Discussing Indigenous Entrepreneurship with Steven Vanloffeld

Canada Small Business

Building meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities is a way to support reconciliation. This exclusive interview with Steven Vanloffeld in this area and developing interactions that foster collaboration for the betterment of Indigenous and non-Indigenous parties has been very insightful. 

A Brief about Steven Vanloffeld, CEO and Founder of eSupply Canada Ltd.

Steven Vanloffeld, a member of Saugeen First Nation, ON, is the Founder & CEO of eSupply Canada, an Indigenous-owned online distributor of office, janitorial, and industrial supplies. He is also the owner and principal consultant of INDsight Consulting, a research and evaluation firm that works with governments, public institutions, private companies, Indigenous peoples, communities, and organizations to facilitate relationships that lead to meaningful change. Steven’s latest venture, Tiny Homes on Huron-a tiny home cottage resort-is set to launch in the summer of 2022. 

eSupply Canada was founded in February 2019. Could you please share what motivated and inspired you to start this innovative business in Canada with the readers? And, what do you hope to achieve through the work that you do?

Steven Vanloffeld

I served as an elected council member for my community from 2016 to 2018, and one of my portfolios was economic development. In this role, I saw how much revenue was leaving the community to the neighbouring towns and retailers, most of whom do not earn the community’s business but get it simply because they exist. Several of these retailers would also treat our community members differently when they shopped there for no other reason than Indigenous. 

I said to myself, ‘there’s got to be a better, safer way for our community to purchase the supplies they need’. 

I also saw a multi-billion-dollar development project taking place in our territory. That company said many nice things publicly and to their major industrial suppliers and contractors about supporting local and Indigenous. So, I looked at what those companies were using and purchasing, what my community was using and purchasing, and eventually came up with the concept for eSupply Canada. 

One of the problems I was attempting to solve, in some small way, was the issue of economic leakage, which is the outward flow of capital from one community to another. For example, I looked at my community’s revenue, about $30M from all sources. Because there are few businesses in the community to keep the flow of capital circulating, most of that money goes elsewhere. The same holds for many Indigenous communities. This is an issue that has bothered me for some time, so in my personal, professional, and academic endeavours, I have been looking at ways and means for Indigenous communities to keep revenue in the community by purchasing supplies from themselves, as opposed to that revenue going to big-box stores and other retailers who, in many instances, take their Indigenous business for granted.

I formally launched eSupply Canada in February 2020 based on the thesis that Indigenous communities, industry, governments, and Canadians were growing tired of billion-dollar conglomerates and instead wanted to support an Indigenous company given the opportunity. I am pleased to say that the support eSupply Canada has received has been amazing!

Now that I have proven the concept and refined the business model, I am bringing this opportunity to Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs across Canada through franchising. I want to see Indigenous peoples and communities further benefiting from development in their territories, creating jobs, transforming their economies, and creating generational wealth for their families and communities. An eSupply franchise can unlock some of those opportunities because our franchise owners can easily integrate into any business’s supply chain. We supply businesses with everything they need to keep operations running, from the front office to the job site and everywhere in between.

In light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, we see a growing number of diverse communities seeking support. So, how has eSupply Canada supported Indigenous communities throughout the pandemic?

Steven Vanloffeld

I launched the company on February 16, 2020, and three weeks later, the entire world shut down. When two of your business lines include office and industrial supplies, and no one is working, it’s not a good place to be. But, because eSupply Canada operates from a drop-ship model, we could go lean and keep operating.

We were also fortunate because we had access to PPE through our industrial suppliers. When the world is not in the midst of a pandemic, items such as masks, gloves, and goggles are used on many job sites, so we had access to supply chains that allowed us to quickly pivot to support Indigenous communities and businesses and governments.

In addition to supporting requests for PPE, I asked myself how eSupply could do more and focus its efforts on supporting Indigenous communities. I had just launched the company, so I was not in a position to make financial contributions, but I realized that I did have access to the supplies communities needed to keep operating. By forgoing profits, I could still play a part in supporting Indigenous people’s communities. So, I offered at-cost office supplies to Indigenous communities. I started small by first offering supplies at the cost to the communities in my territory and then expanded to all Indigenous communities in Ontario. This was a small but important way to support communities and the people working hard to keep their members safe.

As the demand for culturally sensitive services is growing, and many organizations are working hard to develop partnerships with Indigenous communities, how do you feel about developing interactions and collaborations with Indigenous communities?

