Jace Meyer
Lead for Indigenous Entrepreneurs - Shopify

Economic Reconciliation at the Heart of Empowering Indigenous Entrepreneurs in Canada

Takeaways

  1. Indigenomics, the Indigenous perspective of economics, holds values-based entrepreneurship and community building at the heart of economics. Under this system, knowledge and experiences are to be shared regardless of societal divisions, creating a more connected commerce ecosystem.
  2. Across the country, disparities in infrastructure and education are at the root of economic inequity. Indigenous participation in the economy can only be fully bolstered when infrastructure and education have been transformed to be more accessible and tailored to Indigenous youth. Without basic needs met, Indigenous youth cannot fully participate in the economy the way they want to.
  3. E-commerce has democratized access to economic participation for marginalized groups, especially Indigenous peoples. It has opened up possibilities for Indigenous entrepreneurs to sell their products globally without having to leave their communities or come up with significant capital to start a brick-and-mortar business.

Action

All Canadians need to consider every way they can help grant disenfranchised people more opportunities. We must all look at what positions and responsibilities we hold and what power we have. This includes our purchasing power, which allows us to be a barrier remover. We need to procure from Indigenous businesses, we need to market our services to Indigenous people, we need to connect together both literally and figuratively. We cannot wait on a system to change; we need to be the change.


What is your perspective on the strengths, weaknesses and key trends impacting the Indigenous economy and Indigenous entrepreneurship in Canada?

I have been very fortunate to work with Indigenous communities across the country and have seen that there is untapped potential and an unmet need to help more youth see themselves in the future of work.

Indigenous entrepreneurs are one of the fastest growing demographics in this country. They are building with their communities, sharing what they learn as they develop their businesses, and this is encouraging others to join them. We often see folks not only launching their own businesses but collectives and stores that represent their entire community. I would describe this as building a sharing economy, which reflects the history of commerce from an Indigenous perspective.

“Indigenous entrepreneurs are one of the fastest growing demographics in this country. They are building with their communities, sharing what they learn as they develop their businesses, and this is encouraging others to join them.”

We can also see a lot of economics happening right now in ways that we would not necessarily traditionally measure economics. We see people using Facebook Messenger and Instagram to post their products and sell within their communities. But if we were to actually move all those transactions onto a platform, which would then allow them to be measured, some 43,000-odd number of businesses in this country would double overnight.

Our mission is to make commerce better for everyone and it is our belief that if you can solve that for the groups most in need, you actually have the opportunity to really understand the problems and barriers that everyone faces. Working with Indigenous entrepreneurs in Canada is going to allow us to learn how we can make commerce better for everyone as a result of helping those people first. The product development opportunities are huge and we can see mirror types of economies and groups in other places in the world where we can leverage what we learn here in Canada and deploy it elsewhere. So while we are focusing on Indigenous Canadians because this is where we are headquartered, we recognize that their challenges are shared by many around the world, and there is an opportunity to accelerate our learning and accelerate the growth of the Indigenous economy worldwide if we adopt that larger lens. We see this having a global impact.


What would you say is the big difference between the Indigenous economy or Indigenous entrepreneurs and their non-Indigenous counterparts?

Without generalising, it is values-based entrepreneurship. In an Indigenous community, hoarding wealth is unacceptable. We are all seeing the inequality of wealth distribution play out globally, where the top 1% are holding 90% of the world’s wealth, and as it gets worse, people are becoming more desperate to find a new way of thinking about commerce. Indigenomics, the Indigenous view of the economy, is what I think people are looking for. And this favours indigenous entrepreneurs. They are being seen as leaders since people are looking for that model and are realizing that it is replicable. And for the first time in a long time, this puts indigenous people in front as the lead, which is not often the case. It is a really beautiful opportunity and, to me, it has never been better to be an Indigenous entrepreneur. And I see our role at Shopify as giving a main stage and a platform to this values-based entrepreneurship concept so that other people can implement it too.

The Indigenous view of economics is one of a borderless economy that does not see things in terms of country divides. There is an opportunity to share goods and knowledge with the entire world and to not put any limitations on access to that, and we want to do right by that.


What support is necessary from key stakeholders, such as government, industry, and others, to grow the Indigenous economy and opportunities for Indigenous youth in Canada?

Infrastructure is the first step. No future experiment you can think of will sustain itself for the long term if the infrastructure needed to support it does not exist. There are Indigenous people in Canada who do not have access to clean water, housing, health, education or the internet. We are not meeting the physiological needs of 25% of the Indigenous population that lives in this country and that is appalling in 2019. Nothing else matters if we do not solve the infrastructure gap within Indigenous communities first.And for Shopify to play a part in supporting the growth of Indigenomics, we are absolutely tied to everybody in this country having access to the internet. This means the government’s commitment to 95% connectivity by 2030 is not good enough, especially when Indigenous populations are said to represent 5% of our total population. You cannot help but speculate which 5% will remain unconnected.

“We are not meeting the physiological needs of 25% of the Indigenous population that lives in this country and that is appalling in 2019. Nothing else matters if we do not solve the infrastructure gap within Indigenous communities first.”

