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Collabs are the buzzword of the business world. Whether it’s multinational corporations or sole proprietors joining forces, collaboration can be a powerful strategic tool for growth.
But while the financial gains of such alliances can be substantial, collaborations can also take on a deeper meaning – helping to create a stronger and more equitable economy.
This spring, three Indigenous women-led businesses become the inaugural partners with national retailer Rexall in the Indigenous Marketplace, launched at 10 locations across Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario.
April Mitchell-Boudreau is jewelry designer based in Ontario’s Niagara region and owner of Loftan, one of the three businesses featured in the Indigenous Marketplace alongside Mother Earth Essentials and Lodge Soy Candles.
“This is reconciliation in action,” says the Niagara, Ont.-based entrepreneur of the partnership with Rexall. “Rexall wasn’t virtue signalling, they surprised me at every turn.”
A 2020 report by the Business Council of Canada found that while Indigenous women are starting businesses at twice the rate of non-Indigenous women, less than 20 per cent have accessed capital from a financial institution or government program. “It’s time for the Indigenous Peoples to be at the centre of Canada’s economy,” the report concluded.
Rexall began developing the marketplace idea early in 2021, and by June 2021 welcomed Indigenous vendors to submit Canadian-made products for review by a Rexall panel.
“We take great care to ensure vendors selected for this showcase are supported through any potential barriers to entry presented by other national retailers,” says Nichol Noorirad, visual merchandising manager for Rexall Drugstores.
Carrie Armstrong, owner of Edmonton-based Mother Earth Essentials, creates naturally-sourced bath and body products made from traditional recipes. “When I worked in the cosmetics industry, I noticed how plants were celebrated from around the world, but not our country’s plants,” she says of her decision to launch the company in 2006.
Being selected for Rexall’s Indigenous Marketplace has been a fulfillment of a long-time goal to be in a national retailer, Ms. Armstrong says, and she feels she has honoured her mother and grandmother by preserving family knowledge.
“I had approached two other pharmacy chains who refused me,” she says. “A lot of corporations talk about the calls to action, but not many follow through.”
Lodge Soy Candles creator Angela DeMontigny has spent the past 20 years as a fashion designer, creating luxury Indigenous clothing and accessories for international markets as well as overseeing her own boutique in Hamilton, Ont. She notes that while large corporate retailers typically focus on multinational brands, the Rexall opportunity is a welcome change.
“By giving space to lesser-known brands, it’s the decolonization of business,” says Ms. DeMontigny, who infuses her candles with essential oils derived from Indigenous plant medicines.
She adds that the program also helps promote Indigenous values with a larger customer base.
“Indigenous business is all about sustainability,” Ms. DeMontigny says. “We’ve been all about a circular economy for centuries.”
Increasing racial and gender equity in the food industry
Removing barriers and providing access is the mantra of Foodpreneur Lab, a Toronto-based non-profit founded and led by a team of Black women entrepreneurs with a mandate to increase racial and gender equity for start-up and scale-up food businesses.
“I got laid off in December 2018, and in January 2019 I founded Foodpreneur Lab,” says executive director Janice Bartley.
With over 30 years of experience in the hospitality and culinary industries, it was her time at Food Starter, Toronto’s first food incubator, that persuaded her more needed to be done to advance racial equity in the food industry.
“What was wrong with this picture? I noticed the lack of representation,” says Ms. Bartley.
The current rules of business don’t make it easy for women entrepreneurs, and especially BIPOC businesswomen. The Women Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub published Rise Up: A Study of 700 Black Women Entrepreneurs in Spring 2021, concluding that “Black women entrepreneurs across Canada often experience barriers to entrepreneurship in the form of systemic barriers and unequal access to supports.”
The study notes that the global pandemic added another challenge, with pandemic-related closures negatively impacting business continuity for Black entrepreneurs operating in the service industry.
Foodpreneur Lab provides guided and personalized support from industry experts with the goal of helping food entrepreneurs from underserved communities realize their short-term or long-term business goal, says Ms. Bartley. There are 50 participants in Foodpreneur’s 2022 cohort, 80 per cent of whom are women. Many are “latepreneurs,” she adds, people who went from the frontlines of the service industry and are now pivoting to launch their own business.
Invaluable resources for fledgling businesses
On Juneteenth – June 19, 2022 – Foodpreneur will kick off a partnership with Junction Craft Beverage Company (JCBC), a Toronto beverage manufacturer that creates in-house products as well as 70+ products for outside craft consumer brands and breweries.
JCBC will share their comprehensive knowledge of the food and beverage industry with at least 25 of Foodpreneur Lab’s microbusinesses, giving them daily support, sharing best practices and working with them on troubleshooting.
Ms. Bartley notes that this kind of information can be an invaluable resource is to a fledgling business.
“We’re hoping the [participant] businesses will increase their knowledge base and get rid of inefficiencies,” she says.
These kinds of partnerships between smaller businesses and larger players can also be important steps to improve the overall industry and fortify the food supply chain.
“We need to make more investment in our food and beverage sector to address food insecurities,” she says.