The Life of an Indigenous Entrepreneur – An Interview with Ryan Linklater, CEO of Linklater House

By Heather Exner-Pirot

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you became an entrepreneur?

One day I was sitting in law class and everyone was talking about starting their own companies. I said, “what about a shoe company or clothing company?” I was looking at moccasins. They’re all the same. I thought, is there a new way we can do this? My idea was to make high-end native fashion. I came up with a moccasin shoe idea – any shoe you see I can make it into a moccasin: Toms, sneakers, loafers. I call it Moccashoe – I’m working on registering that as intellectual property.

But you can’t have just one idea, you need multiple ideas when creating a business. I also looked into clothing. I do a lot of cosplay – things you would see in a theatre production.

My products are unique, very different.

In August 2016 I went to the WIBF [World Indigenous Business Forum, hosted in Saskatoon] and there I networked and learned a lot from other countries and other companies – I did a lot of learning there. I also did an interview with APTN News and was on the news reel.

The WIBF was one of my highlights. Learning about other Indigenous people, and how they have been colonized, and hearing them talk about their struggles. We used to have our own economies and our own trade.  Being an entrepreneur is about trying to tap into the economy that you choose to be in. You can work for someone else’s dreams or you can work for your own.  All our lives we’re told what we can and can’t do. I want to make shoes.

What is it like being an entrepreneur?

Being an entrepreneur means you have to do it on your own. When I created the idea for my company, only a handful of people believed in me. But they totally support the idea. I had to show them results. It’s one thing to say something, and it’s another to do it. When you create a business, you have to learn advertising, bookkeeping, business license and zoning. For example I can work from home but I can’t sell stuff from there.

What is it like being an Indigenous entrepreneur?

Traditionally, as an Indigenous entrepreneur, I would be in the powwow circuit. But I’ve tried to take my products to other circuits, where there usually aren’t any native people. I went to Comic-Con [The Saskatoon Comic & Entertainment Expo] and no one else was selling native stuff.  I’ve also sold my products at places like the Fringe Festival and Art Thursday Night in Market Square. Sometimes I get hated on – I’m a traditional person, I use leather and animal products. I love alligator skin but have to use the faux stuff.

It’s hard trying to break the stigma of being an Indigenous person – for my customers and even my own people sometimes. The older ones will look at my shoes and think it’s very different – either make a joke, or just not like them. That happens a lot with elders, and it hurts a little. I made knee high boots, and my grandparents hated them.

Is it easy to find mentors and partners as an Indigenous entrepreneur?

My grandmother Maria Linklater taught me how to sew. She is the greatest and the toughest teacher. She’s honest.

I met up with Heather Abbey [an Indigenous entrepreneur and owner of] at a start-up contest for Indigenous designers. My cousin Tabatha Linklater was entered in the fashion clothing category and I put in my video for the moccashoe idea. I was also making birch bark hats with by brother Lyndon – he would construct the Birch bark Hat shells and I would add the silk lining and leather – and they were out of this world. My cousin asked to borrow our hat for the runway, and her first model had it on, looking sexy. The first question from the judges was “who made that hat and where can I get one?” I was told my ideas were so unique, and I was in a room of people that were so supportive. I joined their trade shows afterwards.

That’s why we need a place for Indigenous entrepreneurs to help each other: pitch ideas, talk, and present ourselves. Now people are telling me I need to get on the web and sell my stuff and that’s pushing me.

What does it take to be an entrepreneur? 

You’re selling your own ideas. You’re getting up every day and trying to do what you love. Every single day. You always have to come up with new ideas. I have to travel, and set up and take down my display table, every morning and every night. I’m getting out there and selling my dream from 8-4, and then have to go back home and work on inventory. Meanwhile I have to get my kids to school, and take them to basketball.  Sometimes I think “geez I should just get a real job!”

You aren’t going to get rich fast.  And I’ve been doing this all on my own. I’ve invested all my own money into everything. The moment you say you can’t do it, you give up.

How did you learn to run your own business?

Through reading books, the internet, networking, talking to people. The best thing is to ask questions, don’t be afraid. A lot of people don’t like to ask for help. But you have to. I also listen to Kendall [Netmaker] and his blogs. And you have to hang out with good crowds and the people you love.

I created a line of reversible hoodies this summer and tested them in the market and they all sold.  But I learned that I need to have a real business.  I created a lot of noise for myself. People know about me. But I need to get out in their face more.

I also had to create a tax account, do all the things to really run a business. I used Square One and their check list and that was helpful.

What do wish you knew then that you know now?

I wish I had asked for help in the beginning, I went at it by myself for the first year. People would give me advice but I didn’t ask for help.  Now people are helping me make my business more professional.

You have to push yourself in the fashion business. You have to study people. I studied fashion mavens and they have fashion houses. And I thought, Linklater is going to have its own House. Each room in my house literally has its own job. One is for working on shoes, one is for marketing.

Where do you want to be in five years?

I’m in the process of building a new business plan. My old one was good but it had holes in it. Square One helped me see where the holes were, and what I needed to fix. I know if I push hard enough, I can have employees to help with tracing patterns and designs. I am also looking to take it from the street level and create a website.

In five years I want one of those places where you’re walking in the mall and you see all my stuff. My own things. I’m selling me, not someone else’s products.

Check out Linklater House products at their Facebook page.