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Natural-born Entrepreneur: Celebrating Indigenous Heritage

June 21, 2022

June 21 is National Indigenous Peoples Day. This is a day for all Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. From origin stories to potlatches and powwows to family songs, Indigenous traditions in North America are rich in diversity and history. Residential schools, however, severed the ties through which Indigenous culture is taught and sustained, disrupting families for generations, and the loss of this culture and knowledge is accelerating with the passing of Elders. One entrepreneur is trying to change that.

Dawn Wilson believes the gift of entrepreneurship runs in her blood. We sat down with Dawn to talk about her company Indigetree, a startup that creates personalized family tree albums for Indigenous families. Not only did her desire to reconnect with her family’s roots lead her to pursue a degree at Simon Fraser University, but – with the entrepreneurship training and support she is receiving from SFU’s Coast Capital Venture Connection incubator program – it also now allows Dawn to give back to Indigenous communities through her innovative approach to recording family histories.

1. Tell us about yourself!

Hi, I’m Dawn Wilson, the founder of Indigetree. I am Heiltsuk from my father’s side and German from my mother’s. I didn’t grow up in our territory of Bella Bella, British Columbia. My father was disconnected from his family and culture because of the damage caused by the residential school system. For these reasons, I decided to go back to school and I am now graduating with a Bachelor's degree in Indigenous Studies with a Certificate in Sustainable Development from Simon Fraser University. 

2. What was it that drew you to entrepreneurship and to the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship in particular?

I have always known that I was an entrepreneur. Ever since I was a little girl, I was coming up with business ideas; my mom told me that I sold water in the winter when I was five and turned a profit! When I came across the opportunity that the Chang Institute and eCoop were offering, I knew that this was the next step of my journey. My education had led me up to this point, but I knew that to continue on, I would need mentors and capital to catapult me to the next level. 

3. What sparked the idea for Indigetree?  

Indigetree’s family tree album is a family heirloom that is meant to record genealogy, family history and traditional knowledge for seven generations. The concept is the direct result of the education I received from the intelligent, passionate, creative, respectful, humble and inspiring professors at SFU and at the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology. I had been longing to know my history and I was yearning for my culture. 

After my studies concluded, I had a clear vision on how I could achieve these lifelong goals: and that was Indigetree. Indigetree is my journey of self-discovery, but more than that, it is how I am using my education to give back to Indigenous Peoples today, the ancestors that have passed, and the children not yet born. Merging my education with business was a very natural amalgamation for me. I believe that the reason for this is because Indigenous Peoples have been entrepreneurs since time immemorial, using their individual gifts and resources to trade and barter.

4. How do your values and perspective tie in to how you operate your business? 

I believe the most important lessons in life are to do your best, tell the truth, and help others as much as you can. Launching Indigetree is more than knowing good business, it is about following protocols and being respectful. For instance, asking Elders to sit down and have a kitchen table talk to learn about creation stories is a reciprocal act, meaning that you should offer a gift or labour for their time. It is extremely important that the transfer of knowledge continues, but it must be done properly, humbly, and traditionally. 

5. What do you hope to accomplish with Indigetree in the next ten years?

In the next ten years, I would love to see every Indigenous Person with a book from Indigetree! Indigetree is cultural revitalization and reconciliation wrapped up neatly in a bison-leather-bound book. Not only will it help Indigenous Peoples to reconnect with their family ties, culture, history, language, land, and traditions, but it will repair the breakdown in the transfer of knowledge. Indigetree is the evolution of oral history for our Peoples, because we should be telling our own stories and recording our own stories, not reading about them from others. My hope is that Indigetree will give Indigenous Peoples a feeling of belonging – so we aren’t just longing for the unknown.

Indigetree is the evolution of oral history for our Peoples, because we should be telling our own stories and recording our own stories, not reading about them from others. 

For those who are interested in exploring decolonization and reconciliation in business practices, and resources for Indigenous entrepreneurs, check out these Business Resources For Indigenous Entrepreneurs from Small Business BC, as well as resources through the provincial and federal governments.

Check out this starter guide on Decolonizing Business & Entrepreneurship co-created by a project team of Indigenous women and non-binary entrepreneurs, professionals, and an ally from various ancestral, occupied, and unceded territories from across Turtle Island. Shop at Indigenous-owned businesses through BC Market Place and Indigenous Tourism BC

For SFU students wanting to explore entrepreneurship we encourage you to sign up for the free, online startup workbook SPARK and to consider enrolling in BUS 238 (open to all faculties) for Fall 2022. 

About the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship 

The Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship is the academic and interdisciplinary hub for entrepreneurship and innovation at SFU. The Institute is focused on creating Canada’s most comprehensive and inclusive continuum of interdisciplinary, experiential programming to develop the entrepreneurial mindset, working closely with all SFU faculties and innovation partners in one of Canada’s most supportive university ecosystems. 

The Institute’s flagship incubator program, Coast Capital Venture Connection, has been a hub for university ventures since 2008, supporting founders and startups from initial idea to business validation. The incubator has provided startup services to more than 250 early ventures including alumni MetroLyricsBuyatabIonomrMoment EnergyZennea TechnologiesTenzr Health and Footystats.

Dawn Wilson
Founder & CEO of Indigetree
Venture Connection Client