By Anna Wdowczyk
Ryerson’s new Indigenous Fashion Support (IFS) Program is working to help Indigenous entrepreneurs gain business experience in the fashion industry.
Since Oct. 15 participants have taken part in a virtual incubation “to sharpen their entrepreneurial skills while developing real-life solutions,” according to Ryerson’s Fashion Zone (RFZ) website. The program was recently launched by RFZ and will run for 12 weeks in total.
“We need culturally appropriate courses, academic supports, professional development resources and strong mentorship, in addition to understanding, appreciation, respect and cultural sensitivity,” said Indigenous advisor and program mentor Riley Kucheran via Ryerson’s graduate studies website. Kucheran is from Biigtigong Nishnaabeg (Pic River First Nation).
Some of the learning opportunities include product and strategy development, mentorship, research and data analyses, networking and workshops. The activities will emphasize technology and product creation instead of focusing solely on fashion.
Entrepreneurs new to the industry are still learning, so participants will be guided and mentored by experts from the fashion industry. Similar to the recent launch of the Brampton Venture Zone, the program is incorporating 100 Steps 2 Startup, an online service that helps budding businesses make the shift from generating ideas to revenues.
Why start now?
RFZ manager Andrea Romero said plans for this program sparked as staff members reflected on why they have only had one Indigenous participant over a span of 7.5 years.
She said she started acknowledging the issue by asking questions like: “Why aren’t we attracting Indigenous designers?”
In Canada, Indigenous businesses are typically small, according to a 2016 survey by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB).
The CCAB’s research also shows that almost 73 per cent of Indigenous businesses are unincorporated. This means they’re less likely to become a legal corporation than their Canadian counterparts. When a company is incorporated, it becomes an entity separate from its owners, can be open to investments through stocks and bonds, and the company can live past its owners.
But according to Romero, Indigenous arts, crafts and designs are “rooted in our heritage.” To explore “if there was a disconnect there,” she started consulting with Kucheran about a year ago.
Only 49 per cent of the RFZ’s founders identify as visible minorities. One of the goals the zone identified in their 2019-20 annual report is to increase diversity.
To “further support” various marginalized groups, the report stated that the RFZ will be “launching new programs and opportunities for female entrepreneurs, visible minorities, LGBTQ+ and the BIPOC community.”
While this is one of the strategies Ryerson has begun to employ to support Indigenous community members, it’s still only a small start to addressing the inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses.
Fashioning Reconciliation, a Ryerson-based research project that aims to support the development of fashion ventures run by Indigenous people, discusses that clothing plays a role in colonization, is one example of these initiatives.
Prospective and graduate students across all faculties can set up advisement appointments with Kucheran to explore programs and supports at Ryerson for addressing their individual needs.
“As we navigate the same colonial institutions that sought to assimilate or exclude us, it is important that we centre our own Indigeneity,” said Kucheran via Ryerson’s graduate studies website.
He also said “Indigenous entrepreneurs live in two worlds: they participate in mainstream capitalist economies,” while balancing their “deep responsibilities to their communities.” He added that “this reciprocity means Indigenous entrepreneurs are often more like ‘social entrepreneurs.’”
A program participant and creator of SS River Designs, Christine Tournier Tienkamp, says she believes “profitability and positive social impact are not mutually exclusive. It is, in fact, possible to build a successful company and do good,” as written on her clothing shop website.
The website also states Tienkamp was inspired by the history of Métis women growing up. “The Métis women I know are so many things: vibrant, tech-savvy, traditional, business-minded, modern, forward thinking, professional, hard working, funny and entrepreneurial. I want to shed light onto the modern Indigenous women—she respects and honours her culture.”
Who’s involved in the IFS Program?
According to Romero in a video posted on Twitter, Indigenous perspectives were prioritized while the program was developed.
“Over the past year, we’ve spoken to various Indigenous designers and craftspeople to better understand needs and barriers when it comes to scaling their business,” said Romero.
The IFS Program is geared towards helping Indigenous entrepreneurs learn “how to navigate a growing business,” according to Kucheran. The ultimate goal is to give participants the skills they need to “support their community in cultural and economic resurgence.”
Although there aren’t any Indigenous staff members on the RFZ team, Romero said Kucheran “was heavily involved” by “making sure the application ran correctly, looking at the promotion and helping to spread the word.”
Two out of six IFS Program mentors are Indigenous people with expertise in fashion. This includes Kucheran and Justine Woods, a Métis designer who focuses on garment-based creations. Woods’ website also states that she conducts research on how fashion can cultivate resurgence from an Indigenous feminist view.
“Her work is greatly informed by her identity as a Métis woman and the deeply rooted relationships she has to her ancestral land,” according to the biography on her website.
The program accepted applications from Indigenous people in Canada between Sept. 21 and Oct. 5.
Applicants were given the option of applying with an early-stage business, with their own business idea or as an individual who would like to join a team without a specific idea. The applicants who already have their own teams are entitled to three more team members.
The program is open to Ryerson students, alumni and community members who meet the application requirements. Applicants must either be First Nations, Métis, Inuit or Indigenous people living anywhere in Canada.
Other requirements include showing interest in entrepreneurship or business ideas and solutions, being above 18-years-old, completing an application form and being able to work 10 to 15 hours a week for the duration of the program.
The IFS Program will continue operating virtually to respect the health of all parties involved until it is safe for participants to connect in person with further notice.