Three Yukon-based First Nations women were semi-finalists in the 2023 Pow Wow Pitch, a contest that elevates Indigenous entrepreneurs from across North America.
The individuals from the Yukon who ascended to the semi-finals are Kim Koyczan from Nature Spirit Soaps, Christine Lewis from Bannock Slap Indigenous Soul Food and Teresa Ward from Grandma Treesaw’s Bannock & Catering Services Inc.
The trio were among 130 semi-finalists from Canada and the United States, an elite group of up-and-coming business leaders distilled from a pool of more than 2,000 applicants.
“We received over 2,000 applications for the Pow Wow Pitch team to shortlist and we boiled those 2,000 [online] applicants down to 130. In addition to those 2,000 online applicants, all entrepreneurs who pitched live at a live Pow Wow Pitch competition […] were also considered for that shortlisting,” Keely Thompson-Cook, the communications coordinator for Pow Wow Pitch, tells the News.
Pow Wow Pitch launched in 2015 and is the brainchild of Sunshine Tenasco, who hails from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin First Nation in Quebec.
She came up with the idea for Pow Wow Pitch after appearing on an episode of Dragon’s Den’s 19th season to pitch her baby moccasin brand Quemeez. Tenasco walked away from the episode with a $20,000 loan from Dragons Brett Wilson and Arlene Dickinson for a 30 per cent stake in her company.
“She founded [Pow Wow Pitch] after her experience going on Dragon’s Den. And it inspired her to create a competition that we have now that is made just for Indigenous entrepreneurs to help them and their endeavours and their goals […], and that’s where we are today,” Thompson-Cook says.
The majority of this year’s semi-finalists are from Indigenous communities in Canada. However, some entrepreneurs from the U.S. made the cut, including folks from the Navajo Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Gila River Indian Community and Yakama Nation, among others.
“We are mainly based in Canada. However, we do extend our efforts to try and get entrepreneurs from the U.S. to participate. We are expanding to physically go to live pow wows in the States more and more. We went to the Gathering of Nations back in April in Albuquerque and that’s where we have a lot of our entrepreneurs that are now semi-finalists […] We have gotten a few entries from California, which is awesome, and I believe one or two from Hawaii. So, we do span across Turtle Island,” Thompson-Cook says, employing a term that many North American Indigenous people use for the continent.
Two of three semi-finalists from the Yukon operate businesses focused on bannock. Lewis is from the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and serves up classic food truck staples — burgers and hot dogs, for example — made with freshly fried bannock.
Ward also hails from Kwanlin Dün First Nation, and her business specializes in ready-to-cook Teslin Tlingit-style bannock mixes. Her bags of bannock mix come in two varieties — original and garlic and herb — and are sold in stores across the territory and online.
Meanwhile, Koyczan, who is from the Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia, but has long called Whitehorse home, is behind a line of soaps, lotions and other self-care products made with plant extracts that First Nations communities have traditionally used to treat a variety of ailments.
Koyczan uses a wide array of foliage in her products, including cedar, spruce tips, wild roses and lodgepole pine, among numerous others. She forages for many of the ingredients used in her products herself.
“My grandma got sick with stomach cancer a couple of years ago, and that’s where my passion for traditional medicines really took off. Because I wanted to learn more about […] healing benefits from all the other plants out here. I found out quite a lot of information and use that knowledge in my products,” she says.
Once Koyczan started learning about the diverse beneficial properties of some of the plants found in the Yukon and B.C., she decided the best way to share the benefits was to infuse them into easy-to-use products.
“When I talk to people like my dad, I know that he’s not going to take these herbs and go make tea. So, I’m like, I’m gonna just cut that out. I’ll do the work and get these plant extracts in a form that can be readily used in daily products,” she says.
Koyczan first learned about the Pow Wow Pitch last year, and over this past summer, she attended the in-person Pow Wow Pitch at the Kamloopa Pow Wow in Kamloops, B.C. To her, the Pow Wow Pitch has been an incredible experience, helping her to connect with potential customers and share her knowledge with her peers.
Thompson-Cook says that, throughout the Pow Wow Pitch’s history, there has never been a winner or finalist from the Yukon. This trend has continued with the 2023 contest: The finalists for this year’s Pow Wow Pitch were recently announced and Koyczan, Lewis and Ward didn’t make the cut.
The finalists in this year’s Pow Wow Pitch will be further narrowed down to first-, second- and third-place winners at an event on Oct. 19. The top finisher will walk away with $25,000.
Despite not making the finals, Koyczan views the experience as a positive one. She says she plans to apply to the contest again next year and “hopefully” attend the in-person pitch event at the Kamloopa Pow Wow.
“Even just coming to this point as a semi-finalist is pretty incredible, seeing as I just started my business in May of this year. [My business] has really been moving forward, and I just want to keep that momentum going,” Koyczan tells the News.
“I plan to apply again, hopefully, go to Kamloops again next year and just keep going and make every attempt I can to get my product out there and hopefully sales across Canada and beyond.”
Contact Matthew Bossons at firstname.lastname@example.org