Aboriginal Leadership

Mark Selman is the driving force behind a new EMBA at the Beedie School of Business.
By Diane Luckow
Photography John Chong

Vancouver-based Taseko Mines has long proposed a $1.5 billion open-pit gold and copper mine in B.C.’s Cariboo. But the company continues to encounter significant opposition from the region’s First Nations, and the project’s future continues to hang in the balance.

That doesn’t surprise Mark Selman.

“They’ve chosen not to work with First Nations,” says Selman, director of SFU’s new Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership (EMBA ABL) at the Beedie School of Business.

At stake is the world’s 10th-largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit and billions in economic opportunity for both B.C. and First Nations. It’s one example among many of how B.C. companies continue to lose time and money in failed attempts to force through projects that ignore First Nations concerns about the impact on their livelihoods and traditions.

“This is an important economic issue in B.C.,” says Selman. “Major projects won’t go ahead if relations with First Nations aren’t sorted out. And First Nations won’t be capable of benefitting from the new opportunities they’re facing if they don’t have advanced business skills to build businesses and manage investments.”

Cue the Beedie School’s novel EMBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership, Canada’s first credited MBA program for established Aboriginal leaders, entrepreneurs, and others working with Aboriginal communities.

“This program responds to this change in B.C.’s business environment,” says Selman, who spent eight years pondering the project’s potential. “First Nations are getting access to resources they never had in the past. They have money to invest, and opportunities, and businesses are realizing that in terms of managing their risks, they need to work with First Nations.”

What’s more, B.C.’s First Nations communities are growing twice as fast as other communities. And the average age of their members is just 24, compared with 42 years for the general population.

While the EMBA ABL includes the core concepts and knowledge embedded in a traditional MBA, it also recognizes that traditional Aboriginal protocols and knowledge play a significant role in Aboriginal leadership and decision-making.

As in other EMBA programs offered at Beedie, a limited number of people who lack a formal degree or professional designation may be admitted if they have other outstanding qualifications, such as exceptional leadership experience.

“First Nations people haven’t been well treated by the education system,” says Selman. “We need to take into account people’s experience in managerial and other leadership roles to assess whether this is the right program for them.”

The 33-month part-time program’s first class of 27 students started in fall 2012 and included two non-Aboriginal students. Since then, four students have bowed out, leaving just one non-Aboriginal student, Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, former mayor of West Vancouver. Selman expects the $52,000 program to attract more non-Aboriginals in future cohorts.

“There has been a lot of interest from people working with major companies in Aboriginal relations.”

Goldsmith-Jones is now a consultant who helps businesses understand local and regional public policy. She enrolled in the program because she had always wanted to take an MBA, and the original and frontier aspect of the EMBA ABL appealed to her.

While she is learning the skills she needs to integrate Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal business interests, there has also been another interesting lesson.

“To be in the minority is a first for someone like me, and it has been a very rich personal journey,” she says.

The current cohort’s 23 students range in age from 29 to 60, with an average age of 45. They hail from First Nations in B.C., Yukon, and Alberta, including Tahltan Territory in northern B.C., the local Squamish Nation, Haida from Haida Gwaii, and Dene in Yukon. Selman likens the group to a class of international students, with a lot of different cultures in play.

“The cultural diversity among B.C.’s First Nations is comparable to Europe, if you compare language, culture, and traditions,” says Selman. “As well, these students have lived in very different circumstances. Some are part of very traditional communities, some grew up in an urban environment, and some were adopted into non-Aboriginal families. And that diversity carries into their occupations.”

The group includes leaders and senior administrators in governance, health, education, social service, and Aboriginal economic development, as well as independent business owners and corporate employees.

Norm Fraser (l to r) is leader, indigenous initiatives at Teck Resources Ltd. Sheryl Fisher is an independent business consultant from the Squamish First Nation.
Patricia Moore (l to r) is economic development planner for the Old Massett Village Council. Pamela Goldsmith-Jones, a consultant, is the former mayor of West Vancouver.