The second greatest need is to ensure that education is equitable in this country and that the infrastructure exists to support that. If people’s physiological needs are not being met, there is no way they can compete in the economy. The education for Indigenous children is not on par with the education for non-Indigenous children, due to caps on government spending, a lack of infrastructure in Indigenous communities, and Indigenous youths having to leave their community in order to attend school. 47% of First Nations communities need a new school and 74% of First Nations schools need major repairs, so there is no reason for children to show up and learn in a space that is crumbling around them, especially when they do not have teachers who reflect who they are and will not stay for the long-term. 

When your family needs to eat and there is a job to be had around the corner, you are more likely to go work than you are to sit in a school that does not feel like it was designed for you. So when we see youth not graduating high school and not attending post-secondary education, the likelihood that they are going to end up in the tech sector is minimized. 

Indigenous youth want to be offered the chance to solve real, intractable problems. They want their learning to be purposeful. They want to see that learning translate into action in their community. They will not want to merely read about something if they could do it instead. They are incredibly motivated in this way and I think the misconception that Indigenous youth do not value education, and that they are lazy and do not want to attend school, is totally false. Indigenous youth are incredibly engaged, globally-minded, locally-thinking people that are just not getting their fair shot.

“Indigenous youth are incredibly engaged, globally-minded, locally-thinking people that are just not getting their fair shot.”

Shopify has recognized that we do not have enough people at this company that reflect that audience. One of our strategies is to ensure that we are employing more Indigenous people in our company. We have let go of the need to have post-secondary education to secure a job with us in order to include more voices in tech. We are also investing in many education programs, so that there are also other ways for people to gain the required skills. There exists an opportunity on the horizon to really rethink how companies recruit talent.

Organizations need to admit what they do not know, and ask questions of the community and form partnerships with those communities. Hiring just one Indigenous person can help create trust and open a door to further partnerships and opportunities. It is imperative that organizations take stock of all the dimensions of diversity of their employees in order to understand whether or not they are reflective of the populations that they are building for. Once you institute education strategies and employee development strategies that are equitable to everybody, it gives everybody that chance to grow their careers within your company, regardless of who they are.

All proud Canadian companies have a duty to respond to Recommendation 92 in the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that calls for the Canadian corporate sector to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) as a reconciliation framework. Businesses should publicly state that they are trying to create opportunities for reconciliation. I believe work and business will flow from that.

What are the benefits of e-commerce to Indigenous entrepreneurs? 

No dependency on a brick and mortar store means your cost of doing business is already significantly decreased–it only costs $30 a month to run a business on Shopify. But I think what is actually most important for Indigenous people is that the online movement allows you to remain in your community.There is no need to leave your community to go seek out an urban center with a greater population. With e-commerce, you can maintain your lifestyle and live amongst your people while running a successful business with a global reach. 

“What is actually most important for Indigenous people is that the online movement allows you to remain in your community.”

That direct-to-consumer movement has unlocked huge economic potential for everybody, but it is especially relevant to Indigenous entrepreneurs who have been dependent on distributors and middlemen to sell their goods. Now, they have access to the global economy and get to keep their fair share of the value of that product, without a middleman. 

Every person wants to feel a sense of purpose. They want to feel like they have self-actualized and that they are proud of their work. That looks different for everybody but entrepreneurship and the e-commerce movement is making it possible for people to define their own self-actualization and pride in new ways. It is disrupting all kinds of long-standing institutions and systems that we thought were the only way forward. Having every person in Canada feel that they can show up, do their life’s work, and take care of their family at the same time does not just create economic impact, it creates social impact. 

“We need to focus on the economic aspect of reconciliation fast because it is measurable and it can help unlock independence for those that have been disenfranchised from the economy.”

For far too long we have avoided the economic context of reconciliation because the amount owed is so significant that nobody and no one government wants to feel responsible for 150 years of damage. We need to focus on the economic aspect of reconciliation fast because it is measurable and it can help unlock independence for those that have been disenfranchised from the economy.


What are the best ways for employers to reach out to Canada’s Indigenous community and design positions that resonate with them?

I think we have the entire hiring strategy backwards. We so often hire for the job we think needs to happen, as opposed to creating open channels for people to pitch the way they think they could contribute to the problems a company is trying to solve using insights only they could have.

People want to know that their efforts and their time spent away from their families will have a positive impact that goes beyond just taking home a paycheck. The more you can communicate the impact of the work you are trying to hire for, and the purpose people would get by doing that work, the more likely you are to convince people to come and join you. 

“We so often hire for the job we think needs to happen, as opposed to creating open channels for people to pitch the way they think they could contribute to the problems a company is trying to solve using insights only they could have.”

Put your mission out there and say “we are interested in hiring people that think they can contribute to this work, so tell us how you, and only you, can do this work”. I think Shopify has done a really great job of creating the conditions for that. I have pitched two jobs here at this company that were not jobs before I came along. 

That is a game changer for companies – they get to mobilize skillsets that they would not have otherwise seen if they had continued typecasting jobs they thought were necessary. There is an opportunity here to innovate how we think about talent recruitment.

Companies and recruiter should not be afraid to make mistakes; reaching out is better than not reaching out. We are so worried about political correctness that we take no action and do not recognize the significance of even one small choice. The Indigenous community wants to be involved and contribute, but fear and stereotypes get the better of us. Just naming your intention to create opportunities can serve as a catalyst for all the other things that are possible.