Setting out to the change the way young Crees think about working in the field of business, the Cree Nation Youth Council (CNYC) recently hosted its own Cree Youth Business Symposium to inspire a new generation of Crees when it comes to the possibilities of the business world.

The event brought together Cree youth with an international panel of experts on business, finance and consulting for three days and gave them the opportunity to learn about the business world through a series of challenges they were able to compete in.

According to CNYC Communications Officer Jeremy Diamond, one of the symposium’s organizers, the three-day event, held at Val-d’Or’s Forestel Hotel October 25-27, was run like a contest between 10 teams of youth.

Approximately 100 youth participated in the competitive event that was run similarly to an event that Diamond had attended previously on behalf of the CNYC.

“We attended the Young Entrepreneurs Symposium that was organized by the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation in Vancouver last year. It totally blew us away and was so life-changing for all of the young people there and so we got the idea from that,” said Diamond.

Fortunately for Diamond, he was able to invite some of the panelists he heard in Vancouver in 2010 so that the Cree youth were able to benefit from the expertise given by several major international heavy-hitters in the business world as well as various major players in the Cree business world.

“Dr. Ernesto Sirroli was the keynote speaker for the event. We wanted him to set the tone for the symposium and he did an awesome job. He is from Italy and very well known in the industry that he’s in. He invented a new field as a consultant that deals with Indigenous peoples worldwide when it comes to approaching businesses matters.

“It was very interesting as he has revolutionized this industry, switching it from having non-Natives going to the Indigenous to tell them what they should be doing to approaching it from an angle where he was actually getting their input on what they want to do,” said Diamond.

The event also featured international guest speakers Mike Tamaki from New Zealand who presented on behalf of his homegrown cultural tourism business and Master International Entrepreneur Chris Costello from Chile. Not to be outdone by the rest of the world, Canadian country music superstar Crystal Shawanda was on hand as the event’s special guest speaker.

Bringing the message home, the CNYC had a series of speakers from the Cree nation to share their experiences in the business world. They included: CREECO’s Business Development Coordinator Rodney Hester; George Awashish of Awashish Outdoor Adventures; Christopher and Sarah Pash of Pash Travel; lawyer Jean-Paul Murdoch of the Cree Regional Authority/ Grand Council of the Crees; Elder Robbie Matthew; Matthew Iserhoff and Pakesso Mukash of CerAmony; NDP MP Romeo Saganash; Charlotte Ottereyes of the Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association; Tanya Pash of CREECO/ the Board of Compensation; and Cree recording artist Melissa Pash.

In terms of the actual competition, upon arrival the youth were broken into 10 teams of 10 participants. Once together their first challenge was to come up with a name for their group and then design a logo to represent their team.

The first challenge that the teams faced consisted of learning about investing in the stock market. Using pretend cash available on the website, each team was challenged to see who could make the most returns and come out on top in terms of investing.

Through the participation from CREECO, the teams also had two separate challenges for marketing where they had to create an ad for either Air Creebec or Quality Inn & Suites and then create a print campaign for their chosen business.

For the marketing challenge, the teams had to first conceive and then create a storyboard for an actual ad, which they filmed with the help of a production team that was hired to work at the event. Having to pick actors and directors from within their own teams, the participants had the opportunity to learn what goes into this kind of process.

Similarly, for the creative challenge, teams had to conceive and then design an ad with the aid of a graphic designer and then figure out where they could place the ad and how much it would cost to launch a marketing campaign.

The teams also had a separate sales challenge that was organized by the CNYC, which commissioned 10 original paintings from artist Natasia Mukash. Each team was given a painting, which in turn they had to sell, with 50% of the funds going to the artist and the other 50% going to the CNYC to help fund youth entrepreneurs.

“Each team had to sell a painting through their own contacts or to businesses they found in Val-d’Or. It was really good for them to get that experience from selling a painting as it wasn’t just about the actual painting but the idea of the painting,” said Diamond.

During the investors’ panel challenge, teams had the opportunity to pitch a business idea to a panel of experts and get feedback that could potentially be followed up on by these investors at a later date.

The investors’ panel was comprised of people from the Aboriginal Business Canada, Eeyou Economic Group, the Business Development Bank of Canada and guest speaker Chris Costello, who runs an investing firm.

“We got a lot of great feedback from this challenge, specifically on the last group that presented,” said Diamond.

“The idea was to provide an opportunity for these young people to make contacts and connections with these investors so that they could get their business ideas off the ground. The last team that presented had a young person from Chisasibi who already had a business idea written up and pitched the idea. Now he is in touch with those investors to work on the next steps to get his idea off the ground.

“This was exactly what we wanted to achieve at that specific challenge, to have a young person walk out of there as an entrepreneur with investors and funding lined up. This was really awesome,” said Diamond.

For CREECO’s Communications Officer Jonathan Saganash the event was an all-out success because of the results that the organizers were able to see and the direct impact the event had on the Cree youth.

“We were able to see the context and degree to which the youth are actually interested in marketing and promotion. We had all of those videos that the teams produced for Quality Inn & Suites and Air Creebec and we were able to see that they had a lot of fun with this and were able to get into it. And, at the end of the day, we had our panel of judges from all over the world look at them.

“The youth who attended this event returned home excited about what they had learned and the stories they had heard from the panelists. Learning about investments through the challenge, we were able to see that some participants excelled at this and did incredibly well, just like with the sales challenge for the paintings. In some cases, we were amazed at just how much they were able to raise. In total, they raised about $34,000,” said Saganash.

Coming from a completely different perspective, panel speaker Tanya Pash who is the comptroller for CREECO and the Board of Compensation and holds various other titles within the Cree nation in terms of finance, had the opportunity to share her years of experience with the youth.

In terms of being a woman in business and having spent years of dedication building first her education and then her career, Pash understood firsthand what it is like to be in the position that many of the youth attending the event are in, being at the beginning of or planning out their careers.

The advice she gave the participants came from the perspective of the Women in Business panel. She did not only speak to the women in the audience but to every young Cree wanting to take that first step forward.

“I told them that I am just a person and that there is nothing unique about my success other than commitment and hard work. You will have opportunities that will come and it’s up to you to seize these moments and to face these challenges as well as accept them and commit to them when it is the hardest. You have to find a support network, be it your parents or your spouse, somebody who you can turn to when things are at their hardest. It’s not easy, but it is not impossible.

“I have never accepted being a woman as an obstacle. If I view myself as a person and as an equal when I walk into a meeting room filled with men, they will be able to get that vibe off of me. I never let it be something that’s an obstacle or a challenge. I walk in as their equal and for the most part people accept that,” said Pash.

At the end of the symposium, the team that came out on top won a trophy and a cash prize of $5000 that was shared amongst the 10 members. They were also awarded the opportunity to participate in the next year’s national Young Entrepreneurs Symposium to be held in Ottawa.

Prizes aside however, it is through events like these that the entire Cree nation wins out. By opening up the minds of the next generation to the possibilities ahead of them when it comes to the business world is surely the best way to build a brighter future.