Doing Business Better: Vanessa Lesperance Inspires With Decolonial Business Practices
“You don't have to do business in the Western sense of the word, you can do it and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and being and to me, that's a beautiful thing.” That’s the vision of Vanessa Lesperance, a woman of mixed heritage with Western European settler ancestry on her dad's side, and proud Metis heritage on her mother’s side. Her people come from Treaty One territory near the Red River settlements but she lives in New Westminster, BC.
She was raised in a single-parent home by her mother who struggled with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Lesperance moved back to Winnipeg to be with relatives and go to high school, then to Victoria for university before moving to the lower mainland. She grew up assuming her background was French because culture was not discussed in her family until her mid-twenties. That’s when her grandfather showed her a family album full of dark-skinned people with long dark hair, something that surprised her as a white-passing woman who thought she was just French.
After his passing, her family dove heart-first into genealogy, getting copies of their ancestors’ scripts. She found family who were part of the Red River resistance who helped bring Louis Riel’s body back to his home community. “After learning about all of this, it really filled me with a sense of pride and a part of me felt like I was at my place to claim my Metis heritage. I felt like it would be such a disservice and dishonour to my ancestors for not claiming this side. Ever since then, I've been on a reclamation journey,” she recounts.
“It was colonization that made my grandpa like not talk about our Metis ancestry or heritage. That's no fault of his own, that was through design. For me, reclaiming that, I feel like it's validating not only my grandpa, but my whole family history and saying, ‘No, this isn't a source of shame. It's a source of pride.’ That's another part of the reason why I'm on this journey,” she confides.
Growing up, Lesperance got along with other kids and was accepted, but later grew into a bully. When the tables were turned and she was bullied, she had a change of heart. “I realized we all have a power and ability to use our power for good, and to help others or for bad and to tear others down simply through our words and our actions. I realized I wanted to use my power for good, to uplift others and make others feel good,” she remembers.
She went on to work for a telecommunications company for over a decade but felt deep down there was something more out there waiting for her. She wanted to try self-employment and quit her job. “It felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute, not gonna lie. It's a little scary, a little exhilarating but totally worth it,” she recalls.
She went on to work with the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres as a business mentor for Indigenous youth creating pop-up businesses for a few years. She later created content about social-emotional learning for a nonprofit and also guided Indigenous entrepreneurs through LIFT Circle. “There's highs and lows that come with self-employment. But overall, I'm really grateful I took that chance to leave my corporate job, and do the work that I'm doing now,” she smiles.
What she’s found is that a common misconception holds aspiring entrepreneurs back. “Some folks, especially Indigenous folks, shy away from being business owners or entrepreneurs, because the idea of making profit feels gross. People don't want to participate in this capitalistic machine, because we see how it's a colonial construct. The premise of capitalism is rooted in colonization. What I just want to let young Indigenous potential entrepreneurs know…is that if you become an entrepreneur, and if you go into business, you have an opportunity to do business in a good way. You can choose to design your business that takes care of the planet, is good to the people you hire and you can center it around your values and your belief system,” she asserts.
“The more Indigenous entrepreneurs we have, we can start to influence the mainstream business world to see there's a different way to do business that honours people, planet and purpose. Making money doesn't have to be making money at all expense,” she continues. Lesperance has seen how profit can allow business owners to give back to their communities and do good in the world and also how consumers want to support businesses that contribute to social change.
“As a business owner, you choose how to do business and it doesn't have to be sucked into this colonial capitalistic way.”
Lesperance is passionate about decolonizing business and about workplace spirituality, something she studied as part of her Master’s degree. She saw how the Western business world expects employees to be mentally and physically present, but not emotionally and spiritually and she feels that being in balance with all four quadrants as illustrated by the medicine wheel is one way to decolonize business.
She defines workplace spirituality as “authentic connections to self, others, nature, and a higher being or a higher power.” Lesperance sees authentic connections to self and others as including increasing self-awareness and connections to others, something rooted in social justice. “We can't have meaningful connections with others if there's barriers in the way such as racism, sexism, colonization, so to me, that's part of spirituality, too, dismantling those systems that oppress,” she clarifies.
Her encouragement to those considering self-employment is to do it, to be aware there will be fear and that’s part of the process and to know that the experience won’t be in your comfort zone but rather in your stretch zone. “It's not always going to feel easy or comfortable. But I promise if you can just power through that get through the other side, you'll get to a place where things start to get easier and the payoff is worth it. If you don't succeed, at least you tried,” she advises.
After all, as Vanessa Lesperance says, you don't have to do business in the Western sense of the word, you can do it and incorporate Indigenous ways of knowing and being. It’s a journey that starts with tapping into oneself and understanding one’s purpose, gifts and medicines… and that's a beautiful thing.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
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