Smaller steps for start-ups during COVID-19

Anticipation had been building as the team behind the Maskawisîw Women in Business Start-Up Program prepared to welcome their first group of entrepreneurs.

Maskawisîw (pronounced: Mus-Kow-See-You) in the Cree language means, “Strong, Powerful or Vigorous”.

The program, which was to begin last April, is designed to provide early-phase guidance, expertise, and mentoring for Indigenous women who are exploring owning their own business. It was also one of the first programs that Community Futures Central Alberta had developed specifically for Indigenous women in the region. 

“We were just weeks away from hosting the first series of learning days when the pandemic stopped everyone in their tracks,” says Project Manager and Facilitator, Michelle Andrishak.

The many paths to re-building during COVID-19


In the six months that followed, the program team did their best to recalibrate for a future they were never sure would emerge. Designed for in-person learning, with guest speakers and weekly one-on-one mentorship, the team quickly realized developing an online program option was going to be critical.

Working closely with partners at the Âsokêwin Friendship Centre in Rocky Mountain House, the program developed new protocols and contingency plans and was able to re-launch a smaller in-person cohort, on September 9, 2020.

“There is no true standard you have to follow when you plan and start a business,” says Michelle.

The same type of unconventional thinking that is shaping the program’s next steps is also being explored more deeply by the 10 participants.

“We have spent much more time talking about how starting a business can impact your family, your community, and the balance women may be seeking,” she says. “Many of our participants have expressed how working up to full-time business ownership, after more of a side-hustle or part-time endeavour, could be a viable approach right now.”



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"The speakers and facilitators were powerful, inspirational, and knowledgeable. They were empowering, cultural and emotional with their stories. Very heartfelt and reminded me of my worth and was a grounding point for me to continue my journey and to keep going.”


One example from the program is a participant who is exploring opening a food truck business to serve customers on her local First Nation. She, and many in the program, have analyzed how COVID-19 has added many new factors on estimating start-up and operating costs, as well as doing market research. This discovery is giving many participants the sense that they might need to develop a plan for right now, as well as a plan for several possible futures for their business.

According to Michelle, an evolving process and approach is often a more realistic path to small business planning, but it is uncommon for eager entrepreneurs to want to prepare and build in smaller steps.

As for the entrepreneur exploring a local food truck business, after examining her business plan, she is now considering testing out recipes and selling at local farmers’ markets for the next year and building up savings to help finance her start-up costs.

Finding wisdom in what works


“The women who are part of this program, they are not seeing small as a failure and are open to growing gradually,” says Michelle. “They are also understanding that it could be very challenging to get into debt right now, and with possible public health restrictions and additional business constraints they may not be able to repay it.”

One of the key takeaways so far, she says, is that the world has changed, and it’s 100% ok to make the steps slow and strategic and to fit your new business within your financial means.

The weekly components of the first eight Maskawisîw sessions will become the basis for an online version of the program. As more elements are adapted and structured for a digital audience, the program team is exploring how remote learning could also become an opportunity to broaden the program’s reach and assist more Indigenous women living in rural areas outside Central Alberta.


Find out more:

To connect with the Maskawisîw Women in Business Start-Up Program, or to apply for the next 8-week session, head to the program's Facebook page: or visit Community Futures Central Alberta