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COVER STORY: Young North Shore aboriginal entrepreneurs grow businesses
First Nation culture is at the forefront of these small businesses started by young members of the Squamish Nation.
T’Sala Salon is a first for the Squamish Nation. Nestled on the bottom floor of a house on the Capilano Reserve, the full-service spa offers haircuts, styling, colour, extensions, mani-pedis, massages and facials.
Almost always busy, T’Sala (the T is silent) was opened last year by Santana Walker, a 26-year-old Squamish Nation entrepreneur.
T’Sala is known for making clients feel relaxed and at home, says Walker, sitting at the salon’s “kitchen table.”
Behind her, a hairstylist spritzes a client’s hair with volume booster before starting to blow-dry. On the other side of the one-room salon, a woman leans back at the pedicure station, her toes freshly painted pink. First Nation artwork hangs on the walls.
“People sometimes come in just to hang out,” says Walker, a nail technician, adding T’Sala’s client return-rate is 90 per cent, a very high number in the salon industry.
With the help of a Squamish Nation grant for small business, she was able to open the salon on the first floor of her mother-in-law’s house.
Six people now work there, including Walker, an esthetician and skin therapist; four hairstylists and a director of guest services.
“I ultimately wanted to own my own salon, but having funds to do it is tough for anyone,” says Walker, who previously worked at a salon in West Van. She wrote a letter of request to apply for Squamish Nation funding, which included a business plan, her goals and predicted margins.
The money for the small business grants was compensation by the federal government for a series of claims by the Nation dating back to 1977. The trust started at $66 million to be used for programs, services and small businesses, including a DJ company and a fashion business owned by under-30 entrepreneurs.
While around 60 per cent of clients live off the reserve, T’Sala, which means soft flowing current, is still a mystery to most people.
“It’s important for people to come to the salon, come on the reserve, to see for themselves that most of the stereotypes aren’t true,” says Walker.
“I’m surprised these stereotypes are still out there.”
People usually find out through word of mouth or social media, says the salon’s lead hair-artist Matthew J. Schubert, who previously oversaw education in all Redken salons in B.C., the exact hair products T’Sala now offers.
After working with Walker in West Van, he decided to jump onboard with the on-reserve salon, where service is tax free for clients with aboriginal status.
“We want to expand this year. There are 600 unused square feet behind that wall,” says Schubert, pointing behind the pedicure chair. He hopes to add six more hair stations at the front, while creating a more spa-like feel at the back.
“I always wanted a salon intertwined with our culture, and this is it. People have really liked the native artwork, and ask a lot of questions about it,” says Walker as a client walks in for mani-pedi.
Passion for high fashion
A mannequin in Tyler Jacobs’ downtown apartment is wearing a dress inspired by Vancouver’s cloudy, rainy weather.
The grey sleeves end just before the elbow and the flowing bottom reaches past the knee. Gold chains drape down the front, symbolizing a lightning storm (last model on the right in the photo).
There is something different around the neck that many designers nowadays steer clear of. The soft, pale orange Arctic fox fur is real.
Up in the Northwest Territories, Jacobs’ brother caught the fox for a neighbour who was fed up with it killing his chickens.
“People question me for using it, but it’s part of our culture. The first man wore fir,” says Jacobs, a 27-year-old Squamish Nation entrepreneur, who owns TAJ House of Talents.
He’s celebrating his seventh show at Vancouver Fashion Week this March, a big deal for all local fashionistas.
High fashion is Jacobs’ passion, even though the couture industry can be more difficult to break into than mainstream clothing.
“With my clothing I want to say I’m First Nations and proud. I’ve always strived to break stereotypes,” he says.
Even while going to elementary school in North Van, Jacobs had a keen eye for style. He submitted his first piece, a beaded denim vest, to a show when he was only eight years old.
“I was always trendy and wore nice clothing. People were interested, they always asked what I was wearing.”
Many of his relatives are artistic, he says, holding up an etched metal bracelet made by his uncle.
Jacobs picks up another design, a short clubbing skirt with two red feathers. He plans to get this design mass produced in China so he can sell more in Vancouver.
“Some people thought I could never make it, that I wouldn’t succeed. But I worked hard and here I am,” he says proudly.
Now that he’s lived in Montreal — the “fashion capital of Canada” — Jacobs’ goal is to open his own boutique in Vancouver.
“I want to become someone famous,” he says, “but for nothing in particular, just style in general.”
Event managing books are stacked on Marissa Nahanee’s desk beside her new Mac computer, the lifeline for her North Van-based business.
She books venues, caterers and entertainment for First Nation events in the Lower Mainland, while designing pamphlets, business cards and flyers as a side business.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Vancouver, the 27-year-old Squamish Nation entrepreneur had her sights on opening her own business. But it wasn’t until after a stint at the 2010 Winter Olympics that she knew for sure event planning was for her.
“Some people thought I had big dreams,” Nahanee tells The Outlook at her home-based office. She opened Indigenous Events shortly after the Olympics, proving she could make those dreams a reality.
Like Walker, she was awarded a grant from the Squamish Nation after submitting a business proposal.
“It’s an exciting game to me,” she says, referring to how she has to manage events under strict budgets.
Most of Nahanee’s part-time business is spent creating graphic designs for clients.
“There are a lot of rules in aboriginal art,” she says, bringing up a computer replication of an artist’s print.
“When you know the history of the art — like which parts should be perfect circles — it’s good because things have to be precise.”
Right now, Nahanee, who also has a full-time job, runs about four events a year, from weddings to annual general meetings to Aboriginal Day events.
“We can still keep core traditional aboriginal values at the forefront while having a modern day event.”
Visit T’Sala Salon at tsalasalonspa.com. To find out more about Tyler Jacobs, go to his Facebook page facebook.com/TAJhouseoftalents or follow him in Twitter @fashionstarlite. Marissa Nahanee’s business can be found by searching Indigenous Events on Facbook.