Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency
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A Fine Balance

Eileen Paul
In 1995, the Mi’kmaw community of Membertou had low economic prospects and morale. But a powerful wake-up call has since turned it into a modern model of Aboriginal economic development, one that looks to balance integrity and fairness for community and partners alike …

As the very first Aboriginal government in Canada and the world to be ISO 9001 certified, the Sydney-based First Nation has come a long way in meeting its goals for self-sufficiency.

And at the core of their success?

Building their economy around business.

For Eileen Paul, who manages the entrepreneur centre in Membertou and serves as a business mentor, two recent initiatives have helped further light the spark for local business growth, one focusing on First Nations women and the other on ways of subsidizing overhead for aboriginal entrepreneurs.

“I used to attend business conferences for women and never saw another First Nations woman,” explains Eileen.

She knew that First Nations women felt uncomfortable in typical business circles and for that reason, needed a forum of their own.

In 2008, with $10,000 in ACOA assistance delivered through the Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation and three weeks to put together a pilot project, she got busy creating the Balance for Aboriginal Women in Business initiative, a program designed specifically to support First Nations women with business startup and expansions by providing forums, workshops, and a business skills certification program customized to their needs.

Since 2008, the program has trained 450 First Nations women across Atlantic Canada and is now garnering world attention as one of 15 success stories showcased at the 2012 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference.

“Giving First Nations women their own individual forum gave them something they could take pride in,” says Eileen. “And to have our story presented in New York is great recognition.”

Back in Membertou, Eileen continues to be busy with the day-to-day operations of the Membertou Business Plaza ― a 32,000-square-foot retail facility opened in June 2010 as a way to help locals grow their fledgling businesses through low-rent “incubator” space.

“We have a great mix of businesses here,” says Eileen, who credits ACOA for its $1 million investment in the plaza and ongoing role in nurturing the community’s entrepreneurial spirit.

“ACOA has been very supportive and straightforward with their advice, bringing up issues we hadn’t yet thought of, and always offering new ideas.”

For Eileen and her community of Membertou, it’s all just one more reason to keep striving for a fair and fine balance in building community and business.

Published June 1, 2012