Haida student Patricia Moore, 38, is economic development planner for the Old Massett Village Council on the archipelago previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, off B.C.’s north coast. Passionate about higher learning, Moore joined the program to improve her business skills (she already has a B.Comm.) and, more importantly, to network with other First Nations professionals. Ultimately, she wants to figure out First Nations’ place in today’s business world.

“How do we transition from what we’ve historically done to integrate into mainstream business?” she asks.

“Listening to other students and learning how they amalgamate their culture into business models with others has given me a different approach.”

Selman says others in the class echo Moore’s concerns. They’re all seeking a pathway between adopting Western ways and renewing traditional knowledge and ways of thinking that have guided their communities for thousands of years.

Developing a program that addresses these interests without compromising classic MBA content has been an interesting journey for Selman and other faculty in the program.

There were challenges not only in developing course content and case studies, but also in orienting faculty members who had little experience working with First Nations people and little familiarity with their varied cultural backgrounds.

But if anyone could pull it off, it was Selman. Back in the 1990s, he developed customized SFU EMBA programs for large resource companies such as Cominco and Alcan. He learned a lot about altering programs to meet the needs of a particular audience and delivering programs in intensive blocks of time.

Then, in 2002 Milton Wong, SFU’s chancellor at the time and an Alcan board member, asked if Selman would help Alcan repair its damaged relationship with the Haisla First Nation. That request began Selman’s eight-year relationship with the Haisla as he helped them to develop capacity-building programs to support their economic aspirations. Not surprisingly, other B.C. First Nations also approached him for assistance.

His deep involvement in these remote communities over the ensuing years revealed how much they need advanced business education and their difficulties in accessing it.

“It also made me aware of the economic drivers around the province that involve First Nations much more than people in Vancouver realize,” he says.

His experience in creating distance EMBA programs, coupled with his knowledge of First Nations cultures and challenges, gave him the unique skills – and the moxy – to design the specialized EMBA ABL and promote its need within the Beedie School of Business.

They’re all seeking a pathway between adopting Western ways and renewing traditional knowledge and ways of thinking that have guided their communities for thousands of years.

“No one said no,” recalls Selman, “but everyone was skeptical that we could pull it off, or that there were enough interested and qualified people to make it feasible. Some people are still skeptical, but Dean Danny Shapiro championed it and allocated the budget required to develop it.”

Once Selman received approval from Shapiro, he sought guidance from Dr. Michelle Corfield, chair of the legislature for the Ucluelet First Nation, former vice-president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, and a Beedie School executive-in-residence. He also established an Aboriginal advisory group to review decisions and ensure the program truly addresses the interests of First Nations.

To further support the program and make the new students feel welcome, the school even borrowed First Nations art from the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art to decorate its walls.

Overall, the first cohort of students is impressed with the results.

“I like the values from the First Nations component that are applied in the course,” says Sheryl Fisher, an independent business consultant from the Squamish First Nation. “Respect and values are very important to First Nations, and I think it’s important just to get that out to the external business world. They have to understand our cultural values and how important mutual respect is.”

The program has attracted some outstanding instructors from the SFU faculty, as well as University of Arizona professor Stephen Cornell, co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. He taught a short course in fall 2013 based on his extensive research into indigenous economic development. And Sarah Morales, a Coast Salish professor at the University of Ottawa, taught a course on policy and governance in First Nations organizations.

Last July, the non-profit Industry Council for Aboriginal Business gave the program its seal of approval, awarding Selman its Aboriginal Business Champion award for his leadership and best practices in Aboriginal engagement and business relationship development. And BC Business magazine proclaimed the program one of B.C.’s 10 most significant innovations last year.

“What it says to me is they recognize this was something that was needed, that was significant, and that was going to make a difference in the province,” says Selman. Creating the program and seeing its effect on the students, faculty, and school is  tremendously gratifying.”

“If we can’t do better at helping First Nations people benefit from the opportunities that are coming along, then we’ll pay a huge price in terms of welfare and other social costs, and we won’t have development going ahead in some cases where it could go ahead,” he says.

“SFU, because of this program, is in the forefront of addressing the challenge, and I’m proud of that. Significantly this program builds on SFU’s strength in delivering executive MBAs and provides an established and widely recognized credential to successful students. As somebody who develops programs, I consider it to be my greatest accomplishment.”