Gender, Culture and Inuit Women’s Businesses

What does it mean to be a woman and Inuk and be interested in business? Inuit women have strengths both as women and as Inuit that can be applied to the business sector. Local businesses operated by women can prepare to take advantage of the economic opportunities coming to the North. In the next few decades, Inuit Nunangat expects to see considerable growth in mining, shipping, tourism and in the businesses that will grow to support these industries. To take advantage of these opportunities, entrepreneurs are starting now to develop ideas and gain the skills and expertise to participate in this growth.

No matter how hard the work is, you know at the end of the day that you were successful, you did your best, and that your efforts helped make your community and your family better off.[1]

Tara Tootoo-Fotheringham, CEO, Arctic Buying Company Inc. – Kivalliq

For many Inuit women, the thought of starting a business that can provide a valued service or product and that generates enough income for their families to live on, is an exciting, and maybe slightly scary, challenge. Are you an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur is someone who has an idea and is able to develop it into a successful business. They are people who take some risks in developing this new idea, but then enjoy the rewards when the business succeeds. Entrepreneurs are seen as creative, sometimes visionary (they see opportunities that others don’t) and leaders in their field.

Inuit Cultural Strengths for Business

Aboriginal peoples have always been entrepreneurs, developing extensive trade routes throughout North America to exchange specialized tools, furs, preserved food, medicines, clothing and decorative art. Inuit traded with other northern indigenous groups such as the Dene, Cree and Athabaskans. For the last several hundred years, they have acted as guides to European explorers, supplied food and tools that ensured European survival and provided interpretation and liaison services for whalers, missionaries, the RCMP and, eventually, Canadian governments and businesses.

The commonly identified character or personality traits of an entrepreneur are not so different from the cultural traits that have enabled Inuit to thrive in the Arctic environment.

Entrepreneurial Trait Inuit Cultural/Traditional Strengths
Self-starter Women and men worked hard for their families; preparing for each season, taking advantage of all harvesting opportunities and moving camp when necessary.
Problem solver Women and men, families and camp members worked together to make decisions, solve social problems and deal with climate challenges and changes.
Not afraid to make tough decisions Inuit made decisions about justice in the community, enforced rules and rationed food when needed.
Comfortable with risk Living off the land in the Arctic is about understanding the risks and managing them!
Aware of their own strengths and weaknesses Inuit relied on each other’s strengths and were realistic about their abilities in hunting parties, travel on the land and in nurturing children’s natural abilities to contribute to the family.
Passionate about the business idea Inuit have a love of the land and its bounty and worked hard to make a prosperous life for their families based on what was available to them.

Inuit Women’s Strengths in Business

We believe that the core strengths of Inuit women, including determination, intelligence and hard work, translate quite nicely into the world of business.

A Guide for Inuit Women Interested in Building Their Own Business, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2013, p. 5

Some of the characteristics that are useful in business are being able to make a long-term commitment, dedicating the time needed to do well, being patient and working with others to promote harmony, all of which are skills that women develop in taking care of their families. In fact, the Guide for Inuit Women Interested in Building Their Own Business notes that having a business is a lot like having a baby and watching it grow. Managing multiple priorities and demands on your time, having a long-term plan but being able to adjust to changes quickly, budgeting and keeping track of expenses and planning activities and meals are all skills that help to make both a family and a business run well.

Women are good at relationships… and business is all about relationships.

Hilda Broomfield-Letemplier, President
Pressure Pipe Steel Fabrication Ltd.
Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador

Rhoda Cunningham – Communications Services Grounded in Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit

Rhoda Cunningham, originally from Pond Inlet and now living in Iqaluit, Nunavut, is President and Owner of Innirvik Support Services Ltd. (www.innirviksupportservices.ca). Rhoda has been a business owner since 1995 and formed and incorporated her present company in 2003 by merging three translation and interpretation businesses. The 100% Inuit-owned company offers a variety of communications services, including meeting interpretation, document translation, technical equipment rental/sales, meeting room rentals and printing and binding services. Innirvik Support Services has contracts with the Government of Nunavut, universities, researchers and the private sector, including more recently, translating mining company presentations, reports and correspondence with local officials.

Rhoda says that her accomplishments are inspired by her parents who encouraged her to be independent and work diligently for her community. Her translating and interpreting skills emerged from helping her parents volunteer. This business owner finds that business today is more competitive than ever and that she is often underbid by other companies and loses contracts, even though they haven’t raised their rates in years. It takes lots of energy to continue to find new contracts and respond to requests for proposals.

Writing concise and clear proposals is a skill in itself that she has developed over the years. However, if you do a good job for a customer, you might get repeat business that you don’t have to bid on. She cautions about underestimating costs and notices that companies new to the North don’t always budget properly for translation and interpretation.

