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For one tech company, Indigenous values are central to hiring, projects and strategy

Love, truth and respect guide practices at Animikii
Animikii founder and CEO Jeff Ward is photographed outside the Songhees Wellness Centre in Victoria, Monday, March 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

One word you don’t expect to hear at the boardroom table is “love.”

But at Indigenous-owned tech company Animikii, you can find it everywhere — including in company decisions about hiring, remote work and flexibility.

The company says centring love in its decisions — from accepting clients to partnering with investors to supporting employees during a global pandemic — is key to its success, now and for generations to come.

Animikii uses as a guide the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings, which include love, truth and respect. These values help inform the company’s day-to-day decisions but also its longer-term goals, like bringing more Indigenous people into the technology sector, and using technology to support Indigenous economic development.

“Some people call it decolonizing. Others may call it centring Indigenous wisdom and values,” said Animikii CEO Jeff Ward, who is Ojibwe and Métis and lives in Victoria on Lekwungen territory.

“We know that if we focus on those teachings … that’s our best bet to have a successful outcome or a positive impact over those generations.”

Animikii, which Ward founded 20 years ago, provides technology and services including software and website design for its clients, most of which are Indigenous companies or organizations.

It was a slow path to growth for the company, which was a one-man show for years, with Ward working from home while raising a young family, and his wife joining the business full-time later on.

Animikii, which now has about 30 employees, made its first full-time hire in 2015. Around the same time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was coming to a close. Ward, who was a statement-gatherer for the commission, says he started to feel there was an opportunity for Animikii and its social impact to grow.

But he wanted his employees to get the flexibility he’d had as a solo entrepreneur working from home.

“It felt like the right thing to do to build in policies and practices that enabled others to have that flexibility, or at least a level of flexibility that maybe they wouldn’t get … somewhere else.”

Among Animikii’s remote workers is chief impact and communications officer Ian Capstick, who calls himself a white settler and lives in Montreal.

Allowing and supporting remote work isn’t just a perk to employees, Capstick said: “It really brings a diversity of opinions and places.”

Animikii’s policies include personal days, companywide paid days off, unpaid cultural leave, alternative statutory holidays, paid pet leave, bereavement leave for chosen family and compressed work weeks. They have changed and expanded over time, especially in light of the pandemic, said chief operating officer David Pereira — the balance “is still a work in progress.”

Everyone can benefit from remote work, he said, but he believes it’s even more important in an Indigenous context because it allows people to stay in their communities instead of having to relocate.

Capstick acknowledged that from a technological standpoint, it can be difficult for some people in more remote areas to work from home. The company has policies regarding the extra costs of supporting a remote worker with these challenges, he said: “We cross each of those bridges on an individualized basis.”

The Seven Grandfather Teachings are brought up often and early for employees at Animikii, said Ward, including during the job application process. They are featured in the employee handbook, project contracts, business strategy and job listings.

Ward says it can be challenging to balance these values with running a business. There have been years where the company was more focused on its social impact, to the detriment of potential profits, he said. And there have been years where the focus was too much on profits. The company tries to be transparent with employees when it comes to trying to maintain this balance, said Ward.

“As Indigenous peoples, we’ve had to work within colonial systems. And we’re also really good at … being able to work within them,” he said.

“We will push those boundaries as much as we can … to decolonize some of those concepts and centre Indigenous world view and values.”

Working within these values also means saying no to some clients. Ward says he’s had to turn down a lot of projects over the years that would have boosted Animikii’s bank account, which was especially difficult in the company’s early days. Animikii mandates that at least half the members of its board of directors be Indigenous and half be women or non-binary, which also limits potential investors looking for a seat, Ward said. But he sees that as a positive.

“That’s a great conversation to have at that level of venture capital and social finance,” he said. “Why is it that you can’t nominate a woman to your board seat to represent you, or an Indigenous person?”

Animikii’s guiding values were also instrumental in figuring out how to support employees during COVID-19, said Ward.

“Nobody really had a pandemic policy, and we certainly didn’t either,” he said.

“We just asked ourselves, what is the loving thing to do?”

The pandemic shifted Animikii’s focus from growth to stability and sustainability, said Pereira.

“What we realized was, looking after the people would look after the company,” he said.

Large-scale asset ownership by Indigenous peoples is more common in New Zealand, said Pereira, who is of Samoan heritage and born and raised in New Zealand. The Maori own large swaths of assets like land, fisheries and other industries, and some of these companies have multi-hundred-year plans, he said.

To think beyond the next quarter or the next financial year, to think in terms of the people who will lead a company in the future, “it really starts to change the scope of what you’re looking at,” Pereira said.

Ward calls that seven-generations thinking.

“The actions that we have will affect generations for the next seven generations. And the actions of our ancestors seven generations ago are impacting us today,” he said.

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press

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