When Jeff Ward started his career 25 years ago as a software developer and product designer in Silicon Valley, it was a “lonely place” for Indigenous talent.
Originally from Manitoba, Mr. Ward is Ojibwe and Métis and a member of the Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation. After moving back to Canada in 2003, he founded Animikii in Victoria, B.C., a company with a mission to support Indigenous peoples using technology.
“I wanted to continue supporting the communities that I grew up within and that meant making websites for Indigenous organizations, entrepreneurs, non-profits,” Mr. Ward says.
Indigenous peoples have long suffered from economic and social disparities when it comes to accessing technology. A 2022 report by the First Nations Technology Council in British Columbia found that the digital inequity experienced by Indigenous peoples is a result of settler colonialism and systemic racism.
Digital inequity, the report says, includes but is not limited to “affordability, reliability, adoption, quality, relevance, digital skills and literacy and representation in the technology sector.”
Mr. Ward expanded Animikii from a solo freelance software service to a company of 26 people and six contractors – 42 per cent of whom are Indigenous – operating as a social enterprise that amplifies Indigenous voices through technology, creating websites and other digital technology solutions with Indigenous values at the heart of the process and end products.
“I believe that technology should reflect and support the people that it is to be of service for, and that means having diverse inputs and contributions to that technology,” Mr. Ward says.
The company’s board is mandated to be 50-per-cent Indigenous and 50-per-cent women and non-binary people. What’s more, in 2016, Animikii became a Certified B Corporation – the first Indigenous company in Canada to earn the distinction.
According to data from Statistics Canada, 19 per cent of Canada’s population have jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly abbreviated as STEM. Just 1 per cent of workers in STEM identify as Indigenous, despite making up 5 per cent of Canada’s population.
In the 20 years since Animikii was founded, Mr. Ward says tech has become a less lonely place, with programs and companies establishing and supporting Indigenous pathways into the industry.
PLATO, a software testing and technology services company based in Fredericton, N.B., is one of these companies. Founded by chief executive officer Keith McIntosh, PLATO trains and hires local Indigenous peoples for these growing roles in the tech space.
PLATO’s train-and-employ program is a free five-month course that teaches Indigenous students the fundamentals of software testing. No prior university education is required. After graduating, they are employed full-time by PLATO at one of 11 locations across the country, in and around Indigenous communities. Since the program began in 2015, it has trained more than 300 Indigenous software testers across the country, many of whom still work with the company.
“Our secret I think has been that we’re adaptable and willing to change and want to take what we get and work our way around it, as opposed to try and make the problem fit the solution,” Mr. McIntosh said.
Mr. McIntosh was inspired to get started while attending the Governor General’s Leadership Conference in Montreal in 2015, where he met Denis Carignan, a member of the Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan.
A long-time public servant, Mr. Carignan was looking for a way to better help Indigenous communities and recognized that promoting careers in technology could be a way for them to build wealth. Mr. McIntosh followed up a few months later, having found support from a local investor and committing to funding the rest himself.
“That was a motivating factor [to partner with Mr. McIntosh] because I’ve not really heard too many people who are willing to take money out of their own business to invest it in people like me or my children or my relations,” Mr. Carignan says.
In 2016, he joined the company through an arrangement with his employer and today is the executive vice president of Indigenous impact and innovation. Strong leadership, he says, is key to generate success in communities.
“If it’s a good idea, and you’ve taken the time to build trust and to build a strong relationship, that leadership can come from the outside of the community as well,” Mr. Carignan says.
Mr. Carignan says that seeing more Indigenous people from their communities working in tech in turn inspires Indigenous youth to follow the same path. “Having people do that and succeed and be the ones that others can follow is very important,” he says. “I think that could be what’s been missing and that’s really part of what we’re trying to do.”
In January, 2023, PLATO became 52-per-cent Indigenous-owned, led by its investors Raven Indigenous Capital Partners and the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. Today PLATO has about 350 employees, 33 per cent of whom are Indigenous.
As North America’s first Indigenous-owned and led impact investment firm, Raven provides a culturally safe pathway for entrepreneurs to access capital. Of the 18 Indigenous-owned companies the firm has invested in since it launched in May, 2019, nearly 50 per cent are based in the technology sector, including Animikii and PLATO.
“It’s almost impossible to build a technology company on debt and because there isn’t the same level of intergenerational wealth or what we would characterize as an ‘Indigenous angel investor syndicate,’ we were seeing a lot of companies get to three, four or five employees and then stall,” says Raven’s co-founder and chief investment officer Stephen Nairne.
“In many ways that really was the genesis of Raven,” Mr. Nairne says. “That focus on technology-driven and technology-enabled enterprises, where a combination of patience, capital and access to a community of support, we really felt would be able to help them scale.”
In comparison to other tech companies, which Mr. Ward says revolve around momentary value, Animikii is focused on flipping those conversations “completely upside down.” Having Indigenous people contribute to building technologies while including Indigenous worldviews is an important aspect of digital sovereignty while reducing harm, he says.
“Indigenous peoples have always been technologists, we’ve always been inventors, we’ve always been scientists and we’re here to prove that.”
One in a regular series of stories. To read more, visit our Indigenous Enterprises section. If you have suggestions for future stories, reach out to [email protected]