Treaty 4 News is excited to present the Top 10 Most Influential Economic Developers feature that profiles business leaders, job creators and entrepreneurs who have made a valuable contribution to improving the lives of Indigenous people through business and have helped keep Saskatchewan’s economy vibrant and strong. 

In the past few years, more and more Indigenous people have forged business careers working at the First Nation community level, building Tribal Council economic development projects, climbing the corporate ladder at government Crown Corporations and in the last few years guiding the private sector as they engage with First Nations.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs are building successful brands like Neechie Gear, Shop Indigenous, SheNative as they develop products for an ever growing Indigenous market.

Over 10 weeks, Treaty 4 News will release one profile a week of an economic developer we believe is influential in building a better future for Indigenous people through business.

This week we introduce Kendal Netmaker.

 

Kendal Netmaker – Top 10 economic developer

By Chelsea Laskowski

Netmaker and PM

Kendal Netmaker with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo provided courtesy Kendal Netmaker via Instagram.

In a week where Kendal Netmaker was profiled on multiple social media platforms by the Prime Minister, Treaty 4 News is naming the Cree businessman one of its Top 10 Most Influential Indigenous Economic Developers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Facebook page calls 29-year-old Netmaker and others, like Mrs. Universe Ashley Canningbull, “young exceptional Canadians.” Trudeau’s Instagram credits Netmaker’s education for helping him launch the highly successful clothing company Neechie Gear in 2011.

“If I hadn’t gone to university, I wouldn’t have been exposed to the business competitions that allowed me to give entrepreneurship a try,” Netmaker said in the post, which used Netmaker’s message to promote federal budget changes to Canada Student Loan rules.

With more than 5,700 likes, Trudeau’s post adds exposure to a man who is no stranger to large-scale recognition. Netmaker’s company has been recognized – globally, nationally, and provincially – with five different distinctions in 2015 alone. To date, Neechie Gear has received more than 16 awards and Netmaker is currently a member of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, among other groups.

Honours like being named in Treaty 4 News as one of the Top 10 Most Influential Indigenous Economic Developers continue to motivate Netmaker, he said.

“It’s become, I guess, a boost of confidence during the times when people are going through obstacles, because everyone goes through them,” he said.

“It gives an extra boost of gas, if you know what I mean.”

From Neechie Gear’s inception in 2011, Netmaker has grown the brand by following the philosophy that business should give back to the community, which draws from Netmaker’s own experience growing up on Sweetgrass First Nation. The generosity of a friend gave Netmaker the chance to play sports, and in turn Neechie Gear now gives five per cent of its net profit to sports organizations for kids.

Netmaker has found that people have a healthy appetite for his success story, and most recently branched off into the world of motivational speaking.

“Aboriginal people are natural storytellers so I had it in me from the get-go. When I talk I’m always telling stories and that’s how you keep people engaged right away instead of just giving them content and facts and people get bored of that. If you tie it into a story people listen and it sticks in the back of their minds,” he said.

Netmaker isn’t letting his past achievements get to his head with this new venture, and is driven to build his brand. He’s researching and drawing inspiration from the best in the business.

“I see someone who’s doing it right now, that’s doing an amazing job, I figure out what they’re doing. Once I figure out the kind of stuff they’ve read, the kind of people they’ve researched and got mentored from, I research those people. And the list goes on and on,” he said.

Ec Dev series Congratulations-Ad

Last week, Netmaker released a high-production video that breaks free from his usual selfie-style posts. (View it here.)

To make it this far, Netmaker had to overcome many obstacles.

The first came when he started studying at the University of Saskatchewan, thinking he would become a teacher. At the time, he wasn’t sure what the future would hold.

A few wins at business competitions led him on the path to start Neechie Gear in 2011.

“I became an entrepreneur by accident. I wasn’t aspiring to become an entrepreneur, I was just studying to be successful,” he said.

Again, there were obstacles throughout that process.

“When I was in my early 20s I didn’t have an entrepreneur to look up to that was First Nations. I had to become that person,” Netmaker said.

Netmaker was blazing a trail at a time when Aboriginal faces were unfamiliar in the business community, said his mentor Denis Prud’homme.

“There’s always been that stigma about indigenous entrepreneurs, right? That they’d probably never succeed and all this kind of stuff,” Prud’homme said.

“Being an indigenous entrepreneur, I think there’s been more difficult times because of that.”

Prud’homme was matched as a mentor for Netmaker through the Canadian Youth Business Foundation, which has since been renamed to Futurpeneur Canada. (Read Netmaker’s story here.)

Although Prud’homme’s background in the trucking business and Netmaker is in a completely different industry, the two share a strong sense of determination.

“I think we come from similar backgrounds in that I could see he was determined to succeed. And I think one of the most important things that I’ve done in business is I’ve refused to fail no matter how bad things looked or whatever and I think he had the same motivation,” he said.

One of Netmaker’s mentees, Heather Abbey, has found similar success with her website shopindig.ca, which gives an online platform for Indigenous artisans to sell their wares.

She considers her business trajectory to be about a year and a half behind Netmaker’s, and said she is thankful for Netmaker’s calming presence when she’s running into business problems.

On a larger scale, Abbey is thankful that Netmaker “was kind of the pioneer for Aboriginal youth entrepreneurs” like herself.

“I’m able to see that we can achieve any sort of success that we want, whether it’s in business in speaking, awards, travel, he introduced me to Futurpreneur, he’s gone to DUbai,  this year I’m going to Beijing. I’m able to model what I’m doing based on what he’s already done. So it really makes it helpful to everyone following behind him because you know, there’s no limits to what we can do.”

Abbey admits that the business community in Saskatchewan is dominated by non-Aboriginal people, but both Abbey and Netmaker see a bright future for Aboriginal entrepreneurs who are just starting out.

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