Interview With Heather Abbey

This month, SFNEDN spoke with Heather Abbey, the founder of Indig Inc and a prominent role model and mentor for women and Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Sure! I’m a Cree woman from Little Pine First Nation. I grew up in Regina and spent over a dozen years of my life in North Central – I lived there when MacLeans magazine called it the worst neighborhood in Canada. Yeah it had the challenges that comes hand in hand with being a lower income neighborhood, but it was also a community. I grew and I thrived there, and I learned how to do a lot with a little bit of creativity and the willingness to work really, really hard.

I went to school at the First Nations University of Canada and worked at a local pool hall. I was lucky enough to be awarded both the YWCA Young Woman of Distinction Award for my community involvement and the Dr. A. E. Blakeney Bursary – a $40,000 bursary – in the same year. It made life a lot easier, and opened up my eyes to the fact that I had potential to create my future.

Around the time I was getting started on my business idea and shaping it, I was introduced to numerous entrepreneurial opportunities in Saskatoon, including the Aboriginal Empower Program. I would drive up to Saskatoon for my Empower classes with my babies, drop them at a sitter while class was on, and then pick them up and drive us home after the night class was done and they slept. As I realized that entrepreneurship was what I wanted to do with my life I made the decision to pick up and move my babies and I to Saskatoon, and I’ve been here for almost five years now!

When did you decide you were going to be an entrepreneur?

I was always the kid that was organizing garage sales with kids in my area, or selling fruit punch when the other juice stands were selling lemonade. Then I’d add on with cupcakes and sell them as a combo. If that didn’t work I would grab my wagon and take my juice and baking door to door and I’d keep at it until I sold out!

I came upon the idea for my business while I was still in Uni – I was pregnant and put on bedrest in the final months. Being on bedrest meant that I couldn’t sell the little earrings that I made to help bring in extra money. I started using Facebook to ask other artists what challenges they faced. Hundreds of artisans answered my questions, and the idea naturally evolved from there. I created my first online marketplace with the last of my savings and the money I’d socked away from my pool hall job.

That business idea has led me to some pretty crazy and wonderful opportunities – I used up all my money creating my first site and wasn’t at the point where I could obtain traditional financing. So I joined business competition after business competition. I knew without winning capital that my business was dead on the ground, so I gave it my ALL every competition. At that point I was a single mother with two babies living in a small house in Saskatoon, and I would practice my pitch at night over and over until my throat would hurt and I’d lose my voice. But I did it. I managed to place in or win thirteen different business competitions, including the national Powwow Pitch in Ottawa, the Aboriginal Youth Idea Challenge, the National Pitch on the Hill in Ottawa, the Pitch Party, and most recently the Gateway Entrepreneur Challenge. I’ve represented Canada in Kansas City, spoken onstage as an entrepreneur in Vegas, been invited to Beijing and Turkey as part of the Canadian Delegation of the G20 and the coolest part was ringing the bell to open the Toronto Stock Exchange with my MaRS Discovery District cohort!

I’ve rebranded my business as Indig Inc this year, I received a wonderful grant from Creative Saskatchewan to create a new online marketplace. That’s being built right now, and I’m super happy to share that I’ve been accepted into the Canadian Technology Accelerator in Cambridge! I fly out next week and will be going back and forth for the next four months (Woooohoooo!!!)

Are there different challenges and opportunities that come from being a woman entrepreneur?

Totally. I get mansplained a LOT, or people assume I have no clue what entrepreneurship is, or they try and “dumb it down” for me. I’ve been in some pretty intense rooms in Toronto and Ottawa where I’m the only Indigenous female entrepreneur and people try and talk over me, or they assume I have nothing of value to say. That’s when I make sure I’m heard, and that I say what I came there to say. I’ve interrupted people that have interrupted me, and I’ve also had some times where I was able to drop some serious entrepreneurial knowledge on them right back. I’m a strong Cree woman, baby, I didn’t fly all that way to look pretty and not have a voice!

On the flip side though, there are a lot of supportive organizations out there that helped my voice be heard – I’m a SheEO Activator now, and last year I won the national Indigenous Entrepreneur of the Year Award from Startup Canada, which led to me becoming a part of the Startup Canada Alumni. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the amazing support of organizations like SREDA/Square One, Futurpreneur, SIEF, and Startup Canada, plus a whole lot of support from family, friends and the entrepreneurship community in Saskatoon as a whole!

You’ve been an important role model and mentor in the Saskatchewan Indigenous entrepreneur community. What motivates you to work with others?

It’s always flattering to hear the words role model for sure, thank you for that. I like to think that I’ve been able to better myself through my pursuit of entrepreneurship. There have definitely been some pivotal moments in my life where I needed someone that believed in me… they opened doors for me that I couldn’t open for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I had the work ethic, and the creativity to get there, but sometimes you just need that inside referral, or that one judge to look at you and say “I believe she’s going to do exactly what she says she’s going to do.” There have been three or four times that that has happened for me, that someone went out of their way for me… it’s life changing for sure.

I’ve been the recipient of that kind of radical generosity, and that’s why I go out of my way to extend helping hand to others when I can. I’ve created business competitions, a speaker series, a tradeshow for Indigenous Artisans, and last month I brought home a national conference for Indigenous Female Entrepreneurs. When I can be a connector for others, or sit down with them and offer valuable advice on their business model or idea and really *help them*, well it’s valuable for me too –> I did all my learning so I could not only help myself, but as many other Indigenous entrepreneurs as possible. Entrepreneurship is how I give back.

One of your most recent ventures was co-ordinating the Aboriginal Women in Business and Entrepreneurship Network last month. What did you take away from that event?

It was powerful, and it came at a time when we really needed something positive for our people. The Stanley verdict just came through a week and a half prior, and we needed to be together, to be in a safe space that was protected by the prayers of our Elders and healing of our jingle dancers that kicked off the conference.

It was a packed schedule full of workshops that included Youtubing 101, Social Media, Vision Boarding, Learning to Pitch, and several panels of the most amazing entrepreneurs from across Canada. The vibe was incredible – it was supportive and fun, and the air was full of our wonderful loud native women laughter!! Lots of friendships were made at the conference, and it was a dream come true to see all of my hard work come to life!!

You’ve been an advocate for establishing a co-working space for Indigenous entrepreneurs in Saskatoon. What kind of space would support entrepreneurs like you?

Saskatoon needs an Indigenous co-working space for our entrepreneurs. A space that is located on reserve where our Entrepreneurs can smudge, work, grow and flourish. I can name over two dozen entrepreneurs that would benefit from this type of co-working arrangement – from our makers that could have a room with drafting and pattern tables and sewing machines for their creations, to our entrepreneurs that can benefit from work spaces with access to computers/wifi and office equipment, the use of a boardroom for meetings and a kitchen for our chefs to perfect their recipes.

If we created a co-working space for our Saskatoon based Indigenous businesses, it would be a game changer – supporting our entrepreneurs as they grow past the one to three year period where over 60% of businesses fail and helping them achieve entrepreneurial SUCCESS!!! Our entrepreneurs include tech companies, graphic designers, apparel companies, photographers, physical trainers, social enterprises, makeup artists and more –> if we can support these founders they will go on to establish incredible businesses that employ dozens and dozens of people, plus they will continue to give back to the next generation of entrepreneurs after that and so on, and on… and on. We can start this change right here with the creation of Saskatoon’s first on reserve Indigenous co working space, and that’s where we are headed.