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Shining a light on Sunshine Tenasco’s Pow Wow Pitch

Boosting confidence and fueling the success of Indigenous entrepreneurs

Published on

June 18, 2024


In 2010, Sunshine Tenasco was travelling back and forth from university to Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, the Algonquin First Nation in Quebec where she was born and raised. She was thinking of becoming a teacher, but then another idea struck. What if she could sell her handmade baby moccasins in high-end stores?  

Thankfully, she didn’t heed the words of her local economic development officer, who, when presented with the idea, suggested she stick to local craft fairs instead. That advice, if anything, made her think even bigger.  

She decided to pitch her baby moccasin brand Quemeez on CBC’s Dragons’ Den and ended up securing a $20,000 loan from Dragons Brett Wilson and Arlene Dickinson.  

She also came away with something far more valuable: confidence.  

“Brett would message me randomly, connecting me with incredible people like Ellen DeGeneres because he believed in me,” she says. “He was training me to think bigger, and meanwhile, all I could think was, ‘How am I in these rooms with these people?’ “

His encouragement eventually gave her another idea.  

“Going from my community to meeting with people who felt bigger than big really opened my eyes,” she says. “And that’s something we need in our community.” She started thinking of pow wows, the places where Indigenous people traditionally exchange ideas, and decided to launch a Dragons’ Den-style event that drew from them.

Pow Wow Pitch wows from day one

In 2015, as a single mom of four kids, with only $8,500 in crowdfunded prize money, Sunshine launched her Indigenous business pitch competition, Pow Wow Pitch, at the Ottawa Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival.  

That inaugural year, 25 local entrepreneurs pitched their ideas to a supportive group of 10 local, non-Indigenous business mentors—volunteers from Ladies WHO Lunch—with the top three pitchers splitting the prize money.

It was such a hit, people from the audience rushed up to her afterward saying how excited they were to pitch next year, and the volunteer mentors—none of whom had ever been to a pow wow—enjoyed it so much, they also told Sunshine to count on them next year.  

“They were learning as much about our community as the pitchers were learning about entrepreneurship,” says Sunshine.  

Fast-forward to today: Pow Wow Pitch spans Turtle Island

Since that launch day, Pow Wow Pitch has grown into North America’s premier pitch competition, helped in part by the pandemic, which ushered in an online pitching component that enabled entrepreneurs based in remote communities to compete as well.  

To encourage further participation, Sunshine’s eligibility criteria are simple: Indigenous people living anywhere on Turtle Island (the term sometimes used for North America) of any age or gender with an idea or business at any stage and in any industry can apply. So, it’s no wonder successful pitchers have launched everything from apparel and soap-making companies to trucking and digital marketing businesses.  

How does it work? The pitch process is pretty simple, too. Read about it here.  

This year, with the support and engagement of hundreds of volunteers and partners, more than 2,500 Indigenous entrepreneurs from across Turtle Island will pitch their businesses online and in person (the 2024 in-person events are here) for a chance to win cash prizes ranging from $500 to $25,000 (a total of $100,000 in cash prizes will be given away). And in addition to cash, winners receive mentorship, pitch training, promotional opportunities, access to a virtual marketplace and more.  

Most importantly, says Sunshine, all pitchers gain access to a supportive community that believes in them. “We really feel the magic in person and feel the ripple effect for years after,” she says. “After pitching, the entrepreneurs feel ridiculously proud.”

Indigenous entrepreneurship: A community-booster and economic driver

That pride is not only fueling success in Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast, but also spurring growth in the Canadian economy as well.  

According to RBC, the rate of Indigenous business ownership is five times that of self-employed Canadians, and especially high among Indigenous women, who start businesses at twice the rate of non-Indigenous women (this aligns with Sunshine’s pitch participants, about 75% of whom are women).  

RBC also reports that Indigenous businesses contribute more to the Canadian economy than the economic output of PEI and Newfoundland combined and are expected to grow to $100 billion in value by 2025.

From soap-makers to sustainable hair product providers: Meet the entrepreneurs

Their backgrounds are as varied as their businesses. They come from all kinds of communities across Turtle Island, and live both on reserve and off. Read their stories here and see a snapshot of two of these amazing business owners below.

  • Michaelee Lazore, a former engineer who quit her day job to launch Sequoia Soaps. She has seen huge success since 2016, when she pitched a rebrand of her business and was offered $5,000 in funding to help redesign her product packaging for wholesale clients. Today, Sequoia is thriving and now employs over 10 people on-reserve in Kahnawake, Que. Michaelee has also joined the Pow Wow Pitch Board of Directors.  
  • Vanessa Marshall is the visionary Métis founder and CEO of Jack59 Inc., a sustainable hair care product company based in Edmonton, Alberta. Inspired by her Indigenous roots and a commitment to sustainable change, Jack59 champions environmental responsibility and diversity, especially within the LGBTQ2S+ community. In 2023, Vanessa won the EDC Export Award and today, her company has a staff of 16 dedicated employees, boasts an annual revenue of over $1.4 million and is a certified BCorp.

How to get involved and show support

Sunshine’s next big goal is to be able to give away $1 million. However, to get there, she acknowledges she’ll need additional funding partners beyond RBC, Shopify and Mastercard (see her full partner list here).

She says the easiest way for most people to show support is to show up—either in person or online. “Watching the stuff we do at pitches and at the Indigenous Entrepreneur Awards, you’ll discover the game-changers we’re featuring.”  

And when you show up, the most important thing you can do is to show your support because, as she says, “When one of us wins, we all win.”

Here are some ways to show support:

  • Attend a pow wow near you (in-person events listed here) and cheer on the pitchers.  
  • Register to attend the free digital awards gala on November 13 and learn about some incredible business owners. Register here.
  • Buy a limited-edition 2024 Pow Wow Pitch Box: Designed to support Indigenous entrepreneurs and Pow Wow Pitch Alumni, these boxes contain a selection of their products (both physical and digital) and are priced at $225 each (plus taxes and shipping). All funds go to the business owners. Learn more.  
  • Browse and buy Indigenous products. Shop the Pow Wow Market, an online marketplace that showcases some of the products of past Pow Wow Pitchers. When you buy any products from the market, you also support future Indigenous entrepreneurs because all participating business owners pledge a portion of their sales to the Pow Wow Pitch Alumni Fund, which they allocate annually to support other emerging Indigenous-owned businesses and various youth initiatives.  
  • Spread the word to amplify the success of Indigenous entrepreneurs. Follow Pow Wow Pitch on Facebook and Instagram to learn about the changemakers it supports. Follow, like and share their posts to raise awareness of Indigenous businesses. The more we all promote these amazing companies, the greater their odds of their success.  
  • Sign up for the Pow Wow Pitch newsletter: Enter your email address at the bottom of their website to receive regular updates and news:  
  • Listen to and promote the Pow Wow Pitch podcast: Sunshine Tenasco hosts entrepreneurs on her podcast, sharing their stories of success. Check out past episodes here.
  • Volunteer as a business mentor. Successful business leaders and entrepreneurs can get involved mentoring young Indigenous entrepreneurs, offering business advice and connections to networks. Contact Pow Wow Pitch to inquire:
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