of YouTube videos and was soon making items she was proud of but hadn’t thought of turning her new hobby into a business until she started the entrepreneurship program.

She says some of the best advice she received was to start small and to always be networking and learning.

“When I was with all my peers and a couple of them had already started their businesses, it really did inspire me to actually start mine and it was kind of like a push. It really opened my eyes and I was like, ‘I don’t need to go for a job, I can actually make my own and be self-employed. If nothing goes well, I can always build something up.’”

Marshall is currently taking her political science classes online and is planning to become a corporate lawyer so the program matched her with mentor Cheryl Knockwood, a lawyer who works as the governance co-ordinator for Membertou First Nation. Marshall is also working with Eileen Paul of the Membertou Entrepreneurship Centre to get her beading business off the ground.

Knockwood says Marshall, who is now 21 years old, has long been a leader in the community and served as youth chief when she was in high school.

"She's been a role model for the youth for a very long time and so we're really proud of her and I look forward to seeing what she's going to become and where her dreams are going to lead her."

Marshall plans to stay in Membertou and run her online beading business until her university classes start back up in person in the fall. She'll also volunteer as an adviser to the youth chief and council.

Eileen Paul says, as a facilitator of the entrepreneurship program, she saw the way it changed the participants.

"From day one we pushed them and put them on the spot to work through hands-on activities and work together and network and engage and sometimes reflect on themselves and their strengths. One thing we all agree on was how their confidence just bloomed and the amazing friendships all of them created," she says.

Lahey says the next round of the program will be held in Potlotek in June.

Ardelle Reynolds, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cape Breton Post