How Simon Fraser is training a generation of Aboriginal MBAs

A 20-year journey to the Beedie school’s groundbreaking program

 
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The Simon Fraser campus in Vancouver

Canada’s first MBA in Aboriginal business has an origin story that stretches back nearly 20 years.

The Executive MBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership run through Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business has today earned accolades for the school positioned Beedie as one of the most innovative business schools in the country. Now in the midst of recruiting its third cohort, it’s the only program of its kind outside New Zealand.

But its story begins in the late 1990s, when SFU’s Mark Selman visited the Cominco Ltd. mine in Trail, B.C. The company needed its managers—mainly engineers—to receive some formal business education. SFU started offering courses on topics like financial management and business law; eventually, the program became a full-fledged MBA that continues to this day (Cominco is now Teck Resources). Selman, who became a guru of specialized MBA programming, later implemented a similar program for aluminum company Alcan in Kitimat, B.C., located 1,600 kilometres to the north.

Then, in the early 2000s, university chancellor Milton Wong wandered into his office. Selman had never met Wong, but recognized he renowned businessman and philanthropist who died in 2011. Wong told him: “‘People in the business faculty might not realize this yet, but the biggest economic issue facing business in B.C. is working effectively with Aboriginal people,’” remembers Selman. “I didn’t know what he was talking about … I just didn’t understand how it could be the biggest economic issue.”

Wong, who also sat on Alcan’s board, wanted Selman’s help. The aluminum company was negotiating an agreement with the Haisla First Nation near Kitimat but it wasn’t going well. “Many of the issues that separated Alcan and the Haisla were educational in nature,” says Selman. The Haisla wanted more jobs; Alcan needed potential employees to have more qualifications.

Selman spent approximately eights years working with the Haisla on business education. “I realized that there were lots of Aboriginal leaders who had tons of experience; they had the same level of experience as the mining engineers and many other executives that I’ve dealt with,” says Selman. “They were extremely capable people, but they didn’t have the formal education.” At the same time, First Nations across the province were gaining unprecedented economic clout as the B.C. government began sharing resource revenues. Meanwhile, the courts backed their rights to consultation and accommodation in proposed projects. As Wong had predicted, First Nations were becoming key players in the provincial economy.

Many Aboriginal leaders couldn’t leave their communities to obtain a full-time MBA. Some also lacked the academic records required for admission and existing programs didn’t recognize the value of their life experience. Selman devised a solution: an EMBA designed for the needs and knowledge of Aboriginal leaders along with the companies, like Alcan, who worked with them.

Initially, there was skepticism that the program could draw enough applicants who were qualified.  “It took me about eight years or so to convince the faculty that this idea was actually feasible,” says Selman, who had seen candidates without formal education succeed in other programs.

But he did. The inaugural class began studies in September 2012, with courses delivered during short, intensive sessions in Vancouver followed by ongoing online interaction with professors and other students. In the spring of 2015, 17 of 23 students graduated; four more are nearly finished now. A second cohort is working its way through the program, with a third set to start this fall.

The program includes courses specifically focused on Aboriginal business issues. The rest of its curriculum looks like any other business program. But that’s not how it works in practice. “The course actually goes really differently because students bring so much experience and so much information,” says Selman. “Even the courses that look like marketing or accounting or strategy take on a very distinctive flavour.”

David Jimmie became chief of Squiala First Nation near Chilliwack, B.C., in 2010. At 32, he’d already run his own construction company for seven years but his new role meant new challenges. He sought the skills to participate in high-level business meetings. “I really wanted to further my education and be a little better equipped,” says Jimmie, who graduated in the first cohort in 2015.  The unique nature of the EMBA allowed students to focus on retaining First Nations culture and traditions within a business environment, says Jimmie, who also serves as CEO.

Fellow student Sheryl Fisher-Rivers says that intersection of culture and business was a major draw. She had just been accepted to Harvard Business School when she noticed an ad for Beedie’s program on public transit in Vancouver. It was a tough decision to drop Harvard — she’d spent three years working on the sky-high GMAT score that got her in — but the opportunity to take part in a new program with an Aboriginal focus was irresistible. “I have no regrets about it,” says Fisher-Rivers.

She says while professors taught students the nitty gritty of business — marketing, accounting, financial management — it was the students who schooled faculty on Aboriginal culture and history. “It was reciprocal with professors,” says Fisher-Rivers. Traditional values were recognized and “married in” with mainstream business practice. “We made it into a unique program.”

Since graduation, Fisher-Rivers says, her consulting business has taken off. And the program has helped raise awareness of First Nations’ roles in the economy. “Aboriginal business is not just selling arts and crafts,” says Fisher-Rivers. “There’s many successful First Nations communities that are now thriving in big ventures. We are participating in the industry.”


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