June 11, 2021Print | PDF
Through online workshops such as Foundations of Indigenous Worldview, Smudging with Intention and Applying Traditional Teachings, Tribal Trade Co. founder and CEO Mallory Graham (BBA ’13) is helping Indigenous people reconnect with their heritage. This new venture marks a full-circle evolution for the young entrepreneur, as she herself has walked a winding path back to her Anishinaabe-Kwe roots.
“Growing up, I experienced such rich culture attending pow-wows and ceremonies, but I kind of resented being from a small town and had a vision for myself to become a business owner in the big city,” says Graham, who was raised in Curve Lake First Nation. “Once I got out there and saw what the world had to offer, it was amazing, but I also started to grow an appreciation for my home. I began to use the teachings from my childhood to ground myself and deal with my pain.”
Graham, who graduated from the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University with an Honours Bachelor of Business Administration degree in 2013, returned to Curve Lake and founded Tribal Trade Co. the same year. Having long aspired to become an entrepreneur, Graham started several short-lived businesses before finding satisfaction and success with her online and brick-and-mortar retail store, which sells clothing, accessories and giftware created by Indigenous artisans. The shift to digital education is producing great results for the company.
We spoke to Graham about her journey from Laurier to business success.
Where did your desire to become an entrepreneur come from?
MG: “I am a very driven, hard-working person. Growing up in an entrepreneurial household, that was just normal for me. My parents opened a general store when I was very young, so I was exposed to entrepreneurship as a lifestyle and the freedom and flexibility it allowed us to have. Indigenous people naturally have a strong entrepreneurial spirit because in a lot of remote communities, if you want to provide services to your community members, you have to become an innovator and do it yourself. We’ve been creating businesses and trading within our communities for so long.”
How did your experience at the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics prepare you to start your own business?
MG: “I knew I was going to start my own business, so I became a sponge. I had really great co-op experiences that taught me a lot very quickly. I learned to present well in the BBA program, and that has been a deal-breaker for me as a business owner, being able to present to important stakeholders and get clients. In terms of knowledge, when I have meetings with other marketers who don't have a marketing degree and they don't understand when I’m speaking about branding and positioning and such, I realize, ‘Oh – I know this because it was drilled into my head in business school.’”
How did you decide to incorporate your Indigenous heritage into a business?
MG: “In my fourth year at Laurier, I completed the LaunchPad program, which was incredible. They had a blueprint process for how to learn about your market and yourself and what your skills are. I discovered that my ‘sweet spot,’ what I really knew a lot about, was my Indigenous culture. People would often ask me questions like, ‘Why don’t you look native?’ and ‘Do you really get your education paid for?’ Some of those questions could be interpreted as insulting or insensitive, but I really tried to use my marketing hat and think about why they were asking those questions. The reason is that our education system is flawed. I decided to start Tribal Trade Co. as a way to connect people with the Indigenous culture and foster all of the beautiful things that it has to offer.”
Tribal Trade Co. recently expanded its offerings to include workshops and online videos about Indigenous teachings. What inspired this transition?
MG: “For years, I have wanted to develop an online course because there are so few ways to learn about our culture. We have been really focused on enhancing our digital presence and creating YouTube content about traditional teachings and smudging and sacred medicines. Then COVID-19 kind of kicked us in the butt and made us step on the gas pedal toward where we had already been heading. In February, we launched Smudge Circle, which is an Indigenous path-to-wellness program that teaches people how to apply traditional teachings to their modern lives, and we had over 100 students register. Now that we’re in the knowledge-based space, I am having a lot more companies invite me to conduct workshops and do speaking engagements.”
How do you develop the content for your courses?
MG: “My grandmother is a well-respected elder in my community and throughout Ontario. She is also my biggest supporter and best friend. Every single word in our program is based on the knowledge that she passed down to me and has her stamp of approval. We talked about creating this program for years and it would not exist without her. I am really grateful that she is so involved.”
Who is the target market for your workshops?
MG: “The Smudge Circle program is targeted toward people who aren't connected to their Indigenous heritage. Perhaps they were adopted or being raised in a Christian household that looks down on the native culture and they're trying to deal with that inner struggle. But we don't require students to be Indigenous. We are completely inclusive of anyone who wants to learn.”
What sort of responses have you been hearing from students so far?
MG: “People who’ve gone through the program have said that it totally changed their lives because they felt so disconnected from their heritage and now they feel more confident talking about themselves and their background. There are also Indigenous people who already knew a lot about these teachings but didn’t know how to use them to get on a healthier path, and now they can achieve that because we’ve given them a step-by-step action plan. So it's a really personal, transformative program that makes such a big difference for people. Selling physical products could never compare to that feeling.”
What advice would you give to Laurier students who aspire to become entrepreneurs?
MG: “I would definitely tell them to try a lot of different things and to not put too much pressure on themselves to have everything figured out. Do what makes you happy and allow yourself the freedom to change your mind. Often people feel like they are stuck doing something that they don't want to do, but they are too afraid to try something else. Make your own rules.
“Also, be self-aware and focus on your relationship with yourself because in entrepreneurship, there are a lot of lonely moments when no one else is cheering you on and you have to cheer yourself on. You must have the work ethic to keep going after constant setbacks. It doesn't come down to what you know; it comes down to how hard you're willing to work.”