When Bobbie Racette attended the Collision technology conference in Toronto in 2019, there were just a couple of Indigenous-led tech companies like hers among the approximately 1,000 startups at the event.
“There was me,” said Racette, who is Cree and Métis, “and somebody else.” Three years later at Collision 2022, more than 20 Indigenous-led startups — including Calgary-based Virtual Gurus, which Racette founded and where she serves as CEO — could be found among the 1,500-plus startups at the Enercare Centre in Toronto. “That’s huge,” said Racette, who spoke at the conference on June 21 as part of a panel of Indigenous female leaders in tech.
The increase reflects the growth of Indigenous-led businesses in Canada — the rate of young, self-employed Indigenous people is higher than that of young, self-employed non-Indigenous people, according to a Canadian governmental report. But it’s also a direct result of a new Collision-supported program which made 1,000 free tickets available to Indigenous attendees and provided funding to startups to attend the 2022 conference.
Conference organizers previously had worked with Indigenous communities in Canada, where the conference has been held in Toronto since 2019, said Carmen Antiqueira, a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional who works for Web Summit, which produces Collision. But this was the first time that organizers offered financial support to Canada’s Inuit, Métis, and First Nations communities and Indigenous-led startups, Antiqueira said, as a way of removing barriers that could keep underrepresented communities from attending the event.
Before launching the program, Antiqueira and conference staff reached out to Indigenous communities for their guidance in designing ways to include their participation at Collision. One thing that came out of those conversations was the need to fully integrate Indigenous participants into all aspects of the three-day event, she said. “Collision is about connecting people and connecting ideas. We were very conscious that we didn’t want to create a separate space or a special ‘add-on’” experience, Antiqueira said. “This program’s focus is on building networks and sharing opportunities.”
The connections made are meant to work in more than one direction, Antiqueira added. “Indigenous communities have a wealth of skills and knowledge to offer to the larger tech ecosystem,” she said. “The program creates opportunities for Indigenous technology skills and knowledge to be shared, and for other organizations to see how things can be done sensitively and ethically.”
A 20,000-Year History of Innovation
“When I think about innovation as this forward-reaching, momentum-building thing, I also have to reflect on our 20,000-plus-year history” of Indigenous innovation, said Jacqueline Jennings in “Indigenous Innovation: How Canada’s Heritage Is Fueling Its Future,” a panel at Collision. Jennings is a venture partner with Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, the first Indigenous-led venture and private equity fund in Canada and the only such fund in the world. “Living in reciprocity with the land involved developing many technologies that were life-saving and have been incorporated into Western-dominant culture today,” Jennings said, yet Indigenous innovators most often have been left out of the story. One example is the process of refining oil, a technology credited to Samuel Kier in the 1850s, but one that had been in use for hundreds of years by the Native nations living near Kier’s home in Pennsylvania, she said.
Innovation also has been driven by the tenacity and work ethic embedded in Indigenous communities — “the ability to just keep going and moving on,” said Sheila North, a journalist and the former Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak in the Manitoba province. “One-hundred and fifty years ago we were meant to be extinct, and now we are in every facet of society,” North said during the panel. “If we keep moving, where are we going to be in 150 years?”
Racette, who once aspired to be a social worker with Indigenous youth, founded Virtual Gurus, which provides virtual assistants, in 2012, after she was laid off from her job in the oil and gas industry. “We wanted to bring in marginalized communities and provide them work — lifting them up,” she said. “A lot of communities don’t have the resources or tools to find work. Our platform is allowing them to find work, and work from home, and stay in their communities.”
Racette — who received the 2019 Startup Canada Indigenous Entrepreneur Award from the Innovators & Entrepreneurs Foundation, which supports founders of small-to-medium-size businesses from marginalized groups across Canada — describes her business as a people-centered one that also leverages technology. Virtual Gurus uses AI to help forecast more precisely the amount of time that clients will need their services, she said. “There is so much Indigenous technology out there. And there’s just so much work to be done for us to be able to stand out and be proud and understand that we’re here — and that we are just getting started.”
When Convene spoke with Antiqueira on the second day of the conference, the initiative already was feeling like a winner. She was hearing from participants, Antiqueira reported, that “a huge number of Indigenous startups are connecting with investors and with like-minded individuals.” After the conference, the next steps would be to gather feedback from Indigenous participants and communities about what worked and what might be improved.
“One of the things that we’ve learned over the last few years is that listening is the key to success,” she said. “We don’t want to prescribe.or dictate the program in any way — but this is definitely going to grow.”
“Indigenomics” is a word coined by Carol Hilton, of the Hesquiaht Nation on Vancouver Island, and the CEO and founder of the Indigenomics Institute, to describe the practice of bringing an Indigenous perspective to economic and social development.
In the context of Indigenous-led technology companies, “this is about a bigger picture all the time than just innovation and technology,” said Sheila North of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, at the Collision conference. One of the principal ideas in Indigenomics “is that wealth is perceived differently by Indigenous people — wealth is the ability to give what you have,” North said. “In non-Indigenous cultures, wealth is predominately about building a nest egg for yourself and putting it away so you never run out. The Indigenous worldview is ‘I’m going to get as much as I can so I can give it away.’”
The fund Raven Indigenous Capital Partners measures success with metrics that include the impact on Indigenous communities, the environment, and social justice. The Indigenous-culture-centered approach is as important as technology, said Raven’s Jacqueline Jennings. “Innovation is also in our way and knowing and being.”
Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.