“I left the program with so much more confidence than when I started. That was a huge part of my healing journey as an Indigenous woman going into business.”
With the help of a business program that honours Indigenous entrepreneurs’ cultural ways of knowing, being and doing, Vashti Etzel was able to take her wearable art business to the next level.
I TOOK A BIG, SCARY STEP out of my comfort zone. And I’m so proud that I did.
When I started the EntrepreNorth program, I had been making custom jewelry and wearable art – mittens, mukluks, vests – for a few years and selling my work online. But I wasn’t sure how to build it into a business. I also wanted Indigenous perspectives on how to go about it, so that my cultural values would align with my goals and dreams.
I am a Mountain Slavey Dene and Kaska Dene from Ross River, Yukon. My creative inspiration comes from my late grandmother Eva Etzel, the matriarch of our family. She survived residential school, went on to have nine children, and passed away when I was just seven. It’s very important to me that I carry on her legacy through my work.
Being in the program with other women helped me get comfortable talking about where I wanted to take my business while staying culturally grounded. EntrepreNorth prioritizes Indigenous values like reciprocity and community wealth, and positions products and services as opportunities to offer good medicine to customers. It’s different from what you would typically see in a Western business program.
It was inspirational to hear other Indigenous entrepreneurs talk their own journeys. We all got to work with a mentor – mine was Gwich’in jewelry maker Tania Larsson, who I had admired for a long time. My classmates and I also got the opportunity to work with a local photographer and models for a photo shoot of our wearable art, which made it look so professional. I’ve gained lifelong friendships through this program, which is important because these connections really strengthen our Indigenous communities.
Our work in the program culminated in delivering a pitch in front of a panel of judges, which was the most nerve-racking thing. I had the additional challenge of having a newborn and two young children. My baby was teething at the time, so I was sleep deprived and really finding it difficult to focus. But I worked on my pitch all day long until midnight, and received round-the-clock support from the EntrepreNorth team.
On pitch day, I did very well and won runner-up, which was a big surprise. After everyone’s presentations, the day turned into a big celebration and you felt so much pride. It was actually a lot of fun.
One of the perks of winning runner up was getting individual support from Shopify to launch my website, Golden Eye Designs. After graduating, I spent the next few months creating products, and then after the site launched, everything sold out in about 15 minutes, which was amazing!
I left the program with so much more confidence than I had when I started. That was a huge part of my healing journey as an Indigenous woman going into business. I now know that I’m in the right place doing the right things, and that I’m providing a sense of empowerment to women who wear my work.
I can’t say enough good things about EntrepreNorth. You can tell that they truly care because they put so much of their heart into what they do.
EntrepreNorth has received funding from the Canadian Women’s Foundation since 2018.