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Plant-based tour of Joffre Lakes, anyone?

Mount Currie's Tanina Williams wins business pitch competition for novel plan

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A Lil'wat Nation woman has won a business pitch competition aimed at Sea to Sky Indigenous entrepreneurs and hosted by the Whistler Centre for Sustainability.

"I honestly didn't think I was going to win, because everyone's idea was so good," recalled Tanina Williams of the business pitch competition, which was held earlier this month.

"I was just sitting there going, 'I'm just here to enjoy it and complete the process ... And then they said my name—and I was like, 'What?!'"

The win comes with a $5,000 prize.

Over the past four months, Williams has been participating alongside 10 other Indigenous entrepreneurs in the Swxwú7mesh, Lílwat and Stl'atl imc Business Start-Up Program. Each participant who completed the program received $1,000 towards their business goal.

The group used the program—and access to successful Indigenous entrepreneurs—to develop a wide range of business ideas, from a culturally inspired streetwear brand to a grant-writing business.

Williams came up with the idea of the Joffre Lakes tour a few years back, when she learned about the overcrowding and garbage issues at the park—her aim is to help people understand the importance of the land.

"We have all these plants around us that have so much abundance in vitamins and nutrients to keep us healthy," explained Williams, whose mother has practised plant-based knowledge for decades and will also play a big role in the business.

Williams is hopeful that by learning about the incredible ecosystem of the park, which is located in the traditional territory of the Lil'wat Nation, people will be far less likely to carelessly discard their trash.

"The idea is to teach people how to be good stewards when (they) visit," she said.

The business-pitch program brought a number of Indigenous entrepreneurs into the classroom—including Robert and Maria Andrew of Zumak Architectural Woodwork and Court Larabee of Blackbird Horticulture—who were able to walk participants through unique business challenges, such as serving rural and remote populations and applying for First Nations specific funding and loans.

Williams—who teaches First Nations knowledge and cultural practices for School District 48—said she was inspired by the presenters' ambition and work ethic. "I was like, 'Oh, OK, if they can juggle things, then I can juggle things,'" she said with a hearty laugh.

The start-up program marks a departure for the Centre from its Social Venture Challenge, which has been held for the past few years and was open to all.

According to the Centre's executive director Cheeying Ho, focusing on First Nations allowed the programming to better reflect the needs of Indigenous entrepreneurs.

"We felt that if we wanted to target and support Indigenous entrepreneurs it had to be only Indigenous," explained Ho, noting that the project received provincial funding aimed at supporting Indigenous entrepreneurship.

Though not one of the judges, Ho said that she thinks that Williams' business idea has strong potential. The fact that Williams' mother, a Lil'wat elder whose Ucwalmicwts name is Saopalaz, is going to be involved will be a strong asset to the business, said Ho.

With the big win under her belt, Williams is looking to the future, with the aim of getting the plant-based business sprouting by the spring of 2019.

She acknowledges that there is significant work to do in terms of figuring out transportation and coordinating with Lil'wat Nation, BC Parks, and applying for loans.

"It's all about doing things that make sure that the business is honourable and credible," Williams said.

That, she noted, reaches right down to the name of the business itself.

"I have a name I want to give my business—but I haven't asked the Lil'wat Language Cultural Authority if I can use it yet," she said. "I'm waiting to do (that) as well."

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