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Breaking down barriers to get Indigenous businesses online

Kyle Brennan Shàwinipinesì leads Shopify’s campaign to bring Indigenous entrepreneurs online. His jacket boldly sports the logo of SECTION 35, a streetwear brand founded by an entrepreneur from the Samson Cree Nation. (Photo by Isaac Phan Nay for Canada’s National Observer)

By Isaac Nay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada’s National Observer

From starting his own business to founding an Indigenous business accelerator with one of the largest e-commerce platforms on the planet, Kyle Brennan Shàwinipinesì has become the “go-to guy” for Indigenous entrepreneurs looking to grow their companies.

Meeting him, it’s clear to see why. He’s quick to speak about systemic barriers in business, the political environment in Ottawa and intricacies of government in his First Nation. “Algonquin,” is embroidered on his hat, a nod to his Anishinaabe heritage, and his jacket boldly sports the logo of SECTION 35, a streetwear brand founded by an entrepreneur from the Samson Cree Nation.

He’s the senior lead of Build Native with Shopify, the e-commerce platform’s initiative to work with Indigenous entrepreneurs across North America. Shopify is an Ottawa-based software company that helps small- and medium-sized businesses sell products online. Brennan Shàwinipinesì runs outreach events and seeks partnerships with big businesses to offer resources to grow businesses online.

“You get a front-row seat to some of these really inspirational stories, these folks [who] are trying this entrepreneurial endeavour either to give themselves a vocation or feed their passion or attain personal financial autonomy,” he said. “To see them achieve it and then to help and be part of that story, it’s satisfying.”

Brennan Shàwinipinesì grew up on Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, about a two-hour drive north of Ottawa. After studying English literature at Concordia University in Montreal, he worked as a tree planter in northern Alberta, near Grande Prairie.

His time tree-planting inspired him to co-found an outdoor clothing venture, Schnarb Outfitting Company. Brennan Shàwinipinesì built an online storefront for the business using Shopify.

Then he moved to Vancouver and returned to school to study interaction design at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. There, he started helping his peers build an online presence for their businesses.

“I kind of became that website guy,” Brennan Sháwinipinesí said. “It was an easy side hustle that I could do while still studying.”

He graduated in 2016. At the time, he had some friends working at Shopify who told him about a mentorship program the company hosted. He started to mentor new merchants who wanted to use Shopify to build businesses of their own.

In 2018, Brennan Sháwinipinesí founded Shopify’s Miigwan Indigenous Resource Group, which advocates for First Nations, Métis and Inuit employees’ rights within the company.

“I wanted to work within my own community because I saw that as such a huge opportunity,” he said. “When I’m this far away from home, you desire to have some semblance of your own cultural representation.”

A year later, he pitched a program to support Indigenous entrepreneurs. That program eventually turned into Build Native with Shopify.

“I am trying to connect them with digital tools and ensure that the most successful stories are then getting representation, so that entrepreneurs tomorrow get inspired by the entrepreneurs [who] are absolutely killing it today,” he said.

Through Build Native, Brennan Sháwinipinesí offers guidance to new First Nations, Inuit and Métis merchants. He runs outreach events and works with other big businesses to secure funding and create opportunities for Indigenous entrepreneurs. He runs incubator and sponsorship programs to support new owners. His team has a digital chatroom for entrepreneurs to connect, find guidance and ask questions.

“I’m still the website guy,” he said. “It’s just I have a lot more friends who maybe have a larger expectation of me.”

Lynn-Marie Angus first met Brennan Sháwinipinesí when he served as a judge for the business competition, Pow Wow Pitch. The competition, which is partially sponsored by Shopify, gives Indigenous entrepreneurs the chance to win funding and mentorship for their companies. Angus is co-founder of Sisters Sage, an Indigenous wellness company that makes soaps, bath bombs and smokeless smudging sprays. In 2020, she competed in Pow Wow Pitch — and won.

At the time, she had little experience with e-commerce. The Build Native team helped bolster her business by funding her access to point-of-sale technology and growing her brand’s visibility across Canada, all free of charge.

“I really enjoyed working with Kyle,” she said. “[He] could understand my trials and tribulations of trying to operate in the world of e-commerce but understood being an Indigenous person who was having struggles.”

Now, Sisters Sage has a brick-and-mortar store in Vancouver. Angus and Brennan Sháwinipinesí are friends and keep in touch.

“On a personal and professional level, Kyle is a big nerd,” Angus said. “He’s very knowledgeable — he’ll tell you like six degrees of separation of any thing at any moment, and also all the history behind it.”

Outside of his work, Brennan Sháwinipinesí remains politically engaged. He’s on the youth council for Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. In August, he co-organized a forum that brought Algonquin Nation members to the Ottawa Art Gallery to discuss the nation’s identity.

Brennan Sháwinipinesí hopes to keep growing his initiative.

“I really look forward to the future when there’s more communities who are like, ‘We have something special going on here,’” he said. “To get people to that point where they recognize that opportunity and don’t have to leave their community … that’s really the idealistic future I hope for.”