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How Indigenous women entrepreneurs are finding success through virtual sales

By Andrea Danelak, Special to WEOC

On the wall of the Jack59 office sits a map with pins denoting where orders for their eco-friendly haircare products are placed, spanning locations from Oman to Australia.

Vanessa Marshall, Jack59

“The shipping team shares stories with me that I then share with our whole team—it’s a bonding moment,” says Jack59 founder Vanessa Marshall. “Literally each person on our team has held that product in their hands, and to know it’s across the world is a very cool experience.”

That map likely wouldn’t exist without the power of e-commerce or virtual sales.

“Generally, our digital presence is how we promote our brands and businesses to potential clients,” says Magnolia Perron, Indigenous women and youth program manager for the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association. “Over the last few years, COVID-19 forced us to go online. That probably contributed to the increase in women entrepreneurs prioritizing getting their products to clients through e-commerce.”

Magnolia Perron, NACCA

According to a 2023 joint report by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) and Global Affairs Canada, majority women-owned Indigenous businesses represent 39.3 per cent of all Indigenous exporters, which is over double the percentage of women-owned exporters out of all Canadian small- to medium-sized enterprises.

Marshall recognized the importance of e-commerce early on, and establishing a virtual sales space was one of her first business tasks. Though Jack59 offers wholesale in stores and online, she encourages entrepreneurs to maintain a robust internal system. Even if other retailers carry your products online, “you want your own [site] to attract people,” she says. “We have a loyal customer base that purchases from us directly.”

Navigating the world of virtual sales

When Joella Hogan bought the Yukon Soaps Company, she, like many new business owners, wasn’t familiar with all the facets of entrepreneurship.

“What I felt like I was—or tried to be—was someone who had an impact in my community, tried to create a better place for everyone and amplified voices that weren’t normally heard,” she says. “I wanted to connect people back to the land and our culture and language; I knew we were stronger that way.”

Virtual sales enabled Hogan to continue sharing her culture and growing the company beyond Yukon’s borders. According to the aforementioned report, firms in remote areas are associated with a 65 per cent reduction in their odds of exporting. However, “firms that offer virtual sales are associated with having six times higher odds of exporting compared to firms without virtual sales.”

Located 400 kilometres outside Whitehorse, Hogan is well-versed in the challenges facing entrepreneurs in rural, remote or northern communities—like access to reliable internet.

Joella Hogan, Yukon Soaps Company

Shipping also poses a challenge to many entrepreneurs in Canada, including those in urban or metropolitan areas. “We try to offer some free shipping for online customers,” says Marshall, whose company is based out of Edmonton. “It’s an expensive service to offer, but people don’t want to pay for shipping.”

Despite rising shipping costs and a shifting economy, Hogan has still noticed growth in the U.S. market. Entrepreneurs should strongly consider e-commerce if they’re hoping to reach audiences outside of their communities, she says. “It will make your life easier the sooner you do it. It [helps with] visibility and getting your brand out there.”

4 tips for Indigenous women entrepreneurs considering virtual sales

We’ve compiled tips on how entrepreneurs can approach virtual sales, no matter the stage of their business.

1.    Conduct research.

If you’re considering e-commerce, research platforms you can attach to your website, suggests Marshall. “Also, do a bit of research [on shipping carriers] before you start shipping things out because you can often find a better rate.”

2.    Explore available supports.

Canadian entrepreneurs can access many resources, grants and opportunities. Marshall encourages Indigenous women in business to check out organizations and platforms like CCAB, Pow Wow Pitch and Shopify’s Build Native program.

Hogan knows the value of these supports first-hand. “We had the tiniest website when I first bought the business,” she says. “I was lucky to [leverage] a small business program that supported me through funding and a consultant to develop a new website.”

3.    Invest in your brand’s story.

“Using your website to share the stories of your products and your personal story will lead to more sales—and having a website connected to e-commerce is the way to do it,” says Hogan. She advises entrepreneurs to spend time on well-crafted messaging and current, high-quality photos. “Think to yourself: ‘Does this picture represent my product, my brand and my mission?’”

4.    Embrace the power of community.

“Reach out to Indigenous female entrepreneurs you know—I guarantee they’ll be more than happy to answer your questions,” says Marshall, who also takes part in a monthly networking call with fellow Indigenous-owned beauty brands.

The success of entrepreneurs like Hogan and Marshall highlights the vital role of virtual sales tools in accessing new markets. “There are lots of Indigenous women entrepreneurs out there—go check them out and shop online!” says Perron.