When Mallory Yawnghwe studied supply chain management at university, it felt inherently familiar. “I realized that my people have been here before,” says Mallory, who grew up on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Alberta, Canada on Treaty 6 territory. “Indigenous people are architects of this vast trading network that spanned the entire continent prior to colonization. And we are just reclaiming that space.”
Mallory is the founder of Indigenous Box, a quarterly subscription box service based in Amiskwaciy Waskahikan (the traditional name for Edmonton) that curates products made by fellow Indigenous entrepreneurs. The boxes connect underrepresented artisans and businesses to new customers, including a roster of corporate clients, and past boxes have included soaps from an Inuit business in Nunavut and sweetgrass bath salts created by Indigenous high school students.
The company launched just 15 months ago, after winning a pitch competition for Indigenous entrepreneurs, and has since been named to the Indigenomics Institute’s 10 To Watch list for 2022.
Ahead, Mallory shares her love of entrepreneurship, her passion for Indigenous businesses, and how customers can support them not just during Indigenous History Month, but all year round.
Shopify: What made you want to start a subscription box that uplifts other Indigenous entrepreneurs?
Mallory: My love for Indigenous entrepreneurship and Indigenous business goes back to when I was a kid selling cupcakes at powwows. But when the pandemic hit, there were a lot of Indigenous artists who were struggling to sell their pieces. So I started to build websites for people, because that’s how I got through university. Then one of my mentors, Chief Tony Alexis from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, said, ‘Mallory, you can’t help everybody by doing all the work.’ And so it made me realize that I had to figure out how to better help people.
We launched on March 14, 2021, and it’s been such a whirlwind. It was an idea that I had, growing up to be an entrepreneur, but also taking the teachings that I have as an Indigenous woman to be a helper, and to walk with my sisters and my aunties and my allies and to walk with good intention and with an open heart. That’s how Indigenous Box came to be.
Shopify: Why did you choose a subscription box model?
Mallory: Before the pandemic, I was working on our scholarship fund here for the Circle of Abundance to amplify Indigenous women’s voices. I was working a lot from the side of my desk in addition to my regular day job. I haven’t been home to my reserve and to see my family during COVID, and it was really difficult to be away from all of them. My mom sent a care package for me, with bear grease for my braids and a new ribbon skirt and medicine. I just remember feeling how it was such good medicine for my heart and for my well-being. And I thought, You know what, other people can benefit from this.
We decided that this could be a really good opportunity to make a collective and to showcase the foundation of our business, which is that if you work together, good things will happen. I really wanted to showcase that we are powerful in numbers.
It’s like a care package. Indigenous entrepreneurs are doing incredible things and we wanted to really champion them. When we smudge our boxes when they leave the warehouse, it’s like you put that good energy into it.
Shopify: How are the products selected for each box?
Mallory: We put together boxes based on feel. All Indigenous people, we like to feel things—sometimes when you slow down, you listen to what is right, it just kind of comes to you.
We get samples of products from Indigenous-owned businesses from all across Turtle Island, and I play with them. I’ll take this piece and this piece and I’ll put them together and I’ll look at it. Of course we also do it based on weight, size, dimension, and, of course, cost. So there’s a lot of different factors. But we’ve really created the right algorithm that allows us to identify and mash those two worlds together, the numbers versus the feel.
I meet with every single entrepreneur we buy from. And every single one has business with a purpose. Their intention behind their products is to raise awareness, acknowledgement, change for their communities, and representation. It’s just so powerful to work with them.
Shopify: At Shopify, we talk about commerce as a pathway to independence, freedom, and self-reliance. Why is entrepreneurship particularly special to Indigenous communities?
Mallory: We’re coming into it and we’re saying, “We’re here, we belong here.” I feel that entrepreneurship is just so empowering for people to realize their autonomy over who we are. It’s not about sympathy, it’s about sovereignty. We are hard-working and innovative people. I think entrepreneurship just really allows us to flourish in that creativity and, of course, allows us to remain as helpers.
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Shopify: How can customers uplift Indigenous entrepreneurs all year?
Mallory: We want our customers, in the long run, to try out the box to discover Indigenous businesses. We want our customers to become their customers and support them—talk about the pieces, like, Who made that? Where does it come from? Tell me those stories. And it’s important that those stories come from us.
People can also support Indigenous entrepreneurship by going to markets and buying from local artisans. There’s so many people at the grassroots level who are creating products and making change. When you buy from them, you tell them “You belong here” and “I support you.” Buying is supporting the local economy and the original supply chain.
To see more story’s like Mallory’s, check out Shopify’s Build Native.