The Canadian aboriginal EMBA that goes beyond tradition

Beedie School executive MBA builds on communities’ skills and insights

Storytelling can be found on the syllabuses of many management degrees. Such classes are claimed to foster everything from innovation to successful leadership. But if storytelling has become a business buzzword, for one group of executive MBA students the practice is deeply rooted in their history and culture.

Most of the participants on the EMBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership, run by Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, are from Canadian aboriginal communities — First Nations, Métis and Inuit. (There are a handful of non-aboriginal students, too.)

The students from these communities bring traditional skills to the classroom, says Mark Selman, the EMBA’s director. “They come from an oral culture, so they are used to speaking in public and having to think on their feet. They write well, too, because of all the legal battles they’ve fought over their rights.”

Selman developed the course partly because he saw a need for business skills among indigenous people. “They tended to be weak in financial management,” he explains. “And they didn’t have access to any kind of advanced management education that would be portable and recognised.”

One area where this gap had become apparent was in relations between the Haisla First Nation of British Columbia and Alcan, the Canadian aluminium group acquired by Rio Tinto in 2007.

In the early 2000s, the company was looking to recruit from the Haisla community and purchase goods and services from local companies. But it was having problems finding qualified executives and suppliers that could compete for procurement tenders.

So when the late Milton Wong, then SFU chancellor, asked Selman to develop a course for the Haisla First Nation, the result was a customised programme that was the precursor of the EMBA.

The course includes three components that focus on aboriginal business issues and aboriginal law and policy. “We’re trying to include, as much as possible, insights from indigenous people’s own leadership traditions,” says John Borrows, who teaches the leadership and governance course on the EMBA and is a member of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation in Ontario.

However, the rest of the course follows the format of a traditional EMBA programme, covering topics such as finance, accounting and marketing.

The course is as demanding as any EMBA, says Bryan Gallagher, who teaches entrepreneurship. “They didn’t want a watered-down programme,” he says. “People really wanted the rigour and to know that students were being held up to certain standards.”

But while 80 per cent of the course is based on a typical EMBA, it is differentiated from other programmes by what the students bring to the classroom. Often that is their cultural traditions, says Selman. “Some come to class with drums and songs, and introduce themselves in their own language first before speaking English,” he says.

Faculty have also found the class distinctive in the way the students work together. “They’re very collaborative,” says Prof Borrows. “They call on these traditions of decision-making that are rooted in a group setting.”

This was something Leslie Varley experienced as a participant on the programme. “We were trying for group success, not just individual success,” says Varley, who was director for indigenous health at British Columbia’s Provincial Health Services Authority when she took the course. “While other MBAs were lining up to have time with the professor and make an impression, none of us were like that. We were sitting there with our arms crossed saying, ‘Give us your best’.”

The school is now teaching its second cohort of students and recruiting its third. Developing the programme has not always been easy, however. First, it took almost a decade for Selman to persuade the faculty that a course of this kind was worth pursuing.

Another barrier was mistrust of education systems by indigenous people that dates from the Canadian Indian residential school system. In operation from the 1870s to the 1990s, the system removed indigenous children from their families and their culture. “That’s very fresh in Canadian history,” says Ian McCarthy, Beedie School’s associate dean of graduate programmes.

Finding relevant case studies and hiring teaching staff have also been problematic. So far, the school has recruited just a handful of aboriginal faculty members. “It’s only now that we’re starting to generate aboriginal people with academic qualifications in business,” says Selman.

But if the EMBA has faced hurdles to its development, it is gaining attention. “Before we started the programme, no one [on the faculty] was taking aboriginal issues seriously,” says Selman. “But now you can see more interest and people are starting to be proud of the fact that we have this programme.”

Meanwhile, the school is meeting rising demand for business skills among members of aboriginal communities, who want to increase their chances of success in the corporate world, to manage and protect their natural resources or to become entrepreneurs.

For now, the Beedie EMBA is one of the few programmes of its kind in the world. This is something that needs to change, says Prof Gallagher. “Aboriginal people are playing a huge role in the economy,” he says. “All business schools need to wake up to that.”

Profile: Joy Cramer

Face to face: Mark Selman, director of the programme, and alumna Joy Cramer © Adam and Kev Photography

During her search for an EMBA, Joy Cramer, deputy minister for families for the Province of Manitoba, was surprised to come across the programme at Beedie School of Business.

“I happened to find out that Simon Fraser University had a programme in aboriginal business leadership,” she says. “That was an unexpected find and it made me read on, because I’m a First Nation woman.”

Cramer was looking for an EMBA that would not only help her bring a financial perspective to her work in government but also be a means of improving and broadening her career prospects.

“As an aboriginal woman, I don’t want to be marginalised or pigeonholed into a certain work area,” she says. “Aboriginal people are people of the land. I’m really interested in the land and [natural] resources, and it’s hard for an indigenous woman in government to break into that area.”

What also appealed about the Beedie School programme was its combination of online course content with face-to-face sessions twice a term, particularly as most of the students were aboriginal. “I was at a comfort level I only have at home and with my friends,” Cramer recalls.

And for once, Cramer and her fellow students had an opportunity to be inclusive towards another minority — the three non-indigenous students in the cohort. “They’ve been unofficially adopted,” she says. “We had a ceremony for them in our last class and we gave them each a pair of moccasins because they really lived through everything with us.”

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