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4 Indigenous & Native American CEOs Who Are Making a Difference

PEOPLE

Starting your own business is quite the feat. But starting your own business with a mission to change the world? That’s something entirely different. Just take it from four strong-willed female CEOs who have used their Indigenous and Native American cultures as inspiration and fuel to bring awareness to the world around them.

From a 9-year-old entrepreneur making scrunchies to the interior designer-turned-businesswoman creating textiles with purpose, each has found her own success through hard work and unique life experiences.

Sweetmoon Photo and GBP Photography

Joella Hogan of The Yukon Soaps Company

Joella has long had a passion for science and a strong connection with her culture. Owning a business, however, was all about jumping at the perfect chance to make these passions her work, too. “I was surprised when the opportunity to buy a small woman-owned company came up, that I would be able to incorporate all of those aspects into a natural soap company.” So she bought the company, which has now grown into Yukon Soaps. While the company’s roots might be in a small village in Canada, Yukon Soaps is far from small. They produce a wide range of products from hand-crafted soaps to shampoo bars and essential oil blends — all incorporating local plants.

Joella on making a difference: I want people to know that when they support my business, they are supporting my mission to empower and nurture an Indigenous community in the Yukon. Our communities, and my business, are guided by traditional principles based on compassion for others and helping people on their journey of transformation into their best self.

I also hope to be a part of an economic shift in my traditional territory. I see my company growing and being able to employ and provide meaningful skills to people who want to create products made with gifts from the land. I want to create a safe space for women and 2SLGBTTQQIA+.

Joella on challenges: Being an entrepreneur in a small northern community has incredible challenges: from barriers to entering the wellness market, supply chain issues (before and especially during a pandemic), to the tiny post office and bank not being able to provide the services I need.

Joella on spreading awareness of her culture: I have been sharing my journey of learning my language and culture and invite others to join me in the learning. I also include my messages in my grandmother’s language on packaging of essential oils. Although I do believe that I create good products, I see my impact more through storytelling — sharing the stories of our survival, of our culture, our knowledge holders.

Joella on advice for fellow CEOs: Root your business with your values, but don’t be afraid to have “making money” as one of your values. Our economies were circular and regenerative based on concepts of sharing and gifting. Although that may look different now, we need money to survive, to grow our business and to feed our families.

Bethany Yellowtail of B.YELLOWTAIL

It was Bethany’s passion for sewing (which she learned at a very young age) coupled with her exposure to mass-produced appropriated designs that made her create B.YELLOWTAIL, a fashion and accessories brand specializing in wearable art. “I realized I wanted to create a brand that truly represented the culture, stories and people I come from,” she says. “I wanted to see myself in a brand for once, and to create a platform that Native people felt proud of.” The company sells 100% handmade goods from a collective of Native American, First Nation and Indigenous creators.

Bethany on challenges: Like any small business (coupled with being a Native American and Woman-owned business), you can imagine how start-up capital and long-term financing has always been a difficult challenge. Our growth has been very slow over the course of six years now. I look forward to the day when I can hire the adequate amount of staff we need. But for now, I’m the owner as well as the brand fashion and creative director, graphic/web designer, production manager, social media director, e-commerce expert and sales director.

Bethany on spreading awareness of her culture: Native American culture is happening and evolving right now. I am directly tied to and incredibly involved in my tribal communities (Northern Cheyenne and Crow), so the B.YELLOWTAIL brand inherently has a strong pulse and sense of responsibility to also raise awareness. We use fashion as a catalyst to position our people in the present, celebrate us, collaborate with one another and showcase the beauty and brilliance we exist in. It’s really important to me that consumers see our faces, hear our voices and invest in our communities by purchasing from the source.

Bethany on making a difference: I hope to make a difference by continuing to create and provide economic opportunities for Native American makers, creators and my own tribal community. I also hope that our company can set a precedent for the way the fashion industry at large can do good by Native American people and our communities — and not just take our cultural designs for their own profit.

Bethany on advice for fellow CEOs: Develop your business around your values. Whether they’re personal or cultural values, set them as the integral component of how you operate. They will guide you in your decision making, how you create, how you hire your team and how you navigate challenges. They have been my saving grace more times than I can count, and they always redirect me when I start to veer off course.

Mya Beaudry of Kokom Scrunchies

Kokom Scrunchies started as a fundraiser, but shortly after it all started, 9-year-old Mya grew it into a business. “People loved Kokom Scrunchies so much, I wanted to make them for everyone to enjoy — young and old.” Now, Mya sells her scrunchies online and through her Instagram account, with scrunchies and scarves in bright floral designs.

Mya on being a founder at such a young age: It’s amazing, because I’m young but I have great design ideas, passion and I work hard, especially on Sundays when we release a new limited-edition Kokom Scrunchie. One thing I learned from this is to not be afraid to go after your goals. I want to inspire other youth and continue to have big plans for my business — like opening a store one day.

Mya on making a difference: I really just want to be able to help recognize all the amazing Indigenous women in my life, my community and others who are doing amazing things. Role models are important, and I have been taught by so many in my own life.

Maya on spreading awareness of Indigenous culture: The name Kokom Scrunchies has an Indigenous component: “Kokom” means grandmother in my Algonquin language, and Kokums wear these types of scarves on their heads. I also name and dedicate each scrunchie after strong Indigenous women. I love doing interviews and speaking with people about my business, because I get to let people know I am Algonquin and talk about pow wows, which is a very important part of my life.

Maya on advice for fellow CEOs: Even if you are afraid, just go for it. Make or do something that will bring joy to others. Having a supportive team to help you is also good, even if it’s small. For me, I like to make all my scrunchies with love, because I want everyone else to love them.

Destiny Seymour of Indigo Arrows

“I worked [at a local architecture firm] for 10 years and found it very challenging to find interior finishes that represented Indigenous cultures from Manitoba,” Destiny explains. After tirelessly searching for respectful-yet-modern products, Destiny decided to make her own. Now, her business creates small-batch home goods — everything from quilts to pillows to drum stools.

Destiny on making a difference: My mother was taken away from her family as a child and put into a Canadian residential school. She was forbidden to speak her language or see her family. There is still so much trauma for many Indigenous families caused by the residential school systems in Canada and the U.S. My children have been surrounded by my textiles since they were very small. Being surrounded by their own ancestral patterns is normal for them. I love that. Indigenous cultures and art don’t just live in museums. I think we need these contemporary finishes in our homes and work/school spaces.

Destiny on challenges:
Two of my biggest challenges right now are production and storage. When I first began in 2016, I was working at our dining room table. I am currently working out of our home basement studio where I organize, store and ship all my orders. At busy times, my products take over most of the basement. I also still have a small local production for all my sewing. I can’t seem to keep up with the demand and my website is always almost sold out.

Destiny on spreading awareness of her culture: All of my textiles have marketing labels on them that describe where the designs come from. Each pattern is named in Anishinaabemowin, my ancestral language. The textiles have become a teaching tool in a way. Customers are always so surprised at where the design came from and the age of them. I think this dialogue is so important to cross cultural awareness.

Destiny on advice for fellow CEOs: Start by outlining a clear business plan. This will take some time, but it will help you carve out your ideas. I would also encourage you to reach out to other entrepreneurs that you admire. You may not always get a response from each one since most entrepreneurs are always so busy, but you will get a few that will give you their time.