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How one entrepreneur is bringing Indigenous businesses to the forefront

Mallory Yawnghwe is the founder and CEO of Edmonton-based Indigenous Box

Photo of Mallory Yawnghwe

Credit: Mallory Yawnghwe

Mallory Yawnghwe is one of the many Canadians who launched a business during the pandemic. She is the founder and CEO of Edmonton-based Indigenous Box, a subscription box and corporate gift service that supports Indigenous entrepreneurs and their businesses — and just one example of an entrepreneur whose business grew, in part, because of her presence on TikTok

Here, we chat with Yawnghwe about her company, its business model and her personal finance journey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I’m from the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in northeastern Alberta on Treaty Six territory. I moved out to Edmonton to study Supply Chain Management and really fell in love with the idea that we are all connected through the movement of goods within these channels. During the pandemic, I had been making websites for so many small businesses and Indigenous entrepreneurs but I wondered if there was a better way to help using some of my other business skills. Around that time, my mom had sent me a care package with a ribbon skirt, some medicines and some bear grease. It was a really thoughtful gift as my family's back home on my reserve and I felt disconnected from them during that time. 

In December 2021, there was a pitch contest awarding $5,000 to 20 Indigenous entrepreneurs who were ready and willing to start a business within the following four months. My husband and I wrote the business plan for Indigenous Box while I was still working a nine-to-five job, remotely from home, and building websites on the side. We ended up becoming finalists and got the $5,000 by February 2021 — that was when it all became real. 

We were incorporated by March 3rd. By March 14th, we launched our first product and by March 18th, we sold out. We had $5,000 to spend and spent every single penny on inventory. But after we launched and sold out, we used revenue from that to restock again. 

Can you tell us a bit about your business model? 

All our growth so far has been revenue-generated and organic. This is actually where some of my upbringing comes into play. I come from a lot of money trauma as I grew up very poor. Still, my family always lived in abundance even though we didn't have a lot of money, so it was always about managing scarcity. So when we got our first $5,000, I was very careful with our budget and mindful that we needed to flip it and make a return. It's been tough because we want to make sure that we're growing organically, but also that we're making smart decisions about money.

We haven't explored loans or other grants yet because, first off, we're in survival mode with the rapid pace of our growth, but also because we wanted to see how far we could take this without bringing on debt. We've been in business for 21 months and when we surpassed the million-dollar level, the stakes just got higher. We’re purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of carrier fees, shipping all across the country. We didn't necessarily want to take a loan or take anybody else's money if we didn't know for sure that we needed it, and so far, the revenue has been helping us to make sure that we're sustainable in that way. 

What's something that would surprise people about your business? 

One thing I think that people are surprised by is how small our team actually is and the impact that we have on our community. I think what has made us so successful is our solid foundation that's built on collaboration and community. A lot of people ask us how we grew Indigenous Box overnight because we became such a big company so fast. But the reality is we're actually a small team united with this incredible mission to champion Indigenous business and to create global sales channels for Indigenous entrepreneurs and artists. Our small team has worked with 300 different suppliers and closed $1.3 million in revenue in our first year. 

What is your advice to someone just starting out in their career? 

Everything is figure-outable. You're going to make mistakes. The most important thing is that you learn from them and you understand: How can I do this better? How can I improve? Things are constantly changing so it’s also key to adapt to the times. 

What are some of your favourite books and podcasts? 

Books: I read a lot of books by Indigenous authors just because, and one that I’ve read every single year since I was a teenager is called “In Search of April Raintree.” It’s just a reminder that I still have a lot of traumas that I'm working through for my own personal self, but I’m not alone. I also love Embers by Richard Wagamese. 

Podcasts: Two Crees in a Pod which is all about social work, culture and community.  I really desire to make sure that I'm connected to my territory, and listening to these ladies helps me understand a lot more about my community. I also listen to Let's Talk Supply Chain, which covers a lot of tangible advice for businesses. 

How do you typically start your mornings?

I’m up very early, at around 5 a.m. I always start my day with gratitude, I like to journal a lot and mostly just to keep a record actually of the kind of things, the opportunities that we get and the people we talk to to help me remember names, as well. Then I actually start my work day around six o'clock because that's eight o'clock eastern standard time, which is when emails start pouring in. One thing I never skip is braiding my hair. It’s almost like my meditation. My braid is part of my power suit — it gives me strength. But also, when I braid my hair, it gives me an opportunity to slow down and just give thanks.

How did you start your personal finance journey? 

To tell you the truth, I feel like we're always starting our personal finance journey because we're always learning about new ways to save money or new ways to invest money. We didn’t pay ourselves for the first year of our business. Both my husband and I are still up to our ears from student loans. So we haven't taken care of it yet, but we have a plan now. And I think it's just a matter of facing our finances and not being scared of it. 

What do you think is the most important thing you've learned from that journey so far? 

We've had to realize and accept the idea of knowing we come from money trauma, and understanding how that, how it plays into our decision-making with money. We also acknowledge the knowledge or lack of knowledge that we have about personal finances is OK and can be worked on. 

What is your biggest money regret?  I try not to live with regret, but sometimes I think it would have to be taking out a student loan, even though it was necessary as we were raising two young children. We needed it, but I do regret taking out a loan sometimes.  

What’s your biggest splurge? My education. I invested thousands of dollars into getting my professional designation and I just graduated last week. We also spend a lot of money on books as a family because we’re constantly researching and learning. 

What was a breakthrough moment in running your company for you? 

Realizing and understanding how to lead a team. I think that was my biggest learning moment, but also my biggest breakthrough because I learned that I’m perhaps not the best at communication, so I had to learn how to improve that. I learned the most from my mentors and my people who have taught me how to listen to how I talk about myself, how I address my own past traumas and how they come up in my everyday life.