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STOPPING ECONOMIC LEAKAGE FROM FIRST NATION BUDGETS FUELS STEVEN VANLOFFELD'S ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT
by Steven McCoy
Feb 08, 2023
Steven Vanloffeld is no stranger to growing up with struggles and adversity as a child. Steven’s mother who is a residential school survivor, was also a double leg amputee, losing one leg to an accident and the other to diabetes. Being a paraplegic did not prevent her from doing such things as driving across Canada, obtaining a nursing degree and working as a nurse for her community of Saugeen First Nation which left a huge impression on Steven.
“Facing and overcoming adversity was instilled in me at a young age, as it is instilled in many of our people.” said Vanloffeld when speaking about where his drive and motivation as an Indigenous business entrepreneur comes from.
Vanloffeld, founder of E-Supply Canada, an online distributor and franchisor of office, janitorial and industrial supplies, also credits his mother’s push for him to get certified and educated to gain a competitive advantage in the working world. At the age of 11, Steven’s mother encouraged him to enroll in a babysitting certification program that was being held locally.
“Having that certification helped differentiate me from others and gave me a leg up on getting babysitting gigs.” said Steven.
As a teenager, Vanloffeld expanded his babysitting enterprise by bringing on a partner and adding lawn cutting services to his list of offerings. In addition, Steven gained more experience working for his uncle in his restaurant and gas bar in the local community of Saugeen First Nation.
“When everyone was getting off school, I was heading to my job until about 8:00pm at night, then going home and doing homework, waking up and doing it all over the next day.” said Vanloffeld when recalling his early days of running his own business and working for his uncle.
Vanloffeld had dreams of making it to the big city but knew it was going to take more dedication to education to help make those dreams become a reality so in 2000, Steven decided to enroll at Humber College into an advertising and sales program and went on to secure a couple jobs selling advertising for the Humber newspaper and local radio station.
Having to finance much of his own education through OSAP loans and personal funding, Vanloffeld’s journey brought him to institutions like the University of Guelph, Royal Roads University, Western University and Queens University which ultimately led him to policy jobs in health Canada before landing at the National Aboriginal Health Organization.
“Without education and continued investing in myself I would not be where I am today.” Vanloffeld said when talking about how important education is to him. “Not just from a knowledge base but a financial base as well.
After 15 years of working in the big cities across Canada and the USA while obtaining higher education from some of Canada’s top educational providers, Vanloffeld decided it was time to bring that knowledge and experience back to this home community of Saugeen First Nation where he successfully ran for a seat on council in 2016.
During his time on council, Vanloffeld oversaw the Economic Development file where he discovered most of the community’s budget expenditures went to outside vendors and providers, the majority of which were owned and operated by non-Indigenous people. Even for a small community like Saugeen First Nation, with an on-reserve population of approximately 900 people, the administration and operational expenditures still exceeded over seven figures for supplies and services required to properly provide community members with basic amenities.
“The large majority of our budget expenses go outside the community to other non-Indigenous retailers and almost all of whom take our business for granted because they don’t have to earn it” described Vanloffeld. “They get it simply because of proximity and our people need to survive.”
This situation of non-Indigenous businesses owners capturing Indigenous business by default has led to dismissive attitudes, discriminatory practices and racist behaviours exhibited towards the very community members whose dollars sustain their business.
“They treat our people differently simply because we are brown so they provide an unsafe shopping experience for our community members.” said Vanloffeld. “We’re giving these people millions of dollars and they don’t even care.”
Vanloffeld went on to describe a time when he approached a local, big box vendor to seek support with a childrens toy drive they were having for his community. Steven asked the store manager for any kind of support, even a small nominal donation but was told, “No you have to go online just like everyone else,” despite his community having recently spent well over six figures at that local, brick and mortar location.
“That really pissed me off.” Vanloffeld said of the encounter with the store manager. “They take our business for granted. There are 634 First Nations across Canada, over 19,000 Indigenous businesses, many more NGO’s and charities. If this is happening to my home community, how many other communities are facing similar attitudes?” wondered Steven.
This led Vanloffeld to start asking himself, ‘What other products and services are our communities purchasing from outside vendors that we can start purchasing from ourselves instead?’
In response to Vanloffeld’s observations and experiences, in October of 2019, Steven founded E-Supply Canada, an Indigenous owned, online distributor offering office, janitorial and industrial supplies. Stevens mission with E-Supply Canada is to stop the economic leakage that occurs on many First Nations across the country by offering products that make up a large portion of their budgetary expenditures.
Through scaling and expansion, Vanloffeld registered E-Supply Canada as a legal franchisor in January 2022, becoming a trailblazer as one of the first Indigenous owned franchisors in Canada. Franchising among Indigenous business owners and communities is incredibly small with less than 1 percent of Canadian Franchise Association members identifying as Indigenous, yet franchising provides a huge economic opportunity for Indigenous entrepreneurs to add $1.5 billion dollars to the Canadian economy according to Vanloffeld.
When asked about some of the biggest challenges Vanloffeld has faced as an Indigenous entrepreneur, Steven was quick to point out that access to capital has been an on-going limiting factor despite specific institutions and organizations whose entire existence is based on helping Indigenous entrepreneurs, such as the Aboriginal Financial Institutions (AFI’s).
“Specific to me, there has been lack of financing through the AFI’s,” explained Vanloffeld, “because I am an online business, there is nothing there they can repossess.” Steven pointed out “that the majority of Indigenous people entering into business are through online platforms, so if they (AFI’s) are not supporting the bulk of where entrepreneurs are moving to, then they are running an antiquated model that is not serving the people they report to be helping.”
Under the AFI’s current model, to be approved for funding, you must be working on your business full-time. Yet, in the traditional entrepreneurial world, it is not uncommon for people to continue working their full-time jobs while doing their business on the side until such time it is feasible and sustainable to make the move to being full-time entrepreneur. This current practice by the AFI’s of holding Indigenous entrepreneurs to a different standard than non-Indigenous entrepreneurs is a limiting factor that Steven says is just “ridiculous”.
When asked what advice Vanloffeld has for potential up and coming Indigenous entrepreneurs, Steven says “don’t just focus on passion, focus on the opportunity.” he says, “Don’t get held up on businesses that are entirely driven by passion. Find the opportunity and the passion will come.” Steven also advises people to tap into the many resources and professionals for help and assistance along the way. “Tools like LinkedIn can help connect entrepreneurs with other professionals who are happy to share their experiences.” he says.
As for the future, Steven Vanloffeld is focused on growing and scaling E-Supply Canada by continued franchising of his model and fueled by his desire to curb the economic leakage by keeping Indigenous dollars in Indigenous hands across Canada.
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.