Steven Vanloffeld

Free, prior, and informed consent has become the basis for engagement with Indigenous peoples and communities. Gone are the days when companies would fly into Indigenous territories, stake claims, offer beads and trinkets, extract the resources, and disappear just as fast while leaving the local people to deal with the detrimental health and environmental impacts. Indigenous peoples and communities are a force to be reckoned with, and successive court rulings time and again reinforce this reality. The sooner companies realize this and begin putting in the effort to consult Indigenous peoples and communities properly, the fewer risks and costs projects face. 

Indigenous peoples, writ large, are not against development. Quite the opposite. Many Indigenous communities rely on and thrive from development. Indigenous peoples seek a seat at decision-making tables, so they too can benefit from development in their territories while ensuring proper protections are afforded to the environment and their traditional ways of life. Extractive industries have a large environmental impact, and if those industries were operating in your backyard, where you hunted, where you draw your water from, and where your children play, you too would want to not only benefit from those operations but also have a say over how those companies operate and the safeguards they must have in place. 

Many companies have discovered mutually beneficial partnerships through consultation, engagement, and collaboration with Indigenous peoples. These partnerships have benefited Indigenous communities, businesses and governments alike, and the local impact on Indigenous communities and their economies can be transformational. For example, one oil and gas company’s spending on Indigenous supplies procurement was $911 million in 2020 alone. Since 1999, this company has spent more than $6.5 billion on Indigenous businesses. That is a remarkable figure and a shining example of the mutual benefits that can flow when engagement, partnership, and sustainable development are prioritized.

Do you think some strategies need to be developed further to better work or communicate with Indigenous communities right now?

Steven Vanloffeld

I don’t think any strategies need to be developed. What needs to happen is industry and governments should start paying attention to what Indigenous peoples are saying. Consultation and engagement with Indigenous peoples are not about getting to a ‘yes’; it’s about understanding the needs and concerns of the communities and finding mutually agreeable ways to address them. Sometimes that’s not possible, and proponents should not only be aware of that reality but plan for it as well. 

I’m reminded of teaching: we have two eyes, two ears and one mouth for a reason–so that we can listen and observe twice as much as we speak. And that teaching is important for proponents to keep in mind as they engage with Indigenous peoples. Over the years, I’ve had conversations with many industry reps who have said once they let go of their preconceived notions and predetermined ways and became the student, they not only learned so much more, but the relationship was much richer and more rewarding because of it. 

Photo by courtesy of eSupply Canada
I believe there are tremendous benefits to opening an office in an Indigenous community. So, in conclusion, what do you think would be the benefits of opening an Indigenous office?

Steven Vanloffeld

I see your questions as having two parts. First, opening a physical office in an Indigenous community can be a challenge due to office space availability. Yes, many thriving Indigenous communities have office and retail space available for lease. If there is a logical reason for acquiring office space in the community, companies and governments should absolutely go for it. The more industry and governments can find meaningful ways to support Indigenous communities and businesses, the better off we all are, especially the Canadian economy. 

However, many Indigenous communities have limited infrastructure and aging capital, so seeking office space in these communities is likely not feasible. That said, depending on the partnership, size and duration of a project, it would show real commitment to establish an office in the community and hire local members to support the build. That shows commitment and partnership.

The other part to your question, I think, deals with companies having offices of Indigenous relations, and I genuinely believe that all companies should have such business units. For example, suppose you run a company that operates in Indigenous territories. In that case, you want to partner with Indigenous communities or businesses, or you want to attract Indigenous customers, there’s a lot to learn, and learn you must. 

Decision-makers might find themselves asking, ‘why do I need an office of Indigenous relations when I have an office committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion?’ The reason is Indigenous peoples are not EDI stakeholders, they are rights-holders, both inherent and constitutionally protected, and these rights coupled with legislative requirements require special attention. 

Establishing offices of Indigenous relations, staffing them with Indigenous peoples, ideally people from the local community, and properly resourcing the office will pay dividends for businesses. However, two of the biggest mistakes I see are non-indigenous people in these roles. When Indigenous people staff them, companies set unrealistic expectations that they will drive organizational change and overhaul Indigenous relations with little to no support staff and/or budget. 

The good news is, that companies are not alone in this transformation. Indigenous peoples are happy to step to the plate to help companies understand how to interact with them and their communities. Industry organizations like the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business offer a wealth of resources to help guide companies. And there are best practices, case studies, and lessons learned from companies that have travelled this path before. Every journey starts with the first step, and I encourage all companies–big and small–to set out on theirs today. Indigenous peoples will meet you in the middle, where we can continue on our journey together.

CanadianSME is proud to be a part of this vital discussion on working together more closely with Indigenous communities. We need better understanding and cooperation with Indigenous communities for us all to succeed!

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