Jesse Gair is a truly inspiring human being. I have the privilege to work with Jesse at the Manitoba Cooperative Youth Leadership Seminar where I am the coordinator and he is the Manitoba Cooperative Association representative. We spend four days at camp each year, sleeping in old cabins, hiking through muddy trails, and having campfires with teenagers from around Manitoba. This is the perfect setting for long conversations and conversations between Jesse and I inevitably steer toward his work in the cooperative sector, particularly with youth.
The following is an interview with Jesse. He talks about enterprise and entrepreneurship education through an indigenous lens and the work he does with youth in Winnipeg. The problem that Jesse and the students face is a complex one, with dynamic variables that need to be accounted for on a yearly and often daily basis.
The Cooperative Enterprise and Entrepreneurship program is an after-school program that teaches inner-city youth the skills they need to be successful in running their own cooperative business. It uses a specialized curriculum that teaches students about cooperative enterprise, leadership and entrepreneurship through an indigenous lens.
The teachings are put into practice as the students start and run their own business. At Children of the Earth the Aboriginal Student Art Co-op was born, as was Omazinibii’igeg Artist collective. Student artists produce original indigenous art work and the Art Co-op reproduces these pieces and markets them.
The participants are students from Children of the Earth high School. The program is also starting at RB Russell high school. Many of the students face barriers to success and come from low income households. Some are parents to young children. Many of the students have never had a paying job before and the program provides them with the experience and skills necessary to find employment (or start their own business) and to see how business can strengthen their community
Where do you get the resources for the program?
The program is a joint partnership between MCA, Supporting Employment and Economic Development Winnipeg (SEED) and Children of the Earth high school (COTE). Each organization provides resources for the program. MCA and SEED provide facilitators and start-up money for the business. COTE provides the space, a staff person and incentives and food for the students.
On top of in-kind services and funding from all three organizations; Federated Cooperatives Ltd, Neighbourhoods Alive! and Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development (CAHRD) provide funding for the program to operate.
Do you partner with other organizations/social entrepreneurs? If so, who?
Neechi Common, a local Co-op in the North End carry our products and has allowed us to have Art shows and sales. Various shopping Centres and locations have also giving us space to have art sales. Several indigenous entrepreneurs from the North End [Winnipeg] have also come to speak with our students about what it takes to be an entrepreneur and to inspire them with their stories of success.
How is teaching social entrepreneurship through the cooperative model different than in traditional entrepreneurial teaching?
Teaching social entrepreneurship and mainstream entrepreneurship are similar in a lot of ways. Skills such as communication, teamwork, networking, empowerment and resilience are necessary for both. As is identifying a problem and providing a product or service to solve that problem. The big difference is continual bringing the teachings back to how are our actions and decisions affecting the community. Is the community stronger or weaker because of our business? I teach profit is not a bad thing, but where does that profit go, is it utilized in the community or to pay wages for local people; or is it sent to a different country to make someone else wealthy.
The program also connects the 7 cooperative principals with traditional indigenous teachings. So in this case, traditional entrepreneurship, which has occurred for thousands of years, is really about serving community needs.
What motivated you to take the steps you have taken to realize the innovation/social entrepreneurial accomplishments you have attained?
The program itself was built out of identified needs of the students. The major needs were building employable skills for the students and empowering them to explore and celebrate their indigenous culture. Helping the students meet these goals is my and my co-facilitators greatest motivation in running the program. The program also provides youth a safe place to be afterschool, motivates them to stay in school and provides a sense of community. Many afterschool programs can provide these things, but by giving the students an opportunity to be entrepreneurs, to run their own business and to demonstrate the power of cooperatives builds tremendous confidence in the youth and keeps me motivated.
What barriers have you had to overcome (personally or professionally) and how did you do this?
The struggle to find funding to run the program year to year is a barrier in planning for future growth. The program does generate profit through art sales, which is used to pay the students and fund the art program. Although it is not able to cover the overhead of salaries for myself and the other facilitators and the overhead. I think this is a major barrier for all social entrepreneurs as profit is not the main driver. Combating this uncertainty of financial stability is difficult but is balanced with fulfilling the social need and seeing the confidence the students gain within the program.
What recommendations do you have for fostering more creativity, innovation, or entrepreneurship in schools/society?
There must be long term funding for programs that encourage students to start their own businesses and provide them the tools and skills necessary to be successful. The stable funding piece allows people to take chances, to push for their dreams and to plan for the future. Without it, a large amount of time is spent looking for future funding and trying to match the program or the business to the constraints of the funder.
Do you see your efforts contributing to social, economic, cultural, or environmental health and well-being? If so, how?
By running the Cooperative Enterprise and Entrepreneurship program I see the positive social, economic and cultural impact that it has on the students and on the community. As mentioned before, the students have come out of their shells, are way more confident and show a huge sense of accomplishment when they get paid. The program also provides them the opportunity to express and explore their culture by generating money to buy high quality art supplies and venues to display and sell art from the next generation of indigenous artists.
I (Jamie) am lucky enough to have met a few of the members of the cooperative at our camp and when I attended an art show. At the art show, it was obvious to me that these students felt ownership for their work. The second I walked in I had a student greet me and tell me about the show. As I walked about, individuals would talk to me about their own art and the art of others.
Some parts of the program and the cooperative that I personally see as innovative are using entrepreneurs from the community not only as inspiration but also as resources for how to become an entrepreneur. The other part is how students view the cooperative as not only a way to make money and learn about artmaking, but also as a way to express their culture.
I want to thank Jesse for sharing his work and the work of the students as well as the other organizations involved. Social entrepreneurship is alive in Winnipeg’s indigenous community which these kids show in spades.