Stories that Inspire a Nation
HOW A SIMPLE PHONE CALL BROUGHT REALITY T.V. SHOW BEARS LAIR FOUNDER GEENA JACKSON TO HOLLYWOOD AND BEYOND
by Steven McCoy
Feb 14, 2023
Geena Jackson’s lifelong passion for entrepreneurship inspired her to do great things to help move the needle of Indigenous entrepreneurship. Recently, Geena worked as the Economic Development Officer with the Squamish Nation where she assisted over 550 entrepreneurs start or expand their business. She also pioneered entrepreneur workshops for children aged 11 – 18 in remote First Nation communities across the country in the form of interactive day camps. Jackson’s experiences as an entrepreneur and assisting other Indigenous entrepreneurs inspired her to successfully create the Bears Lair, a new reality television series which aired its first season on Aboriginal People Television Network (APTN) in 2022.
The show featured Indigenous entrepreneurs showcasing their products, service, talents and culture to a panel of judges, called the ‘bears’, for a chance to win a share of $160,000 in prize money. Plans for season two series are well underway and, according to Jackson, interest swelled from 120 applicants for season one to over 2,200 inquiries already for season two.
“It’s getting some legs,” said Jackson, “It’s a good news story, it’s about progressiveness, it’s about seeing different (Indigenous) cultures in our country.” she added. Geena’s ability to sell her ideas to other people has been a gift she demonstrated at an early age and much of the success of Bear’s Lair can be credited to Jackson’s talent.
Jackson, now aged 53, is a member of the Sechelt Nation in B.C., and always dreamed of making it big in show business. Like many Indigenous children, Geena’s turbulent homelife and upbringing made it much easier to escape into dreams of a brighter future instead of facing the dark realities of the present.
At the young age of three, Jackson’s mother attempted to escape a “highly domestic abusive relationship” by packing up Geena and her younger brother and leaving Geena’s physically abusive father. Unfortunately, her mother’s attempts to escape violence only led her into another abusive relationship. Her mother’s new boyfriend used to, in Geena’s words, “beat the shit of me and my brother so bad that it resulted in hospital visits”.
A lack of money growing up also compounded problems for Jackson and her brother but instead of letting external circumstances define them and take them down a dark path, they chose to take positive control over their lives instead.
“We didn’t have any money whatsoever,” said Jackson, “I had a paper route when I was eight, I went around mowing lawns, doing anything we possible could to get money.”
Jacksons entrepreneurial spirit continued into adulthood when at the age of 21 she started a house cleaning business called Enviro Clean, utilizing environmentally friendly products before it was popular and trendy. Within one year of launching her business, Geena went from having eight clients to 112 along with eight employees, a significant feat for any young entrepreneur, let alone one who faced serious adversity as a young child and grew up without any entrepreneurial role models to provide guidance and support.
Despite Jackson’s early success in the house cleaning industry, her true passion was to be a news reporter so she enrolled in Broadcast Journalism at the B.C. Institute of Technology. Students were required to complete an unpaid internship in the broadcasting industry and as most of the students elected to do their internships locally, Geena chose “to go big” and set her sights on Los Angeles, California to work with Entertainment Tonight for the show Hard Copy which covered Hollywood celebrities. When asked how she landed such a cool and high-profile internship, simply said, “I asked.” Yes, Jackson simply picked up the phone, called the Entertainment Tonight offices in L.A. and talked herself into a dream internship in California.
After her internship, Geena moved to Toronto, Ontario where she worked in the broadcast industry for a while longer before she ended up in the hospitality and communications industry for about 10 years before the death of her mother brought her back to the west coast of Canada. Once back in her home province of B.C., Geena started work with the Squamish Nation as Economic Development Officer assisting Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs.
When asked what barriers Indigenous entrepreneurs currently face, Jackson was quick to point out the usual suspects like access to capital funding, capacity issues and problems expanding or scaling up their business. In addition, Jackson said “there are so many opportunities and supports that our people are not aware of” whether the First Nation has a Trust Fund dedicated to dispersing funds to the community for business development or an Economic Development Departments with some sort of funds to assist their entrepreneurs along with numerous governmental grants and sources of supports often go underutilized.
After assisting many other Indigenous entrepreneurs and getting to know their stories, Jackson’s desire for the media and broadcasting industry was still smoldering inside of her. In 2022, 25 years after leaving the broadcasting industry, Geena sparked an idea that grew into a fire of a reality television show called the Bears Lair.
By using the same sales skills, Jackson used to get herself an internship in L.A., she was able to get APTN on board to support and air the series on television. In addition, she used those same skills to recruit major corporate sponsors such as MasterCard, Business Development Bank of Canada, Moneris and Shopify. Geena’s experience in the media industry and tenacity to “go big” led her to recruit some highly prolific Indigenous ‘bears’ to come aboard as judges as well, such as Tabatha Bull, current President of the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Business, Dave Tuccaro, Canada’s first Indigenous billionaire, and Chief Robert Louie from Westbank First Nation, one of the most business progressive First Nations in the country.
As Jackson gears up for season two of the Bears Lair, she is excited to be part of a movement to “showcase how Indigenous entrepreneurs are overcoming traumatic and systematic adversities, changing their relationships with money and taking a seat at the economic table” across the country and around the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven McCoy is an Ojibwe from Garden River First Nation in Northern Ontario and life-long resident of Sault Ste. Marie in the Robinson Huron Treaty of 1850 territory. He is the founder of Indigenbiz where he publishes his journalistic work highlighting Indigenous people in business. He is also a successful businessman who specializes in communications, marketing, public relations and Indigenous liaison through another company he founded called Gencity Consulting. In addition, Steven is a skilled public and motivational speaker with a unique ability to capture the audience's attention through descriptive story telling and draws upon his life experiences growing up off-reserve while overcoming poverty, abandonment and racism to achieve success.