First Nations trip a transformational experience for SFU MBAs

Aug 09, 2012

Above: MBA students from the Beedie School of Business visited with Anne Robinson, co-owner of business First Nations Wildcrafters (second from right) and her mother Cathy Robinson. They are both from the community of Tseshaht.

The cultural perspectives and business aspirations of First Nations communities in British Columbia are now top-of-mind for a handful of MBA candidates in Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, thanks to an historic and wide-reaching journey for the students along the province’s West Coast.

This past April, five of them, along with SFU MBA alumnus Lerato Chondoma and MBA Academic Director Dave Hannah, explored and engaged Vancouver Island Aboriginal communities in the context of not only business development, but also their traditions, beliefs and customs.

The group set off on April 23 to visit Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island – including Tseshaht, Ucluelet and Ahousaht – over the course of six days. The latter First Nation is the largest Nuu-chah-nulth Nation and home to Shawn Atleo, recently re-elected as national leader of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations.

During the excursion, the students visited a myriad of leading Aboriginal entrepreneurs, small- and medium-sized businesses and government agencies. These included Nuu chah nulth Economic Development Corp., First Nations Wildcrafters, Ucluth Development Corp., Iisaak Forest Resources, Tseshaht Market, White Raven Consulting and Les Sam Construction.

They also met First Nations leaders, including Michelle Corfield, an Executive in Residence at the Beedie School of Business and Chair of the Legislature at Ucluelet First Nation and Trevor Jones, CEO of Ucluelet Economic Development.

The mix of organizations and cultures was meant to impart not only business lessons to the students, but also important knowledge about Aboriginal sociology and culture.

“The initial idea for the trip was – like our international trips – to expose students to cross-cultural management,” explained David Hannah. “There are powerful lessons to be learned from BC’s First Nations, and they are right here in our backyard.”

Students were exposed to more than just successful organizations or settings. They also witnessed a range of social and economic situations – including communities that had been devastated by poverty or illness.

“Our MBAs can use this experience to work more effectively with First Nations,” said Hannah.  “This knowledge of First Nations will put our graduates in good stead.”

A cultural highlight from the trip was when students rolled up their sleeves and prepared a potlatch dinner for 80 people in the Ucluelet Community Hall. The Ucluelet First Nation community members reciprocated the student goodwill by performing traditional dances after dinner. It was an evening that Hannah described as “transformational”.

MBA First Nations trip

Students also walked the WildSide Trail – an 11km escape into the remote wilderness of Clayoquot Sound. First restored in the early 1990s, the trail has developed into a prominent ecotourism destination for visitors to Tofino and Ucluelet, and serves as an example of the First Nations cultural and business development opportunities that are possible.  “This trip fit really well with who we are as a business school,” said Hannah, a sentiment that was echoed by MBA alumnus and trip coordinator Lerato Chondoma.

“This trip was an example of the commitment the school has made to building lasting relationships with First Nations based on trust and mutual respect,” she said.