General Manager Stó:lō Community Futures
Abbotsford, a mid-size community in the Fraser Valley, is keen to work with community partners to grow the business community, especially Indigenous entrepreneurs, and one of the organizations leading the charge of investing in Indigenous business
Located in the heart of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford sits on the traditional and ancestral territories of the Semá:th, Màthxwi and Leq’á:mel First Peoples. This mid-size community of 153,500 is supported by a municipal economic development team that is keen to work with community partners to grow the business community, especially Indigenous entrepreneurs.
“As Abbotsford continues to grow into the Cultural and Economic Hub of the Fraser Valley, building strong relations and partnerships within our community is necessary to help us achieve sustainable investment and growth in our economy,” Abbotsford Mayor Ross Siemens. “Collaborating with organizations that foster innovation and invest in the success of Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses is a win-win for the whole community.”
One of those organizations leading the charge of investing in Indigenous business is Stó:lō Community Futures, a non-profit organization that supports Indigenous peoples in all 24 Stó:lō communities located in S’ólh Téméxw, the Stó:lō Traditional Territory, the area between Fort Langley to Yale on both sides of the Fraser River. Stó:lō Community Futures provides free business supports services ranging from confidential one-on-one business counselling, financing to training programs and resources for everything from guiding a client in developing their business plan to marketing.
“We are focused on giving people the tools they need to succeed,” said General Manager, Rocio Zieliniski. “One of our biggest asset is our Team’s drive to build relationships and meet Indigenous community members to establish where they are, whether they are aspiring entrepreneurs, or have a business idea, or already have an existing business. We are here to support them in their entrepreneurial journey.”
“People can be nervous talking about their dreams,” added Zieliniski. “Sometimes they just need to talk through an idea, then we find the tools they need to guide them through a successful business process.”
With more than 330 Indigenous owned businesses in S’ólh Téméxw, Stó:lō Community Futures has been providing Indigenous entrepreneurs with support for almost 30 years, especially during the pandemic. “During COVID, our Team helped many businesses pivot and come up with solutions, support and resources to get them through the pandemic,” said Zieliniski.
Tim and Heather Garafano’s small, husband-and-wife bakery, Say it With Cake, has been operating in Abbotsford for 12 years when their business came to a grinding halt due to the pandemic. Their main market was making cakes for large celebrations, but with restrictions on in-person gatherings, people stopped ordering cakes.
“We pivoted into smaller cakes and take-home treats like macarons, cake pops and DYI cookie decorating kits. We were slow for a few months but a grant from Community Futures South Fraser got us through,” said Heather Garafano. “Then graduation 2020 came and we had our most successful June ever,” she said, “and we thought OK we can do this!”
Stó:lō Community Futures also worked with their client, Sylvia Silver to get financial support when she took over her grandparents’ 23-year-old catering business with her cousin in 2017.
Stó:lō Catering is a small catering company that temporarily pivoted from catering larger events and weddings to creating smaller, individually packaged take-out meals which proved to be a popular addition to their menu even after restrictions were lifted. Now that COVID restrictions have been lifted, they are back to catering large events of up to 700 people. Business is booming and they are currently opening a new café and catering kitchen in east Abbotsford.
Raven’s Brewing is an Indigenous craft brewery started by Paul and Jocelyn Sweeting in 2014. The company currently brews nine beers, vodka and gin. A successful owner of a local liquor store, Sweeting says that Abbotsford has been a great place for growing his business and a place where he has deep roots and raised his family.
COVID was good for the at-home beer drinking crowd and the Sweetings found additional opportunities to maintain production, first with the development of hand sanitizer and then Raven Rations; a line of cocktail bitters and pre-packaged sauces.
The Sweetings recently moved into a 12,000 square foot new building on Semá:th First Nation that allows them to increase their capacity by 30 percent. They are now contract brewing for five different brands and are looking to diversify into the export market for their spirits, adding more liquors to their line and trying their hand at the next trend, non- alcoholic beverages. They also have plans to open up a full-service restaurant, in late 2023, which will feature their Ravens Rations line.
Mike Johnson of International Internet Advertising Services (IIAS) is no stranger to the ups and downs of the business cycle. He has successfully operated his business in Abbotsford for 27 years and now has over 300 clients, most of them in the Fraser Valley. A long-time resident, Johnson said Abbotsford has a good climate for growing his business. “I could run this business from anywhere, but I choose to stay here.”
Johnson attributes his long-term success to investing time with his clients, getting to know their businesses, and understanding their goals and what they need to succeed. He uses this experience and expertise to help others in the Stó:lō business community by offering free digital literacy training workshops to new Indigenous businesses. He feels that giving back to the community creates a supportive climate for all businesses to succeed, “That’s always our end goal, to help all great businesses grow,” said Johnson.
It’s a sentiment that Zielinski at Stó:lō Community Futures echoes, “At the end of the day, it’s all about creating a grassroots climate for local Indigenous owned businesses to thrive and continue to grow the Indigenous business economy.”
For Abbotsford, supporting organizations that nurture a positive climate for entrepreneurs creates a robust, local economy where businesses of all shapes and sizes can grow, and those are the seeds the City wants to sow.