Finance and the Future: Karen Bird Banks on Helping Her People Grow and Manage Wealth
“Business is so very important because you get to determine your own future,” says Karen Bird. She is from Batchewana First Nation and works as the associate branch director and investment advisor with RBC Dominion securities. She grew up in Rankin, near Sioux St. Marie, and lived there most of her life, aside from going South for school for a while. Bird’s been home since 2000 working in the finance industry.
She didn’t plan on going into finance, attending Sheridan College for art for a number of years. Bird left the program and went to work until she heard about a Native Studies program at Trent University. She moved away to attend and ended up having a baby in her third year. While it took her five years to get her four-year degree, she was the first in her family to get a university degree.
As she waited to cross the stage and get her degree, she heard people behind her say, “Go and apply at a bank. The banks love to hire Indians.” And that’s exactly what she did. RBC was the first to get back to her and within weeks she was in management training. Over the next decade she worked in management, personal banking, and then commercial banking, which she loved. “That's where I could help people start businesses, help them take their ideas and their passions that they had and make it actually happen for them,” she beamed.
Bird left to do other work but she came back and now works in investments. “The timing is perfect because there's so many more of our people that are starting businesses now than there were before when I graduated. The success rate is astronomical and our people are creating these extremely successful businesses and exponentially growing year after year because of the demand for the authenticity of our work, of our knowledge, of the services that we have to offer. We're experiencing this level of success that we've never had before from a business perspective and really need somebody to help with advice,” she explains.
In university, she received a minor in organizational behaviour and another in business administration because she was told that her people were going into business and there would be opportunities. As a single mom who needed to work, she wanted a career with longevity. What she learned in university was very high level and then learned about banking on the job. She’s enjoyed the focus on lifelong learning and the chance to keep taking courses to learn and grow.
She also learned by connecting with other Indigenous employees and learning how they survive a corporate environment. “I found lots of mentors that I could connect with that would show me how to walk the way they walk here, talk the way they talk here, but still be grounded in who I am,” she remembers. She came to realize that receiving her formal education actually allowed her to find the language to teach people at the bank how to work with Indigenous people effectively at a time where awareness was an emerging need.
“I know how to teach you about me, how to work with our people, how to respect our people, how to do things in a good way, I'm teaching you how to have relationships with us. That's a very big thing today, there's so many consultants out there now, teaching corporate Canada how to do that. I was doing that way back at the beginning of my career, but it started out purely as a survival mechanism so that I knew how to have longevity in my career in this corporate environment,” she continues.
Her advice for young people considering leaving home for school or work is supportive. “Don't let fear keep you from taking that step… It seems like it's a long time to be away from your family to be away from your community. But it literally goes by in a blink and the experience that you get when you're away is so valuable, because you have a much better understanding of what's going on in the world instead of just your worldview, being in your community,” she urges. The culture shock and loneliness were hard but she had reason to press onward.
mothers“Growing up on the rez, I knew that white education was going to be my only way out, my only way to do things differently in my life and to provide for myself and for my family that would come years later,” Bird relays. Becoming a parent during university was hard and it was expected at that time that mothers would drop out and go work without graduating. She didn’t want that to happen so she brought her daughter to class, recorded her lectures and studied at night. After graduation, in the workforce, she faced racism and sexism.
“I had to work twice as hard to prove to people that I deserve to be there, because of my talent and my knowledge and my skill, not because I was ticking boxes. That's very different today, but it's still there,” she confides.
She wishes she could tell her younger self, “Everything's going to be okay. Everything happens for a reason. Don't stress about stuff; just enjoy life.” As a young adult, she fell in love with fitness and has been a life-long weight lifter, learning how integral physical health is for mental wellness. She now manages stress by listening to the sound of water and includes a lot of her traditional foods into her diet.
When she needs inspiration, she looks to the youth of today. The insights she learns go into workshops, speaking engagements and the books she’s working on. “Continuously finding ways to feed my soul is what keeps me motivated and listening to others in their journey,” she smiles.
She started her own journey leaving home to study in university. She learned business is so very important because you get to determine your own future and she took the things she was taught to help others safeguard their futures, too. Karen Bird worked twice as hard to prove herself, but the wisdom she shared multiplied as well. Walking alongside her people as they prosper, she isn’t as lonely as she was when she was far from home, and she made her way back to where she belongs.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.