Aboriginal students are getting down to business.
Two hundred and forty Grade 10 to 12 students from across Canada descended on the University of Alberta campus last week to pitch their wares in a competition designed to hone their business skills.
The fifth annual E-Spirit competition, held at the university's Butterdome and followed by an awards dinner at the Coast Terrace Inn in south Edmonton, was part of a move by the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) to help Aboriginals enter the workforce.
According to a report by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, more than 300,000 new jobs will be required to meet the demand from aboriginals in search of work over the next 10 years. As small business is the country's largest generator of new jobs, the Internet-based competition has been designed to expose Aboriginal youth to the potential of entrepreneurship.
Healthier food spurred this year's gold-award winner to the top. Emily and Anthea Kahgee, along with David Neganiwina, came up with the restaurant concept of Mno-yaamgod, an eatery in their native community that would promote the awareness of diabetes, obesity and other health issues related to Aboriginal Peoples.
Their vision statement is to provide a place where anyone can enjoy the traditional food of their culture.
The students are from the Saugeen District Secondary School of Port Elgin, Ont., about 40 kilometres west of Owen Sound. As a result of the win, their school receives a $2,500 cash prize.
"We've altered the menu items. Instead of using lard, we use margarine and instead of sugar, we use artificial sweetener," said the student group's president, Emily Kahgee. "Our name, Mno-yaamgod, means getting better one meal at a time."
While the threesome is unsure if they will take the idea forward, they're hopeful that someone else might pick up from where they have left off. "We really need it (a restaurant of this type) in our community," they said.
"We have awards for all of the winners," said the BDC's Jim Richardson. "But really, everybody is a winner in this competition."
Richardson, a status Indian from the Micmac reserve of Pabineau, N.B., is the BDC's national director for Aboriginal banking. He noted that none of the competitors goes home empty-handed, as the students have learned how to develop a business plan along with acquiring skills that cannot be taught in a classroom.
"They come here and learn about what it's like as a businessperson to travel. You arrive late at night, you load your presentations onto the computer, the next morning you have to stand before your peers and do oral presentations, the following day you have workshops, the day after that - like today (the day of the trade show) you have trade booth displays, which are again promoting your goods and services. It's all about learning what it's like to be a businessperson," said Richardson.
The 2005 edition started with 534 students representing 74 schools. That was narrowed down to 80 student teams, which varied in size from two to four students and included a teacher, an Aboriginal mentor and technical advisers.
Each team developed a business concept and completed a business plan online.
The teams then presented their business plans to a panel of judges consisting of BDC banking professionals, partner representatives, including Edmonton Chamber of Commerce members, and Aboriginal business owners.
In addition to the gold award, there was a silver and bronze winner along with nine special achievement awards.
Business concepts presented covered a wide range of activities from clothing companies to Internet cafes. Other ideas included a hip-hop dance studio, a radio station, a renovation firm and a culturally sensitive funeral service for Aboriginal families.
Two Alberta teams took part in the competition. Bobbi Lightning, Terri Littlepoplar and Jennilee Louis of the Ponoka Outreach School came up with the idea for a native-themed beauty salon, called Cree-A-Tive. They said the goal of their business plan was to create jobs and the salon seemed like the right choice as their community is largely female.
"All along, we all thought of going to business school though we hadn't necessarily thought of working together," said Louis. The experience was harder than they expected, but all agreed that they learned a lot and are considering entering a cosmetology program.
In the St. Paul Education Regional School Division, students Shawn Cardinal, Darcy Moosewah and Wade Stamp spearheaded their project, a state-of-the-art recreational centre. Tapping into various programs within Saddle Lake, the threesome started on the project prior to the BDC competition. Their work included fund-raising along with lining up sponsors.
"Some of them (the business concepts) do continue on," said Richardson. "But I think it's fair to say that the majority of them end off - this is a school project. But the skills acquired do not. Some will say: 'Well, I want to take this project and go with it,' but you know, circumstances change and when you're an entrepreneur a different idea comes along and things may change. But the bottom line is, whatever they do, they've acquired the skills, the basic elementary skills, to be able to take it to the next step."
The E-Spirit concept was first developed by the BDC in 2001. To date, more than 2,000 Aboriginal students have taken part in the program.
(Laura Severs can be reached at email@example.com)