LouAnn Solway was born and raised on a cattle farm on the Siksika Nation east of Calgary. Growing up, she learned the principles of hard work. Now, at age 47, Solway is carrying on the family legacy, operating her own cow-calf operation.
But getting started on her own wasn't easy — not only becoming an entrepreneur, but being Indigenous and a woman was a challenge, she said.
"I had to hustle and prove myself extra hard," she said.
Solway started off with 20 head of cattle, but she was turned down by various banks when she wanted to expand her business.
"I got told by a loans officer to throw in the towel. He said, 'It won't work.'"
That led her to her last resort — the Indian Business Corp. (IBC) in Calgary, which specializes in granting loans to Indigenous people. She was able to secure a loan with IBC and now runs a larger herd of 125.
IBC is a First Nations-owned company that has been operating in Alberta for 30 years. Its average loan is $70,000 but amounts can go all the way up to $1 million. IBC says it's filling a gap that is growing in demand.
"If you're an Indigenous person in general, trying to get money out of a bank is very difficult," said general manager Rob Rollingson.
"Everything that a bank requires you to have is often different in the Indigenous world. Banks are reluctant to get into that market like we are."
Barriers to success
The number of Indigenous women starting businesses in Alberta is almost twice that of non-Indigenous women, according to an internal study conducted by IBC along with the Business Development Bank of Canada.
The study identified several challenges Indigenous women face while pursuing a career in business, including access to collateral equity and credit, the ability to find child care, a lack of education or confidence, challenges in gaining access to male-dominated fields, and a diversity of circumstances specific to Indigenous women.
The number of Indigenous women who are trying to become entrepreneurs is growing by the thousands, said Rollingson, who added that the barriers they face are holding back an influx of potential business owners.
"There's not enough capital available to meet the demand for Aboriginal women who want to own and operate businesses, given the situation that women find themselves in sometimes because of lack of home ownership because of living on the rez, lack of management experience or lack of credit," he explained.
To help meet the demand, IBC recently started a $5-million fund specifically for Indigenous women to borrow capital to get into business. Rollingson said it's the only fund of its kind created specifically for Indigenous women in Canada.
"The timing is right to launch this fund," he said. "With all the issues that are facing Aboriginal women right now, we felt that this was a great time to be able to have a fund dedicated directly to them."
A flat rate of 12.5 per cent is charged with a three- to five-year payment plan. The higher rate is due to the risks associated with lending to this market, Rollingson said.
But it doesn't operate like the average financial institution.
"If a person misses a payment or two, we don't come take their stuff away. We work with them," he said. "Our goal is to make them successful so we will often visit them, help them keep track of their financial records."
Rollingson said Indigenous women make up 25 per cent of IBC's clientele. The women own various ventures like cow-calf operations, oilpatch equipment operations, convenience stores and even a bone broth soup business.
Rollingson believes helping Indigenous women get into business is making a big impact now and into the future.
"Developmental lending is one of Canada's most effective ways to effect social change because it's not a handout, it's a loan and it's repaid," he said.
"The social change comes when a person gets access to that capital. They get a job, increase their income, start eating better, get pride of ownership — it's a win-win for everybody."
Calgary-based First Nations entrepreneur Nicole Robertson also got her start with IBC. After working as a reporter across Canada, she started an award-winning media production company 15 years ago.
She said if it wasn't for IBC, she wouldn't have gone very far because she didn't have a lot of assets when she started out.
"If I didn't have them as a backup, what would I do? I wouldn't have been able to do it any other way, when I looked at what a bank traditionally looks at," said Robertson.
"But I built the relationship with IBC, I paid my loans always on time. They treat you like a human being, rather than just a number or policy."
Being a successful woman in business is empowering, she said, especially considering the historical trauma that has held a lot of Indigenous women back.
Both Robertson and Solway hope to see more Indigenous women take the leap of faith to help change the landscape of business.
"We're smart, with valuable abilities," said Solway.
"So our ladies can flourish, can be out there, be proactive and not give up. We see too much of them giving up on their pride. We've gone through enough, but we need to move on now. We need to do something with ourselves."