CEO of Indigenous Works, Kelly J. Lendsay, champions Indigenous inclusion through social entrepreneurship

Kelly J. Lendsay learned to straddle entrepreneurship and social impact from the early days of his career. Launching and running lifesaving and rescue ventures—businesses aimed at helping people—paved the way for him to become a key figure in the space of Indigenous inclusion. His Indigenous ancestry has also fuelled the passion for this cause.

The Edge caught up with Lendsay to learn about his move into the social enterprise space, the measures of success for social enterprises, what it takes to be a voice for social impact, the challenges faced by him, his leadership style, and his advice to others in this space.

You had numerous entrepreneurial experiences in the past before launching a social enterprise. What compelled you into social entrepreneurship? How do you think your past experiences have helped you in your present role?

First of all, I’m speaking to you from Treaty 6 in the Métis homeland of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon today, and [I’m] Kelly Lendsay, President and CEO of Indigenous Works. What’s interesting is [in] the early work I did, I was very influenced by lifesaving and lifeguarding. I was on the Royal Lifesaving Society Board of Directors. That’s what led to my starting a lifeguard training company. Then there was Rescue 3, a swift water rescue company. Again, it’s about how do you help people going through disasters, floods, swift water rescue scenarios? You can sort of see that was the link to social enterprise.

Going into the MBA program in 1990, [the Oka Crisis] had broken out in Montreal, and that really bothered me. That’s when I first started really getting engaged in Indigenous issues. We started the first Aboriginal Business Education Program at the University of Saskatchewan in 1994-95. It is what today [is the] Edwards Business School.

Then, the Royal Commission report came out in 1996, and [Indigenous Works] was one of those recommendations. They were headhunting for a national president and CEO. That’s when I stepped onto the national stage.

Monetary outcomes are often a benchmark for success in commercial enterprises. How do you define success in a social enterprise?

There is a monetary factor that definitely has to be captured, but there is a fellow—James C. Collins—who wrote a great book [titled] Good to Great, and he talked about three key principles of effective or really strong social enterprises: What are you passionate about? What can you be the best of the world at? And three, what’s going to drive your economic engine? I think one of the key measures in social enterprises is this area of impact. 

You have other performance indicators and measures around social impact indicators. For us, there are a number [of indicators]. We looked at, obviously, jobs. We wanted to increase employment of Indigenous people. Two, you have to increase the education and knowledge of businesses if they’re going to develop effective workplaces. Thirdly, you actually have to create strategies and models that will help benchmark an employer’s knowledge and strategy know-how.

What are some of the assets that are needed to be a voice in the social influence space?

Number one: passion. You have to be passionate about what you do. That comes through. People know it sort of instantly if you have passion. I think a second one is expertise. You need to have knowledge [in order] to be able to speak to issues. And I think the third thing is, as a leader in this space, you need to be a bridge builder.

What are the challenges that come with being a changemaker in the diversity and inclusivity space? How do you deal with these challenges?

At a 30,000-foot level, the challenge that we face in Canada with the Indigenous issue is still a huge attitudinal gap. There is this friction and this challenge that we need to address between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, [which is] very similar to the African American movement in the US, and the friction there, that needs to be addressed. So that’s one.

But I think the thing about a social enterprise is you’re operating a business. You’re generally a non-profit registered corporation. You have to do the same audits and financial performance measures. Creating revenue streams is challenging. I think that people have to become more creative, even more business-like. I’d say that’s an ongoing challenge.

I think that with COVID, the writing is on the wall that donations are down overall to foundations. I think people have to hang on and sort of get ready for even more disruption. I think [we as] social enterprises, again, are on the positive side. They definitely are more nimble. They can see emerging blue oceans and opportunities. That is, again, an opportunity to address and overcome some of these challenges.

As a leader, what qualities do you embody? What qualities do you advise others to own?

Well, I think you have to take the passion that I mentioned earlier. You have to combine passion with vision, and from vision to being able to design and implement [it] in actions so that, at the end of the day, you find people who are passionate, but [they can] really mobilize an action plan. And part of that plan is pulling together the right partners, the players, preparing everybody to engage and work together.

I think you have to be a very strong relationship builder. But now the real work begins in terms of what is the strategy, what is the plan? You have to be able to articulate this into very meaningful programs, services, and tools.

What work in learning and self-development is needed for someone like you to be at the forefront of thought leadership in your industry?

To me, you got to pay attention. I read through journals and leading-edge articles, listening to the news, picking up themes and ideas from the news, and then talking and listening to people in terms of where [are] the pressure points and where are the issues? And where are the evolving opportunities? I think that’s some of the things that you need to do to take the temperature and the climate of the environment.

I also think that you need to look beyond your own community. I don’t just look at Indigenous [communities]; I look at what’s happening at Black Lives Matter. I look at things globally—what’s happening to other immigrants around the world? If you take that approach, you tend to come up with better approaches and models. 

Arslan Ahmed | Staff Writer



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