Pontiac Group Is Creating an Indigenous Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Downtown Toronto

Pontiac Group and the City of Toronto are honing a vision and plan for an indigenous cultural district, and they’re starting with a business incubator and accelerator. Coming to the business mecca of Toronto in 2020, the 16,000-square-foot Indigenous Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (ICIE) will catalyze growth for Indigenous entrepreneurs, non-profits and businesspeople. ICIE will “build wrap-around support” to help indigenous business founders achieve sustainability faster, said Jonathon Araujo, co-founder of Pontiac Group, Odawa from the Wikwemikong First Nation.

Co-founders of Pontiac Group: Jonathon Araujo, Odawa from the Wikwemikong First Nation; and Jacob Taylor, Mississauga from Curve Lake First Nation (Courtesy Pontiac Group)

ICIE will be available to indigenous entrepreneurs within Toronto as well as within First Nation communities across Ontario, Canada and the globe. “What we see and envision is this space being a meeting space for indigenous entrepreneurs—whether you’re from a northern community in Ontario or a First Nation community somewhere in a rural area. If you want to bring your business and build net worth and relationships within the City of Toronto, you have a place to come to. You can meet here in this space, where people can feel the vibrance of our indigenous culture, and they can see that this entrepreneur is well supported. That this isn’t just an individual by themselves trying to make it big. They have the support system and the acumen to successfully execute on procurement contracts,” Araujo said.

Currently in the public consultation phase, which runs September 5 until end of year, Pontiac Group is in the process of forming an indigenous stakeholder-lead business plan and governance structure for ICIE.

Araujo and co-founder Jacob Taylor, who is Mississauga from Curve Lake First Nation, are engaging with the First Nations, Metis and Inuit entrepreneurs in the greater Toronto area. “The purpose of those engagements is to establish a common vision: What do you want from the center? What kind of services would you like to see? How would you like the space designed? Is it full of indigenous artwork, or what does it look like?” Taylor told Native Business Magazine.

PIVET, which is an acronym for the Pontiac Indigenous Virtual Enterprise Team, will support entrepreneurs in eight business support categories that are common to all entrepreneurs.

“If you are a fisherman, or a craftsperson, or a landscaper or an electrician, these eight categories are common with all businesses, especially small businesses. Those eight categories are often all taken on by that one individual. What we’ve created is a virtual enterprise team that the indigenous entrepreneur can tap into and gain those specific supports and have a trusted source where they can go to—for example, if they needed a lawyer to review a legal contract, they know that they can go to this trusted source. We would bring down the cost of these key eight areas, because we have collective buying power, and the [resources] would be vetted and have better understanding of indigenous business,” Araujo said.

 The eight PIVET ategories are:

  • Financing: Access to debt, grant and equity financing
  • Legal: Contract creation and contract review, legal opinion and governance structure (how to set up an entity)
  • Technology: Enterprise software, app development, online hosting
  • Media: Social, web, print, design and video
  • Human Resources: Talent recruitment, onboarding and employment law
  • Accounting: Bookkeeping, filing, taxes and First Nation tax strategy
  • Procurement: Group discounts, travel discounts, event discounts and B2B relationships
  • Mentorship: Providing a source for operational sales strategy as well as review

Indigenous businesses are usually bootstrapped. “Indigenous entrepreneurs often do everything on their own, and they bring down their operating expenses as much as they can. They do not get equity investors to come on board with them, instead they get bank loans deemed high-risk at anywhere from 8 to 12 percent interest, and they have to pay that money back in five years, which really puts them in a very tough predicament. It’s very difficult to have a successful business when you are getting bled out by high interest,” Araujo said.

Pontiac Group is communicating with charitable and philanthropic organizations to create an indigenous investment firm, where their monies are invested in indigenous businesses and indigenous entrepreneurs. “We’ve had some really great discussions with very large organizations that have billions of dollars to invest into philanthropic endeavors,” Araujo said. “As we develop this initiative, we will have this fund available, and we are going to bring that capitalistic structure of equity raising to a First Nations business through a First Nations lens that cares about social impact and the environment. That’s something we’re very excited about.”

ICIE is currently considering co-working, membership and space rental models. Pontiac Group counts MaRS as a partner. The largest incubator in Canada, MaRS houses Facebook, Uber and various large corporations. Pontiac Group is also partnered with DMZ, Digital Media Zone, a university-based incubator-accelerator, and the Center for Social Innovation, which has offered collaborative shared meeting space for about 15 years through a very successful and profitable model.

“Community is the key to running a successful incubator, especially within an indigenous context,” Araujo stressed. “Community has always been the key.”

Once ICIE is effective, the plan is replicate the model across the globe. “We look to carry our model to other major city metropolises—municipalities and reserves across Canada and U.S. capitals,” Taylor told Native Business Magazine.

The goal is to start collectivizing under that one word “indigenous,” because indigenous peoples do business differently. “We don’t just look at profits; we look at social impact; we look at the environment; we look at how this impacts our family and our future,” Araujo said.

The Maoris are even planning a visit to Toronto. “They’re looking at creating a center that is similar in Auckland, New Zealand; and in Sydney, Australia,” Araujo told Native Business Magazine.

The ultimate goal is to connect indigenous entrepreneurs at a global scale—“and have these hubs situated within major municipalities across the world,” Araujo said.

While the hubs will have physical locations, the business incubation and acceleration will always operate virtually as well. “It’s all going back to our local communities, all supporting our local peoples to bring down those unemployment rates, to increase pride within communities, to increase family business and to create this new mindset, this new drive. Because entrepreneurship is infectious; it gets people very excited, as you can hear in my voice today. I’m very excited about this project. I’m very excited about empowering more indigenous people,” Araujo said.

If the Pontiac co-founders can leave Native Business Magazine readers with any one message, it’s a call to action for “U.S. tribes to consider developing major city center incubators in collaboration with Pontiac,” Taylor said.

The Indigenous District is an ideal Smart Cities Challenge, states a City of Toronto report: “We have the opportunity to be a leader on the national stage, giving expression to reconciliation and building upon expanded culture of Indigenous entrepreneurship and social inclusion.”