Inuit women working together to find solutions to the unique challenges of small business in the North
A couple of weeks ago, I received an invitation from Pauktuutit, the national Inuit women’s organization in Canada, to attend a roundtable in Ottawa on the Inuit Women in Business Network (IWBN). The IWBN is a tool that Pauktuutit is developing to help aspiring female Inuit entrepreneurs turn their business ideas into reality by providing support and expertise. To discuss the role, development, and future of the IWBN, Pauktuutit brought an Economic Development Officer and an Inuit businesswoman to Ottawa from each of the Inuit regions of Canada: Nunatsiavut (Labrador), the Qikiqtaaluk, Kivalliq, and Kitkmeot regions of Nunavut, and Inuvialuit (North West Territories and the Yukon).
I was thrilled to be invited to represent the Kivalliq region, and not just because three solid months of winter was making me a little bit cabin-feverish. Supporting entrepreneurs has proven to be one of the biggest challenges of my job as Community Economic Development Officer in Arviat, and the roundtable would give me the opportunity to discuss the challenges of entrepreneurship in the north with others who face the same northern challenges, and perhaps begin to explore some solutions.
In terms of business and entrepreneurship, Nunavut seems to be a series of paradoxes. While there are many opportunities in terms of service provision, transportation, construction, and mineral development, the isolation and complication of doing business in the north often means that businesses need a lot of capital and expertise in order to successfully take advantage of those opportunities. Small business entrepreneurs often find themselves limited by the very lack of local services, skills, expertise, and commercial space that create opportunities in the first place, as well as by extremely expensive transportation and communications costs.
Businesses also tend to congregate in the regional hubs. In the Kivalliq Region, for example, Rankin Inlet serves as the transportation and administrative centre, and Rankin Inlet is home to many successful businesses and enjoys a thriving economy. By contrast, Arviat, with roughly the same population as Rankin Inlet and located only a couple of hundred miles south, has relatively little business activity and high unemployment.
There are lots of business ideas in Arviat, but people often lack the money needed to start a business and/or the increasingly complex skills needed to successfully run a business, including administrative skills such as financial management, licensing, marketing, human resources management, etc. Even if a business person does have the necessary resources to start a business, the limited local market makes it challenging for a business to be profitable in Arviat.
That isn’t to say of course that no businesses exist in Arviat. There are several local construction companies that do well, and a building supply company that has grown to be one of the larger businesses in the Kivalliq Region, branching out from retail to include transportation, hotels, logistics, tourism, and construction. And of course the large retailers, the Northern Store and the Co-op with its associated hotel and restaurant, are major contributors to the local economy.
In addition, there is an active “micro-business” culture that thrives on Facebook Sell/Swap pages and local radio, where people not only sell items they no longer have a use for but also make extra income by making and selling clothing, crafts, and food.
But most people who want to officially start a small business quickly run into roadblocks including high costs, limited funds, or a lack of all the necessary skills. These are common challenges to small business everywhere of course, but they can be a lot harder to overcome in the north.
So when a dozen or so people got together in Ottawa to discuss the challenges of small business ownership facing businesswomen in the Inuit regions of Canada, we were all looking forward to sharing some experiences and challenges and discussing how the IWBN could perhaps help us to share solutions as well. The range of experience in the room was impressive (from a businesswoman who makes and sells handmade greeting cards to another who runs a multi-million dollar company that supplies steel pipes to mining companies) and a lot of good ideas were discussed. The primary goal of the roundtable was to discuss how the IWBN should develop, what the “network” should look like and how to share information in the isolated north, as well as discuss programs and projects to help aspiring entrepreneurs.
All in all it was an interesting couple of days, and I’m sure the folks at Pauktuutit got a lot of information to digest from the group. It was great to hear some of the challenges that others have faced and the solutions they have developed over years of business experience, and perhaps most helpful to me was the chance to talk about the challenges facing potential entrepreneurs in Arviat, the chance to fully articulate some of the things that I have found most frustrating over the past year, and the opportunity to start looking at those challenges from a new perspective.
The mayor of Arviat often points out that 40 years ago, every family in the area was an entrepreneur, a self-sufficient participant in the fur trade responsible for their own operations. I see that same entrepreneurial spirit every day in my office, but an increasingly complex business and regulatory environment makes it harder and harder for entrepreneurs to turn their ideas into reality. While I firmly believe that education is the primary necessity for success in business, what is really needed are programs like Pauktuutit’s Inuit Women in Business Network that give northern entrepreneurs – with good ideas and strong motivation but who are so often disadvantaged by geography and economics – the support, resources, and self-confidence they need to be successful in business.
The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.