Meant to bring together and showcase the Indigenous business community, Pow Wow Pitch was propelled online by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then it has expanded in unexpected ways, serving as a networking event not just the businesses at the annual Ottawa Pow Wow Summer Solstice, but from all across North America.
Nunavut businesses this year number the highest out of the three territories with five ventures, all operated by Inuit women.
Yukon had three Indigenous businesses make the cut while the Northwest Territories had only two.
“Nunavut came out very strong,” said Victoria Lennox, executive producer of Pow Wow Pitch. “This is the first time we’ve ever done a specific regional semifinal for the North, for the territories.”
She said hundreds of applications were submitted from the territories.
“Nunavut just did so good. We’re seeing not just incredible artists, but we’re seeing really competitive businesses that really scale,” Lennox said.
Pow Wow Pitch came about through the vision of founder Sunshine Tenasco, a member of the Algonquin First Nation in Quebec, who received support on the popular Canadian entrepreneurial TV show Dragon’s Den in 2010.
One of the leading fabric stores in Iqaluit, Miqsuqta! owner Emily Joanasie launched the enterprise in early 2019.
It started when she followed up on a missed opportunity after she had her second child.
“With my first son, I was always feeling like I should have made my amauti, but I never had the opportunity to do it. So with my second child, I was determined to do it. So my older sister helped me make my first amauti. After that, I just stayed with it,” said Joanasie.
Miqsuqta! is a business operated by seamstresses for seamstresses, offering various fabrics.
While Joanasie started with sewing, she didn’t want to rely on that alone.
“Sewing is very soothing for me, but I didn’t want to use that as a business because that’s a little too precious for me to share my sewing widely. So (sewing) supplies make sense because I enjoy the world of sewing and I don’t have to sew for people,” she said.
While she’s originally a teacher by trade, she got into fabrics and sewing as a way to keep her busy when she needed to spend more time with family.
She has been sewing for 15 years, and one of her distant relatives was known for the same thing.
“I’ve been told my namesake was a big seamstress so I’ve kind of followed suit with her.”
Among the semifinalists are a number of designers who utilize Inuit culture and fashions to form distinct wares that often sell out — one such designer is Natashia Allakariallak in Iqaluit who runs Sailiniq, founded in 2019-2020.
She initially got her small business off the ground by making and selling sealskin/Naluaq earrings to make ends meet on the side. However, she has since taken to the work full-time, now using materials such as narwhal and walrus tusks, polar bear fur and fish leather.
“I have always loved creating art and have always looked up to Inuit artists living in Nunavut,” she said. “I’m very glad the artist community here has welcomed me.”
Allakariallak has also branched out into making hand-carved/pressed prints.
The news of her business making it to the semifinals of Pow Wow Pitch has gotten her excitedly anticipating the results.
”I feel incredibly excited and proud. When I learned that Sailiniq had been selected over a thousand applications (nationally), I was in shock, but felt validated and determined to work hard to keep going in the competition,” she said.
“I am very proud to have even made it to the semifinal shortlist, especially because I get to share this space with other exceptional Inuit-owned businesses.”
Allakariaallak adds there continues to be many who help guide her along the way and assist her in expanding her skills.
Uasau Soap, sells soap, as well as various other natural goods made from traditional Inuit materials such as salve, lip balm, body butter, among other goods. Uasau is owned and operated by Bernice Clarke, who founded the company around 2012.
Last year, Uasau also made it to the semifinals of Pow Wow Pitch, and Clarke is ecstatic about making it once more.
“I’m really excited about being an alumni with Pow Wow Pitch,” she said, “I am amongst kings and queens with knowledge, old knowledge. This is how I feel: I feel like I’m in an Indigenous safe space, to grow and thrive.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 in the capital, which started in mid-April, was actually quite a busy time for Clarke in terms of getting the Uasau name known in the wider business community.
“When we went into lockdown here in Iqaluit, at that point I started giving interviews with Zoom — it was just busy with getting ourselves out there,” she said.
Uasau started with Clarke’s cousin urging her to begin making her own soap.
“It was a beautiful accident that my cousin told me about; she said you can make this stuff on your own, I’ll help you figure it out. I was very intimidated, (but) she pushed me to do it this way,” she said.
After Clarke realized how easy it was, she urged her cousin to start a business together.
“She says, no, no way, I like buying, you do it. So I went on my own and started making more for friends.”
Then in 2012, Clarke started by selling her products at the annual Toonik Tyme Craft Fair, initially just selling natural body butter and she met with strong demand.
“I was really surprised, I sold out right away and everybody that bought from me, their eyes were wide open,” she said. “(Selling) was a not a problem. People were like, here’s my name and number. I went home to my husband and I said, ‘I told you this would work.’”
Pow Wow Pitch, Clarke says, has been supportive all the way to her and with other businesses.
“They want to see us thrive and they want us to succeed, that in and of itself I’m less nervous, I’m feeling more like I’m part of a family,” she said.
ENB Artisan, founded by Inuk designer Nicole Camphaug and her husband Edgardo Mendieta, offers creative design incorporating seal fur footwear, Inuit jewelry and home decor items, using harvested materials from Nunavut.
“As an Inuk woman, I have a deep love for seals (as well as muskox, caribou, narwhals, etc),” said Camphaug, “and I’ve always loved the materials that they provide us. Seals are so important to my culture and we celebrate it.”
The idea for ENB Artisan came to Camphaug when she had some lower quality seal furs she did not want to waste, and she began brainstorming with her husband.
“I wanted to be able to provide another way to showcase our love for seals and fashion by customizing ready-made shoes with seal fur,” she said. “I seen a pair of stilettos on our local sell/swap page. I bought them and we started testing out how to put seal fur on them.”
She got started working on the first pair of stilettos, which ultimately opened up the path to where she is now, competing in Pow Wow Pitch 2021.
“It is very surreal. I think of all the talented entrepreneurs across Turtle Island who have submitted their businesses, and our small seal fur business was short-listed,” she said. “We are humbled and honoured to be a part of this tremendous experience.
“It gives us a true opportunity to look at where we want to see our business going and what heights we are capable of.”
The fifth Nunavut business to make it to the Pow Wow Pitch semifinals is Sijjakkut Inc., a catering company operated by chef and founder Sheila Flaherty.
Sijjakkut offers new and modern ways of preparing traditional Inuit foods, such as Arctic berries and country food.
The venture catered breakfast for Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and Northern Affairs Affairs Minister Daniel Vandal in early August.
Nunavut News was unable to reach Flaherty for comment as of press deadline.
How to vote
To register to view the territorial semifinals on Sept. 25 or the grand finale on Oct. 20, or to vote for your favorite Nunavut business in the People’s Choice, you can check out the Pow Wow Pitch website at https://www.powwowpitch.org/
There’s $50,000 worth of cash prizes to be given out to winners, ranging from $500 to the grand prize of $25,000.