When asked about possible biases against Inuit women in the mining industry, Rhoda recalls hearing of other women’s experiences of harassment as mining employees, but she personally has had only positive experiences with mining officials. She does believe that mining companies should invest in communities for economic growth and could address some of the obstacles that small northern businesses face.

This experienced business owner has given considerable thought to what it means to be Inuk and a businesswoman. In 2013, Rhoda completed her Master’s of Education degree through distance education at the University of Prince Edward Island and her final research paper was entitled Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Practices in Entrepreneurship. The paper explores how Inuit businesswomen have used traditional knowledge in their business practice, and in doing so, are creating a new business culture.

Inuit women entrepreneurs in Iqaluit, Nunavut have made strides towards equalizing power structures through socioeconomic development, as they fostered traditional knowledge in their corporate practice. This balance has created an emerging, new business culture, as they connected between the self-determination one requires to become a successful entrepreneur and that which contributes to a more balanced approach between two cultures, Inuit and Western.

Rhoda Cunningham, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit
Practices in Entrepreurship, 2013, p. 25

Rhoda believes that Inuit women can apply the teachings of the elders to their dreams for their businesses. She chose “innirvik” as the name of her business because it is the Inuktitut word for the drying frame for skins. She envisioned a business that, like the pins on the drying rack, would support other workplaces and freelancers, giving back economically to the community and supporting Inuit to be “whoever they can be.”

Here is some of the advice she has for others just starting out:

  • stay firm, follow that dream and forget about the little obstacles;
  • some of the people you know will be non-believers. You need to focus on the positive. If something negative happens, don’t fight back, remember you are serving the bigger picture;
  • be able to explain your services simply and directly;
  • develop writing skills; and
  • stay in balance.

If you would like to read Rhoda’s research paper, Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Practices in Entrepreneurship, it is available at: www.islandscholar.ca/download_ds/ir%3A10605/OBJ/ir_10605.pdf

Some Challenges and Solutions for Inuit Women

Getting a business going is not always easy and being aware of some of the challenges and their solutions can help you succeed.

Challenges Solutions
Having many family responsibilities and being a caregiver to extended family
  1. Get other family members involved in helping older parents, aunts and uncles. Look into daycare options for your children.
  2. Think about whether you can work on your business idea part-time for now and take courses that will help your business, or study at home.
  3. Start a small, flexible, home-based business.
Lacking confidence and being shy
  1. Talk to elders, friends and family members about your gifts, skills and strengths.Get involved in the community to develop leadership and communication skills.
  2. Find a mentor who can give you advice and support.
  3. Be really prepared for each meeting or call – practice your business “pitch” on friends.
“I don’t know where to start!”
  1. Start by talking to people – economic development officers, community leaders, mining company staff or suppliers, other women in business.
  2. Visit the Inuit Women in Business Network
    www.iwbn.ca
  3. Check out planned and operating mines in Inuit Nunangat
    http://pauktuutit.ca/opportunities/map

Talking to other Inuit women in business is a great way to problem-solve and get feedback on ideas. Connect with others face-to-face, on the phone or through Facebook and e-mail.

For More Information

Organizations

AnânauKatiget Tumingit Regional Inuit Women’s Association (Nunatsiavut)
http://inuitwomen.ca/contact

Inuit Women in Business Network
www.iwbn.ca

Fly with the Wind! Engaging Inuit Youth in the Canadian Economy
http://pauktuutit.ca/youthecdev

Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada
www.pauktuutit.ca

Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council
www.qnsw.ca

Saturviit Inuit Women’s Association of Nunavik
www.saturviit.ca

Status of Women Council of NWT
www.statusofwomen.nt.ca

Women and Mining Canada
www.wimcanada.org
With branches in Yukon, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia.

Information, Tools and Resources

Fact Sheet: Business Check-list, Inuit Women in Business Network.
http://pauktuutit.ca/guidebook/fact-sheets/fact-sheet-business-checklist

Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit Practices in Entrepreneurship, by Rhoda Cunningham, final research paper for Master’s of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PE, 2013.
www.islandscholar.ca/download_ds/ir%3A10605/OBJ/ir_10605.pdf

The Inuit Way: A Guide to Inuit Culture, Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, 2006.
www.uqar.ca/files/boreas/inuitway_e.pdf

Inuit Women in Business Toolkit, including a guidebook, eight factsheets on handling money and banking for a business, a poster checklist for starting a business and a CD loaded with all the information for easy sharing. Available in English, Inuktitut or Inoenaktun. Ordering information: http://pauktuutit.ca/guidebook/contact or 1-800-667-0749.

Your Check-list (from Seven Steps to Help You Start Your Business – A Popular Guide to Starting a Business in Nunavut, Government of Nunavut.
www.nunavutbusinessguide.ca/images/appendix_a.pdf


 

[1]   http://pauktuutit.ca/iwbn/featured-profiles/tara-tootoo-fotheringham/