Opinion: Summers residing off the land influenced management type of Inuk CEO Clint Davis

Clint Davis says, “The key to success for indigenous businesses begins with medium and large companies opening up their sourcing processes to support underrepresented businesses beyond their normal suppliers.”

Illustration by Chief Lady Bird

Clint Davis, Inuk from Labrador, is President and Chief Executive Officer of Nunasi Corp., an Inuit development company headquartered in Iqaluit. Mr. Davis holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Acadia University, a law degree from Dalhousie University, and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, where he was a Canadian-American Fulbright Fellow. Prior to joining Nunasi, he was CEO of North35 Capital Partners, a corporate and capital advisory firm that worked with indigenous governments and business development firms to drive growth. Mr. Davis was also vice president of indigenous banking at Toronto-Dominion Bank. In 2016, Mr. Davis received the Indspire Award for Business and Commerce.

How has your upbringing influenced your perspective as a leader?

My mother was quite young when she had me, and that’s how my grandparents raised me. My grandfather was a hunter, fisherman, and trapper, and while he was in the country my grandmother raised nine children alone. As a child, my family went to our cabin on the Labrador coast every summer to fish and pick berries. It was and is a very remote area. There was no running water or electricity, just the forest and the river. The time we spent there was really about living on the land like in the past. These years in the country were very formative experiences for me.

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As I got older and worked mostly in urban areas, I felt especially blessed to have experienced this. Now I really cherish these memories and in spite of all the mosquitoes I base myself in these feelings of gratitude.

How has your Inuk identity influenced your career?

It has influenced and continues to influence my value system and how I make decisions, especially professional ones. If you look at my resume you can clearly see that I was down a certain path in the work I was involved in. This was not only because I found learning about indigenous law, politics, or economics intellectually stimulating, but also because the positions and organizations related to larger issues that were important to me.

The fact that my community was going through the land claim process sparked my interest in indigenous laws and guidelines. It was also the basis of my interest in broader issues that improve the socio-economic position of indigenous people through greater participation in the Canadian economy. Throughout my career I have always looked for opportunities to contribute because I have certain skills and thought that I could be of value in that regard. Being an Inuk is something I am very proud of and my identity has influenced me in so many important ways.

After working in both the public and private sectors, how do you think companies can learn from government?

I think government is very much about balance. When you work in the public service, you always weigh different interests, considerations in the allocation of your financial resources, and the complex consequences of the policies you follow. They get used to asking the question: How does this affect our citizens and improve society?

On the other hand, I believe that different industries and companies are gradually realizing that business is bigger than just maximizing shareholder wealth. I think that’s why ESG is growing in popularity [environmental, social, and governance] and socially responsible investing. I think the business is gradually realizing the need for balance and addressing issues and considerations that they have never had to deal with before. Some of these include indigenous rights, the environment, and equity, diversity and inclusion. Most of all, I think the government has a lot to teach in order to be a better corporate citizen.

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Can you briefly describe today’s “indigenous economy”?

The two main drivers of the indigenous economy are indigenous entrepreneurs with over 30,000 across the country, as well as jointly owned companies or development companies. While there is great diversity in their approaches, structures, and strategies, there are also some important things that they have in common. This generally includes a foundation of indigenous values, respect for the land, a long-term business vision, and a value for culture. Based on research by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, every entrepreneur places great value on recruiting, training, and developing indigenous peoples, although indigenous-owned businesses are small to medium-sized.

What are three keys to successfully supporting indigenous businesses and business owners?

The key to success for indigenous companies begins with medium and large companies opening up their sourcing processes to support underrepresented companies beyond their normal suppliers. By setting hard goals for these companies, a new market and customer base is created for indigenous companies. Additionally, the amount of money the Canadian government spends each year pales in comparison to the amount of money it could spend on indigenous businesses compared to what they could actually do. They recently made a public commitment to 5 percent of their procurement spending on indigenous businesses. Once that happens, it will have a profound impact on the indigenous economy.

I think some of the other keys to the support and success of indigenous businesses, especially in the communities, are the need for basic infrastructure. While this certainly affects things like buildings and roads, it extends further these days as well. When everything is online, it is very difficult to run a business when you live in a community where you have limited connectivity.

After all, not only do we need debt, we also need more organizations to inject equity into indigenous businesses. For example, I think organizations like the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association or Raven Capital Partners are vital in providing the necessary capital for startups through co-investment and financial innovation opportunities.

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What advice do you have for Indigenous youth reading the column?

Dream big, concentrate on your education and stay close to your identity and be proud of it. My wife and I keep telling our three children this. I believe this will help indigenous youth have a positive impact on their communities, their nations and the world at large.

Read more from our series of indigenous business leaders:

For Mi’kmaw educator Marie Battiste, inner growth is essential to being a leader

“Our survival depends entirely on living in nature, not on it,” says the indigenous rights attorney

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For Senator Murray Sinclair, leadership is defined by humility

Trust is the foundation of leadership, says Membertou First Nation Chief Terry Paul

We need to make economic reconciliation a priority, says Tabatha Bull, CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business

For Tracy Bear, leadership begins with accountability, service, and connection with the land

For APTN managing director Monika Ille, leadership means honoring the history of her nation

Pause, Think, Listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on Using Indigenous Leadership Approaches

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About the series

Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination against indigenous peoples. However, the future is full of hope. The indigenous population is the fastest growing population in Canada. His youth catalyzes coast-to-coast change. Indigenous knowledge and teachings guide innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellbeing worldwide. Indigenous scientists are leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of indigenous insights, culture and perspectives.

Optimism is rare in the media. And reporting on indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly series of interviews, we will involve Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversations and share their stories, strategies, challenges and successes.

Karl Moore is a professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal. He is also an Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University. He hosted a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail interviewing business leaders and business professors from the world’s best universities. His column Rethinking Leadership was published at Forbes.com Since 2011, he has built a worldwide reputation for research and writing on leadership, interviewing more than 1,000 executives, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.

Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is doing her Masters in Educational Leadership at McGill. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Brain Science from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and a degree from Harvard University, Massachusetts. She is an education, leadership, and indigenization consultant for organizations and schools, and previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women Association, and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá: ka woman from the Kahnawà: ke community.

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