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The Journey of an Indigenous Entrepreneur with Kendal Netmaker

The Journey of an Indigenous Entrepreneur with Kendal Netmaker

Who we are today is a culmination of all those who have touched our lives in some way. Who we are tomorrow will be the result of the actions we take today.

In celebration of National Indigenous History Month, we were honoured to partner with Kendal Netmaker for a special, virtual event. An award-winning entrepreneur, he shared his compelling, real-life story about overcoming barriers, walking us through his journey from poverty to podium and how he founded his company, Neechie Gear, to give back to his community.

Uplifting and empowering, Kendal’s presentation left us with tools to overcome obstacles and keep moving forward, no matter the challenges ahead.

Our Past Does Not Need to Dictate Our Future

From Sweetgrass First Nation, Kendal and his four siblings were raised by their single mother. On the reserve, his community was cut off from mainstream society, he said. They couldn’t access public education. They were restricted from using their language and practicing their culture. For many years, Kendal said, they lived in a hopeless environment where they couldn’t dream big.

Kendal’s great grandfather and great grandmother grew up during the treaty signings and the creation of the Indian Act, which segregated his ancestors from the general population and restricted them from farming and growing an economy. Indigenous people are over 100 years behind because of this, he said. As a child, Kendal didn’t realize that the situation he was born into was not shared by all who lived in Canada.

While reflecting on his ancestors’ experiences is upsetting, Kendal said, it also inspires him because their sacrifices created the opportunities he has today. As a keynote speaker, he uses his platform to share messages that can help us all live and thrive together. Lessons that can help us learn from our past and become better people for the future.

My elders would say that just because things happened before, doesn’t mean they have to continue, Kendal said. And this message drives him to leave a legacy of hope, inclusion, and understanding, not only for his family but for all Canadians.

When we see Indigenous people struggling, that’s the result of something that has happened in the past. People don’t choose this way of life, it’s a result.

Kendal Netmaker

It Only Takes One Person to Change a Life

Up to age six, pain, dysfunction, and abuse were Kendal’s normal, as they are for many Indigenous people. “When we see Indigenous people struggling, that’s the result of something that has happened in the past,” Kendal said. “People don’t choose this way of life, it’s a result.”

Kendal said he was lucky because he had people in his life who helped him, who supported him. It just takes one person, he said, to see you — to notice your potential — to make a difference in your life.

Kendal’s mother took great strides to put her children on a path that would give them opportunities. She left Kendal’s father, packing him and his three sisters up to start a new life. After spending weeks moving from one women’s shelter to another, they moved in with Kendal’s grandmother and took him under her wing.  

In grade 3, Kendal went off reserve to attend school. It was a culture shock for him, but he managed to build friendships through sport. It was one friendship in particular that put him on a new path. He and his best friend loved soccer, but his mother couldn’t afford extracurricular activities. So, his friend’s family stepped in. They paid the fees and drove him to his games and practices. They eventually even gave Kendal a car, which enabled him and his sisters to stay in sport, which carried them through high school and into university.

It wasn’t until he was older that Kendal understood exactly what this family did for him, and how different his life would have been without them. You never know the impact you’re going to have on other people, Kendal said. You don’t necessarily have to buy them a car, but your words and actions can help them seize opportunities and reach their potential.

Taking the Entrepreneurial Leap

From sport, Kendal received a scholarship to post-secondary school. As a full-time student, he launched Neechie Gear, with the goal of helping underprivileged kids to play sports. In just a few years, Neechie Gear went from operating out of Kendal’s closet to an office to kiosks to his own bricks-and-mortar store. I had no idea what I was doing, Kendal said, but I was a willing student and would often take business leaders out for coffee to pick their brains.

Neechie Gear was the first Indigenous brand in Canada to go mainstream, but it was a lonely road. Kendal had no Indigenous peers to look up to. He learned on the go, how to hire people, work with people, delegate, design merchandise, keep the books, all while grappling with racism and discrimination.

As his company grew, his story became known and people started reaching out to Kendal, inviting him to speak. He eventually moved his company online so he could better balance business with speaking and his young family.

How to Keep Moving Forward

Throughout his presentation, Kendal shared lessons learned during his journey and how he kept moving forward despite the challenges in his path.

1. The Art of Listening

Listening is ingrained in Indigenous culture, Kendal said. As a child, he would attend ceremonies with his grandmother where she would make him be as quiet as possible. At Indigenous ceremonies, only the leader gets to speak while everyone else bows their head to listen. This is the Indigenous way to show respect.

Being so practiced in the art of listening helped Kendal bridge the gap between his two worlds. It helped him understand the language of mainstream culture and make friends at school. It helped him learn the art of business and entrepreneurship at the start of his career. It helped him move forward with his goal of bridging the gap between Indigenous communities and mainstream culture.

2. Adopt a Childlike Mindset

Children are like sponges, Kendal said. As we become adults, we lose that sponge-like quality and our egos take over. If you want to keep moving forward in life, he continued, you need to adopt a childlike mentality. Push the ego away and become a sponge. That’s what Kendal was taught at a young age from his elders. Don’t act like you know anything, don’t act like you’re better than any other human being, Kendal said, we are all equal. We are all brothers and sisters.

3. Practice Gratitude

Growing up, Kendal said that his family didn’t have much. He can remember watching his mom budget her welfare cheques and selling his belongings at the pawn shop to get bus money. These are meaningful memories, he said, as they make him grateful for the present and the opportunities he has today.

When you’re struggling, Kendal said, reflect on what got you here so you can be thankful for what you have.

4. Be a Mentor

The entrepreneur life was a lonely path for Kendal, as Neechie Gear was the first mainstream Indigenous brand. Sometimes, he said, we’re not meant to have something because we are meant to become that person for somebody else.

Kendal credits the people in his life for the success he’s found today and encouraged us to remember the impact we can have through the smallest actions we take. Today, Kendal gives back by being a mentor himself.

Hire Kendal Netmaker to Speak at Your Event

An award-winning entrepreneur and author, Kendal Netmaker is a master storyteller who uses his natural gift to help people shift their mindset and find the success they seek. He speaks professionally to thousands of people worldwide on resilience, leadership, and the power of telling your story, weaving his real-life experiences into motivating lessons that empower and build more resilient leaders and organizations.

Contact us to learn more about Kendal and to book him to speak at your next event.