Inspire NWT by building a new generation of young northern entrepreneurs

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Inspire NWT is training a new generation of young Northern entrepreneurs with a three-month course that will give them the skills, mentorship and support they need to start their own businesses, nonprofits and community organizations.

“I love what [Inspire NWT] brings to the table, particularly in northern communities where there is definitely a need to make voices heard from smaller northern communities and to get other young aspiring entrepreneurs to believe in their ideas,” said Jamie Wetrade-Stevenson, a self-taught entrepreneur Photographer and program instructor for Inspire NWT.

The winter cohort have far-reaching entrepreneurial ambitions — like starting a sewing supply and workshop, starting a food truck, running advocacy and healing programs in the North, or building therapy support for people who come into contact with the law.

Inspire NWT was piloted in September and the first-ever winter cohort is split into two virtual programs: a regional cohort with participants from Dehcho, Sahtu and Beaufort Delta, and an NWT-wide cohort with participants from Fort Providence, Yellowknife and the Tłı̨chǫ region.

Wetrade-Stevenson, 22, is from Behchokǫ̀, NWT, and said interest in the program was sparked by identifiable mentors.

“I wanted to be able to really show that there’s someone who looks like you, who’s from the same community as you, who’s doing great things,” Wetrade-Stevenson said.

In high school, Wetrade-Stevenson was never taught about owning a business and did not personally know anyone who ran their own business.

“I didn’t even think it could be something that could become a reality,” she said.

That potential is “really, really important to show, especially for our youth who may not feel empowered or have that confidence because they feel too young,” Wetrade-Stevenson said.

Past participants have started their own small businesses, and in Fort Providence, NWT, five graduates of the program are on the cusp of founding the River Peace Association, a nonprofit that will run the local youth center, she said.

During the incoming cohort, participants will learn about prototyping, supply chains, branding, tax and financial management, and finding sponsors and funders.

They also receive a $400 weekly stipend for training to help participants take time off from their current jobs, Wetrade-Stevenson said.

Autumn class takes over youth center

Sheldon Minoza is a board member of the River Peace Association and participated in the fall cohort of the Inspire NWT pilot program. (Submitted by Niroja Thiru)

The fall cohort of attendees at Fort Providence “walked away with the basics — knowing how to start a business and figuring out that idea, passion, and its mission and values,” Stevenson said.

Participants in Inspire NWT’s pilot program are from the Deh Gáh Got’ı̨ę First Nation and will offer “culturally-responsive” programs for families, the elderly and youth through the River Peace Association, said Inspire NWT program director Niroja Thiru.

“There is a big gap in programming for older youth in the community,” said Thiru, who oversaw the fall pilot program.

“It’s really exciting… to see these youth leaning on each other and realizing that they are the leaders of today, not tomorrow. Taking that into their own hands was inspiring,” said Thiru.

Flexible and virtual

Tłı̨chǫ artist Roxanne Kotchilea said she signed up for the Inspire NWT program to expand her Tundra Beauty business, where she sells beadwork and her mother’s work. (Roxanne Kotchilea)

Roxanne Kotchilea is a Tłı̨chǫ artist who sells beaded products she made alongside works by Toncha Charlo, her sister-in-law, and her mother, Doris Kotchilea, creator of Granny Hanky ​​Apparel.

“There was no beadwork in my matriarchal line for three generations,” she said.

As a teenager, she was attracted to beadwork and through her business has said that she “would like to share traditional and modern beadwork and inspire every Indigenous to reconnect, reclaim and heal through beading and cultural practices”.

She enrolled in Inspire NWT’s program to expand Tundra Beauty and it connected her with entrepreneurs across the territory. The program is flexible and virtual, making it ideal for students, adults and stay-at-home parents, she said.

“Find my own niche”

In Behchoko, NWT, program participant Russell Sharif lays the foundation for Shooting Starza non-profit restorative justice, mental health services and harm reduction organization.

Sharif is a Scarborough-born Afghan registered as a social worker in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.

There aren’t enough services here for people who are “displaced by the criminal justice system,” end up in court, end up in jail, or have trouble integrating after their release, Russell said.

Shooting Starz will support people in every phase of the legal system and counteract the “stigma” that comes with it.

“I went through the system and saw how much it stigmatized me and felt like I felt the real consequences of that,” he said.

“It’s not a system that encourages [restorative justice], and it is not a system that promotes self-esteem. Those are the factors that motivate me,” he said. Sharif is asking community members what support they would like, but expects she will provide individual and group counseling and professional networking for clients to access psychiatric services, nurses and community elders.

Sharif said he and his board bring a unique ability to empathize with the clients they will serve because they have been through the justice system themselves.

“It’s not enough for professionals to say they’re supportive and empathetic, it’s more necessary for [people] services to feel that empathy,” he said.

Joining Inspire NWT’s programs, he said, is “really about finding my own niche and trying to fulfill my potential.”

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