TOBIQUE FIRST NATION – On Thursday, Jolene Laskey was “over the moon” to find out her company, Wabanaki Maple Products, has won the grand prize of Fed Ex Express Canada’s Small Business Grant Contest.
Wabanaki Maple makes premium barrel-aged maple syrup with flavours of Bourbon, Whiskey and Toasted Oak. The grant will provide the company with $30,000, a brand marketing workshop worth $10,000 and a meeting with Fed Ex Express Canada president Lisa Lisson.
“It means pretty much everything at this time. We’re in the midst of expanding and looking at getting new equipment and marketing pieces and building our team,” said Laskey in an interview. “It’s a great honour to be chosen and to represent our Indigenous business and culture.”
Laskey said the grant is especially important for her business. She says conventional financial institutions are hesitant to provide funding due to complications of ownership of land and assets when it comes to businesses located within First Nations communities as compared to those outside. She’s so far managed to secure funding through crown corporations, various initiatives and organizations, and also invested her own money to start the company.
“This [grant] will help us continue to grow our company, just very very grateful for that. It’s much needed and appreciated,” she said.
The contest is meant to provide small businesses with support and financial resources to help them grow and be competitive on the local and international level, said James Anderson, Fed Ex Express Canada’s Senior Communications Specialist.
“Small businesses are a very important segment not just for Fed Ex but for Canada as well. There’s a lot of interest in learning and knowing about small businesses and this is a great way to gain those insights,” he said in an interview.
“If small businesses succeed, so does Canada’s economy. There are a great number of small businesses that rely on Fed Ex as they grow…A lot of our contest winners are thinking, ‘how do we expand the reach and getting our products and customers right across Canada and the world?’ That’s where we come into play.”
Fed Ex also chose nine other companies from all across Canada for smaller prizes worth a total of $60,000. Wabanaki Maple was the only one from Atlantic Canada to be selected. More than 2,000 businesses applied to compete for the second annual Canada-wide grant contest, based on a program started in the U.S. and expanded globally to Europe, South America and Asia.
Companies were asked to answer essay questions, and Fed Ex takes a look at their social media, website and brand presentation. Companies with unique presentations, positive community impact, and have sustainability in mind get extra points, Anderson said.
Founded in 2017, Wabanaki Maple is Laskey’s way of sharing her culture as a Wolastoqey woman. Maple syrup, she says, has been a traditional food and source of healing for Indigenous communities, including the Wolostoqiyik, for centuries and continues to be celebrated today.
I had been inspired by my roots and my ancestral background, and knowing how [maple syrup] was discovered by First Nations. I thought it was an important piece to share through our company. [It’s] our culture,” she said.
After the business planning and development process, Wabanaki Maple began selling their products at farmers’ markets and trade shows in November 2018. It has since set up an online store from which customers can order products to be shipped to them.
“We are ready now to move forward and hopefully get some traction [online] and drive our sales there, and still attend various trade shows. I’m currently working on my wholesale distribution and getting into other retail stores in the province and Atlantic Canada,” Laskey said.
In the future, Laskey, who also owns TVCC Construction, hopes to be able to support sustainability efforts.
“We would like to be able to eventually support more environmental causes and initiatives to keep our lands healthy and thriving for the next generation,” she said.
Fed Ex is currently focusing on this year’s winners, but Anderson said once the company is ready for the third annual contest, it will likely advertise the application process in late February or early March.