Business in the Classroom

Education gives aboriginal students the support and knowledge to succeed as entrepreneurs

By: Sarah Hartwick, Staff Writer

Jacob Pratt is a businessman, but he’s also an artist – a dancer and flutist trained in the traditional Dakota style. Two years ago, while in his second year of a business degree at the First Nations University of Canada, he was enjoying so much success that he wasn’t able to take on all of the performances being offered to him. Inspired by his classes, he had an idea.

“As an emerging artist I was becoming more and more developed,” he says.“I started getting more performances than I could actually do myself. I started offering people the performances that I couldn’t do myself, and then quickly as a business student, I realized that there was an actual business opportunity that was available that wasn’t really being done at the moment.”

Pratt founded Wambdi Dance, a company that connects performers with event planners. Then, on the advice of one of his professors, he took his idea to The Boom Box, a competition for young, aboriginal entrepreneurs hosted by the CBC and Dragon’s Den businessman W. Brett Wilson.

Pratt placed first in the competition, winning$2,500 in funding and a three-month mentorship to help guide him as he launched his company.

The key to succeeding, says Pratt, was his education. Now in his fourth year of studies, he says that university has given him the tools to start his business.

“It helped give me a lot of guidance and rather than learning by trial and error, I was given the outline on how to do it, which I found has actually shaped the way that I process information when I’m thinking about my business,” he says.

He adds, “There are business people out there who have not taken university classes and have become successful, but [that is] a unique case, I think. For me, personally, university was a huge help.”

Promoting entrepreneurship among youth through education is the basis of a program created by the Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative, the foundation started by former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The Initiative created the Aboriginal Youth Entrepreneurship Program, or AYEP. The program consists of two secondary school courses: one for grade 11 students and one for grade 12 students. The courses are implemented in high-risk schools in regions with an aboriginal-majority population, and focus on teaching business skills and entrepreneurship to students with support from the local aboriginal community.

Administrative Director Lucie Santoro says the aim of the program is to give kids a reason to stay in school until graduation as well asencouraging them to pursue post-secondary education.

“The purpose of our whole initiative is to give them the opportunities and equal treatment, to look at education as a world that’s open to them,” she says.

In the grade 12 course, students are asked to create a business based on a product or a service they can provide. The results are diverse – Santoro says she’s heard of students coming up with everything from making and selling traditional jewelry and dolls to teaching local seniors to use the internet.

Santoro says that the Institution doesn’t shy away from the communities that are struggling. Rather, she says, “we wanted schools that had the biggest challenges.”

The program now runs in 16 schools across the country, each with a program that is tailored to provincial requirements and the needs of each school.The textbooks for the courses are completely original, written by two teachers involved with the program and designed to reflect and appeal to the students.

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