Indigenous business development work awarded – University of Victoria

Cory Stephens—both a graduate of and instructor at UVic’s Gustavson School of Business—is not one to seek the spotlight. But this September, all eyes were on him as the newest recipient of the Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations, presented by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) and CIBC. 

Stephens serves as an instructor, learning enhancement officer and manager for the Northwest with the Indigenous Advancement of Cultural Entrepreneurship (I-ACE) program. I-ACE, a collaboration between the Tribal Resources Investment Corporation (TRICORP), Gustavson and Indigenous communities and government, was the brainchild of TRICORP CEO Frank Parnell and Gustavson Professor Brent Mainprize. It’s been offering culturally sensitive and community-tailored entrepreneurship training for over eight years throughout Northwest Canada, resulting in 564 graduates across 67 Indigenous communities. 

“The concept was to offer a program of business education in the Northwest region, taught by university professors in a way that made university education available to remote communities throughout BC,” says Stephens.

A career dedicated to advancing Indigenous relations

Born and raised in Prince Rupert to a Tsimshian mother and with a Nisga’a step-dad, Stephens’s experience living in multiple communities helped develop his interest in advancing Indigenous relations and entrepreneurship from an early age.

After graduating from UVic with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1996, Stephens moved to New Zealand where he took a job developing an inter-Indigenous trade program aligning First Nations and Māori businesses. Upon returning to Canada, he found his footing in finance and marketing, and after a stint as communications manager for the Metlakatla First Nation, he decided to start his own consulting company with the aim of supporting the economic growth of Indigenous communities while preserving local traditions.

In 2013, Stephens took on a new challenge when he was asked to join the I-ACE team as a learning enhancement officer. “My role was to make sure nobody was left behind in the process of learning entrepreneurship,” he says, noting that many students have busy lives with children, jobs and other responsibilities that make juggling school a challenge. “I provided mentorship and support, both academically and to help people keep up with the pace of business learning.” But as the program grew, so did his role: “the next year I was a program manager, and now it’s evolved to where I teach components of the program.” 

Stephens has had no trouble keeping inspired in his chosen profession, “As I-ACE has grown, I have been able to take on more roles and exercise more creativity, and most importantly create relationships with First Nations people throughout the Northwest,” he says. Stephens has also helped I-ACE expand throughout BC and nationally. “It’s that kind of growth that has enabled me to be fulfilled by my role as an instructor, giving back through capacity building for First Nations people throughout Canada.” 

Encouraging Indigenous entrepreneurship

The environment for Indigenous entrepreneurship has shifted since I-ACE began over eight years ago, and Stephens thinks there hasn’t been a better time for Indigenous communities to take an active role in entrepreneurship.

From a First Nation’s perspective, entrepreneurship is often a strategic balance between community, culture and commerce. Recently we have seen perspectives begin to change. Industries and business are now often seeking out proper channels to engage with First Nations. That process has led to more opportunities, and while there are still some gaps in regards to entrepreneurial readiness, I-ACE has laid the groundwork, and been a catalyst in increasing the profile and importance of entrepreneurship to First Nations communities.

—Cory Stephens, recipient of the Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations

As a Gustavson graduate, Stephens is now in the peculiar situation of being a colleague to professors who once taught him as a student. It’s a fact that is a particular source of pride for him: “Bringing the level of teaching I received at UVic to isolated communities throughout northern BC and now onward across Canada is one of the things I’m proudest of,” he says.

In that sense, it’s clear why Stephens was presented with this year’s Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations. The award is presented to individuals who challenge the status quo and take action to advance Indigenous business relations.

“Cory has been a champion for the I-ACE Program and exemplifies the values of community building and entrepreneurship while honouring Indigenous traditions. This award shows the importance of the work Cory and all those in the I-ACE program are doing,” says Miles Richardson, the chair of the National Consortium for Indigenous Economic Development (NCIED), who nominated Stephens for the award.

Stephens now joins an elite list of award recipients, but he’s quick to draw the attention away from himself. “I’m humbled to receive this award—but one of the things that’s always been true for me is that while these awards are certainly an amazing honour, in the end we always want to recognize the success of our students first. That’s what guides us in the work we do: building capacity among First Nations communities in Canada towards becoming more active participants in Canada’s economy.”

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