Fourteen years after she started her two-person skincare venture, Michaelee Lazore thought it might be time to return to her career as an engineer. Then she won Pow Wow Pitch.

Lazore pitched a rebrand of her business Sequoia Soaps to the competition’s judges in 2016. When she won, they offered her $5,000 in funding and helped redesign her product packaging for wholesale clients. Since then, Lazore’s business has blossomed. It employs 10 people on-reserve in Kahnawake, Que., and continues to sell handmade soaps and skincare products full-time.

Lazore is one of hundreds of Indigenous entrepreneurs who have competed in Pow Wow Pitch. Since 2015, the competition has visited powwows across Canada to connect winners with funding, mentorship and visibility. Now, Pow Wow Pitch hosts an entrepreneurial podcast, a marketplace for vendors and pitch competitions across North America.

“[Pow Wow Pitch] was a turning point in my business,” Lazore said. “After the rebrand, it was like the products were selling themselves. Sales increased by a lot and our wholesalers were ordering more frequently.”

The competition’s founder, Sunshine Tenasco, is an entrepreneur from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, about a two-hour drive north of Ottawa. In 2010, she went on Dragons’ Den and won investment in her handmade moccasins for babies. She immediately wanted to bring the experience to her nation.

“I was thinking, ‘I need to do this and give [Indigenous entrepreneurs] the microphone and empower everybody in the same way that I felt empowered on Dragons' Den,’” Tenasco said. “It just seemed like a natural fit. I didn't feel like I was creating something, I was just like, ‘This needs to happen.’”

For a few years, Tenasco focused on life and raising her baby. She got a job with the Native Women’s Association of Canada supporting Indigenous entrepreneurs. In 2015, she got space to host her first pitch competition at the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival near Ottawa.

That year, 25 local entrepreneurs competed. Tenasco was able to offer $8,500 in prizes for the top three finishers and brought some non-Indigenous mentors to hear the pitches.

“They had never been to a powwow… There's children running around, there's children learning, there's elders, there's culture, there's vendors,” she said. “That's an impact that I didn't expect: that reconciliation piece. I was doing this for the entrepreneurs, but then the non-Indigenous mentors were like, ‘What is this world I didn't even know existed in Ottawa?’”

Sunshine Tenasco, an entrepreneur from Kitigan Zibi, founded a pitch competition to bring funding and visibility to Indigenous entrepreneurs.

Tenasco said the competition was a success.

“It was supposed to be a one-off, a one-and-done,” she said. “Immediately after the day, everybody's response was like, ‘Oh, my God. Count us in for next year.’ [The contestants] were just so pumped.”

Michaelee Lazore won Pow Wow Pitch in 2016. Now, she sits on the board of directors. Photo submitted by Michaelee Lazore

The next year, Lazore won the competition. Now, Lazore sits on the competition’s board of directors. The project started to visit Indigenous Peoples’ gatherings across the country.

“Because we're bringing it to a place like a powwow, we're not making [entrepreneurs] come to us,” Tenasco said. “They're already doing their part. We are showing up and we're meeting them halfway.”

Since then, similar projects have sprung up. The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network hosts Bears’ Lair, a televised Dragons’ Den-style pitch competition.

This year, Pow Wow Pitch is visiting five powwows in Canada and two south of the border. Each competition has space for 40 entrepreneurs to compete. Its partners include the Royal Bank of Canada and Shopify, which offer their own prizes and awards.

Winners of its local competitions come together to compete in a final competition online, and Pow Wow Pitch now hosts an online store that sells products from its competitors.

Tenasco hopes to keep growing Pow Wow Pitch. She’s looking for ways to continue to support competitors who grow from micro-businesses to larger ventures.

“There's a need for it. It's going to keep growing,” Tenasco said. “I really feel like it's bigger than me.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Keep reading