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Taking care of business, 'against the odds'

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To look at the statistics, the picture is pretty bleak for aboriginal people pursuing a career in business, especially if they want to do it on a reserve.

The 2006 census points to desperate times for aboriginal youth, with 77 per cent who are on their own, living on a low income. Add in addictions, suicide and poverty effects, and a healthy labour force goal, especially on reserve, seems almost unattainable.

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But here at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business, I'm seeing things from a more hopeful perspective, albeit tempered by the obvious realities.

Aboriginal students in the business faculty struggle with many of the same challenges as other students here who juggle the cost of university and the pressure to attain grades that put them in line for the sought-after break into the corporate world.

But for many aboriginal students the challenges run deeper. The lack of money makes finances a daily chore to conquer. I regularly see grit and determination.

This is illustrated by my chat with one aboriginal business student from the North End, well on his way to completing his business degree.

"I persevered and proved that no matter what conditions someone grows up in, they can succeed against all odds."

This young man is not aiming for the corporate world.

"My focus is on studying aboriginal economy and I want to work with aboriginal communities when I graduate and not a large corporation."

More than 10 per cent of Manitoba's aboriginal population is self-employed, so economic development initiatives are out there.

Aboriginal businesses face common business realities, including high rates of new business failures and the undaunted dedication that is required for ongoing ventures.

Drawing upon a skilled labour force is often the goal for aboriginal-owned businesses to meet community employment goals and personal values. But unemployment rates, low education attainment and a variety of other socioeconomic factors present formidable hurdles.

Why are there so few aboriginal business owners or those with business education skills like accounting?

The opportunities for young people to have business role models in their own communities are limited. In city centres, it is not easy to identify aboriginal-owned businesses that are generally set to meet the needs of the general public. While business role models are catalysts for suggesting training and career opportunities, community leaders, relatives and career fairs may be the main source of information and guidance.

Aboriginal youth need encouragement to stay in school and make the decision to get a business education.

There are some efforts being made to overcome the barriers for our youth and budding entrepreneurs.

Ch'nook Indigenous Business Education program, an initiative of the University of British Columbia, meets with high school youth throughout the province promoting business education. They try to address the issues that might prevent youth from choosing business.

Identity, traditional cultural beliefs and negative business preconceptions are discussed with the help of elders.

Former prime minister Paul Martin's national education initiatives aimed at aboriginal youth are well-known. They encourage kids to stay in school, to pursue entrepreneurship and focus on the issues facing aboriginal people.

The Business Development Bank of Canada has involved more than 200 aboriginal high school students in a business plan competition that meets across Canada.

The unique challenges before aboriginal students are recognized by many institutions, and often a transitional year is offered to ease students into the regular program. Recently, the University of Winnipeg started a course directed at developing aboriginal youth entrepreneurs.

For 19 years, Aboriginal Business Education Partners (ABEP) has been working with aboriginal students interested in completing an honours bachelor of commerce degree at the Asper School. Prior to the creation of ABEP, the school had only a handful of graduates in its 60-year history. Now, more than 60 students have earned their degrees and accessed scholarships, internship opportunities and academic advice.

It is the only business program to offer an aboriginal business studies major for all their students. Courses are of broad interest and also allow students who want to return to their communities with entrepreneurship, marketing and accounting skills to assist businesses.

What about the businesses that are successful? For the past eight years, Manitoba aboriginal business owners have been honoured by Asper School of Business and ABEP at the Excellence in Aboriginal Business Leadership Awards dinner. Prospering businesses that have faced failure and other hard lessons are telling stories for aboriginal business students and the business community.

Youth need encouragement and guidance in picking up business tools to work for others or to start their own businesses. The education and business community are recognizing they play a critical role to augment the role of family and the community as they nurture independence, caring, sharing and other important values in the young who on day will lead our communities.

Most often the goal is to live a good life. More aboriginal students are seeing that an education in business can help get them there.


Wanda Wuttunee, a professor at the University of Manitoba Asper School of Business, got an MBA from the University of Calgary in 1989.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 J11

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