RADIUS SFU helps Alert Bay businesses grow

Many rural communities struggle with how to stimulate and support entrepreneurship when resources and expertise are not readily accessible.

In Alert Bay—a village of nearly 1,500 people on Cormorant Island, off Vancouver Island’s north coast—residents created an opportunity to change the economic tide in their favour.

With more than half of the island’s population comprised of ’Namgis First Nations, leaders from both communities recognized that their future relied on reconciliation and partnership. To encourage and foster local business development, the village and the ’Namgis First Nation collaborated with Reconciliation Canada to develop the Cormorant Island Entrepreneur Support Program.

The yearlong program includes training in bookkeeping, business banking, and mentoring and coaching.

Reconciliation Canada connected with RADIUS SFU after learning about its First Peoples Enterprise Accelerator Program—a collaboration between Simon Fraser University and the Royal Bank of Canada Foundation to support entrepreneurship in Aboriginal communities.

In March 2016, Reconciliation Canada invited RADIUS SFU Ventures director Donovan Woollard and co-instructor Denise Williams, Executive Director of the First Nations Technology Council and a Beedie School of Business Aboriginal EMBA alumnus, to deliver an eight-session business-model validation course.

The duo worked with local entrepreneurs to assess and validate their business ideas and then determine how to move them forward.

Two of those entrepreneurs were Tina and Marvin Jones. Hailing from a hard-working, fishing family, they had long dreamed of establishing a retail shop serving First Nations’ traditional wild seafood to locals and tourists.

Through business modeling exercises and mentoring, the Joneses created a business plan and in July expect to obtain the necessary business licenses to operate their shop.

Hair stylist Natasha Pittman, who moved into the community last year from Ontario to immerse herself in her ’Namgis roots, was interested in learning bookkeeping and banking fundamentals. She reaped a bonus from the course, however, after connecting with its network of fellow entrepreneurs: she found a permanent space for her hair salon.

“Entrepreneurship can be a very isolating experience when you’re trying to create something from scratch,” says Woollard. “The main benefit of any cohort-based entrepreneurship program is the linkage created between entrepreneurs—you’re able to tap into what others in the community are also moving through.”

While the RADIUS sessions ended in April, Woollard is still in touch with the entrepreneurs, providing remote coaching through the next stages of the program.

“Alert Bay is an exciting community that is grappling with economic change,” he says. “There are opportunities for entrepreneurship to create a lot more economic resilience within the community and, with the Cormorant Island Entrepreneur Support program, there’s now a framework to sustain entrepreneurs after we’ve finished our sessions.”

By Ian Bryce