What began as a pilot project five years ago to help increase Indigenous youths' interest in entrepreneurship has now become a platform for businesses run by Indigenous youth in the Treaty 6 area — one that may see them appear on a popular reality TV show.
A group of students from the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program, a business initiative created by the Saskatoon Tribal Council, recently took their business idea to an audition for the national CBC television show Dragons' Den — and now the group is anxiously waiting to see if their idea will be chosen to be featured during the next season.
"I am impatiently waiting," said Stephan Littlepine, a Grade 11 from One Arrow First Nation who has been part of the entrepreneurship program for the past four years.
"Every morning I get up hoping to get the phone call."
The idea the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program pitched to Dragons' Den is 3R Innovative Imagery, a business plan out of the Muskoday Business Club that implements their three Rs — "recycle, reuse and reinvent."
3R repurposes old cabinet doors into decorative wall decor, using laser-engraved images created by the students. Their products have been selling across the country.
"We are selling them as fast as they can make them," said Joe Taylor, the AYEP co-ordinator.
"Each of the pieces come from the students' own ideas and art. You can see their creativity and how it's empowering them."
It brings us together, they are really creating functioning businesses, so it really sets us up for success. - Betty-Anne Morin, Grade 12 student
Images of bears, buffalo and dream catchers are some of the students' best-selling pieces. They also incorporate inspirational words like "believe," "family" and "love" into their pieces of art, which are painted and adorned with a sticker that describes the group and their partners.
The students in 3R Innovative Imagery say they want to help other Indigenous youth in Canada start their own profitable businesses within their own communities. They would like to be able to provide starter kits to help generate ideas, using their idea to repurpose cabinets as a starting point.
Earlier this year, the Saskatoon Tribal Council and Habitat for Humanity in Saskatoon signed a memorandum of understanding that would see cabinet doors donated to 3R Innovative Imagery. Taylor says that Habitat for Humanity's donations will help ensure the business will continue into the future.
There are approximately 100 students from seven First Nations involved in the AYEP business clubs. Set up in Kinistin Saulteaux Nation, Mistawasis First Nation, Muskeg First Nation, Muskoday First Nation, One Arrow First Nation, Whitecap Dakota First Nation and Yellow Quill First Nation, the main goal of the business clubs is to teach the students leadership skills while giving them the confidence to expand their ideas.
Some of the other businesses that have come out of AYEP are a handbag business from the students at Muskoday First Nation, an eagle feather-box business out of Mistawasis Nêhiyawak High School, and two catering businesses in Yellow Quill First Nation and Kinistin Saulteaux First Nation.
"All the reserves with [the Saskatoon Tribal Council] all have business clubs with each school," said Betty-Anne Morin, a Grade 12 student from Mistawasis Nêhiyawak, one of the seven First Nations represented by the STC.
"It brings us together. They are really creating functioning businesses, so it really sets us up for success."
Students are taught the basics of developing a business plan, and AYEP helps inspire youth to bring their own ideas forward, Morin said.
"Before I joined the group I wasn't one to stand up in front of a crowd. Now I know I can. And it's from the confidence I gained in our business club, travelling and meeting actual people in the business world," she said.
For Taylor, opening doors and giving the kids opportunities is just the beginning of what the program is doing. Many former students who were in the business clubs have graduated and are now studying in fields like engineering and business.
"I really see a huge increase in self-confidence, self-esteem," he said. "They are learning to take pride in who they are and where they are from."
Although there are thousands of people auditioning for Dragons' Den across the province, Taylor says it's not about winning or losing for his students — it's being able to help them get up and share their ideas that is most important.
"At the end of the day, if we can provide some motivation and inspiration for these kids and open doors for their future, we are a success."