Urban Aboriginal Entrepreneurs

Contributing to the Community by Achieving Business Success in Cities

Rochelle Côté studies social networks among communities. Social networks are complex webs of connections that bind people together in shared cultures. With over half of Canada’s aboriginal population living in cities, a key question addressed by this SSHRC‑funded sociologist’s research is how stronger links can be forged between indigenous populations living in urban centres and those on reserve lands. What she found both reframes old assumptions and opens up new avenues of conversation.

“If you want vibrant communities, you need small business,” Côté said.

Her research offers insight into the importance of city‑dwelling aboriginal entrepreneurs to the economic development of indigenous communities. Starting her study in 2006 under a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship, the sociologist interviewed 80 entrepreneurs. She found that for many of them, truly succeeding in business meant more than the bottom line. Many entrepreneurs saw the ability to support their communities—whether through reserve‑based development projects, mentorship programs or scholarships—as a fundamental element of their approach to business.

“While the monetary aspect was important to the entrepreneurs I spoke with,” Côté said, “what was even more important—and what they identified as a primary indicator of success—was their ability to contribute back to their communities. They felt a strong sense of responsibility to community, family and friends. That’s what they considered to be success.”

These findings were echoed in a 2010‑11 study, supported by a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship, with the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute and Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. The research project found a group of entrepreneurs thriving in an urban environment while maintaining their indigenous culture, identity and community ties. Further, the study showed, these entrepreneurs played a key role in community‑building, both in urban settings and on reserves.

Côté’s research caught the attention of academics and social entrepreneurship agencies in Australia, including Brisbane’s University of Queensland, where she continues her work as part of the school’s Institute for Social Science Research.

Strengthening support for indigenous small business, Côté argued, will contribute to more vibrant aboriginal communities.

“There is a focus in Canada on band owned and operated businesses partnering with large corporations in the primary resource extraction industry,” she said. “While this type of economic development is important, the focus needs to be equally on small business development, because it is a significant portion of the lifeblood of the community.”

Among her top recommendations are improving access to economic development support, as well as opening up new streams of financing—such as dedicated funding to help individuals scale up their operations.

Research funded by SSHRC: Social networks and community success: using social capital to create and sustain aboriginal entrepreneurship in Toronto; and Indigenous entrepreneurs, networks, culture and the American marketplace