Indigenous social network eyes economic opportunity

Shyra Barberstock has created a social network that is all business.

Barberstock, a fourth-year First Nations Studies and Health/Environmental Geography student, and her husband, Rye Barberstock, recently launched the Okwaho Network, a social-networking site dedicated to global Indigenous business and economic development. Sparked out of a roadtrip conversation between the just-married couple, the project now fills a historic gap with a modern solution.

SHYRA BARBERSTOCK

SHYRA BARBERSTOCK

“One thing that is neat to me is the original peoples of this land always had an entrepreneurial spirit, always found a way to trade and do commerce together. It’s in our blood to be able to go into business,” Rye said.

Launched late last year, the free site operates like a mainstream social networking site, however it targets both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who want to work with Indigenous communities and businesses. The site allows people to promote themselves, their communities and businesses, as well as discover career opportunities, review businesses, or share best practices about special projects or initiatives.

At its core, the site is about generating economic opportunities and removing barriers, Shyra said. Take, for instance, what the Okwaho Network can do for small businesses.

“A lot of Indigenous small-business owners don’t have a website. They can’t afford it; they don’t know how to create them; they don’t have the capacity to do it,” Shyra said. “This is really nice for them. You fill out a form, add a logo and – ‘boom’ – there is your web page. Even people who aren’t very technical can have a web page.”

During the development phase, the couple, working as Okwaho Communications, received support for their project from Western and Fanshawe College, including support from TechAlliance and BizInc.

RYE BARBERSTOCK

RYE BARBERSTOCK

Although currently living in London while Shyra finishes her degree, the business is based out of the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory (Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte), between Belleville and Kingston, where they will return when Shyra graduates in a few months.

“We have been working on this for a year,” Shyra said. “And we did it because we want to see things improve for Indigenous communities and people. That’s where our heart is on this.”

The couple has committed themselves to building a membership base over the next year. While much of the early work has been passive – press releases, traditional social media pushes and the like – it’s their grassroots work that has been most rewarding. The Barberstocks have walked numerous individuals, businesses and economic leaders through the site.

“The whole idea behind the site is for people to engage, to network and share,” Shyra said. “But, of course, the network is only as good as the people who sign up and take the time to get to know each other. The nice thing for a social network is it can take on its own life. We might have a vision for what we want this to be. But it could turn into something totally different based on the people who join.”

Membership is in its early stages, but growth has already come from unexpected areas.

The site intentionally utilizes the term ‘Indigenous.’ While terms like First Nations, Métis, and Inuit resonate in Canada, they mean little in the United States, where terms like Native American and Alaskan Natives are more commonly used. Grappling with nomenclature was an important early step, as the site has already sparked interest outside Canada.

“Originally, we were just focused on Canada,” Shyra said. “Then we realized that we should extend our reach to North America. After having some conversations with Indigenous people from Australia and New Zealand, we realized there is an interest for global Indigenous peoples to connect with one another.”

Rye continued, “It’s open to people who want to make a difference – no matter where. That is the whole premise. There has to be a sense of togetherness – we are all in this together.”