How Two Small Business Owners Are Sparking Innovation
Situated on 140 acres of land in Eastern Manitoba, sheep graze the farm where founder Anna Hunter, and her husband Luke, cultivate textile-quality wool that’s later processed in their on-site mill. At the heart of Hunter’s business, Long Way Homestead, is a belief that in building systems of farming that capitalize on our land and use resources in a more circular way, Canadian communities and economies will thrive. It’s this kind of innovative, sustainable thinking that won Hunter a $20,000 Desjardins GoodSpark Grant.
Today, most Canadian-grown wool is shipped overseas for processing, then returned to domestic companies for redistribution and sale. By meeting a need and offering a product that helps build a localized supply chain, Hunter’s work aims to bring Canadian wool farmers, local knitters, clothing manufacturers and textile artists closer together. But her work doesn’t end there. She has plans to develop a textile farming training program, which she’ll fund using the grant she received from the Desjardins GoodSpark Grant program.
This is Desjardins’s second year championing small businesses. This year, the company doubled the number of recipients and grant funds for a total of $3 million given to 150 small businesses that demonstrate a commitment to innovation, investment in their employees and sustainable development.
“Small businesses create new opportunities. They create jobs, develop innovative solutions to our challenges and they serve the needs of our communities. When our businesses succeed, so does the rest of the community,” says Guy Cormier, President and CEO of Desjardins Group. “I’m very proud of the GoodSpark Grants and the support we’re able to provide business owners who are making a positive impact on our society and economy.”
On Hunter’s family-owned-and-operated regenerative fibre farm, the founder says, “Wool is not seen as an agricultural commodity in Canada, it’s seen as a byproduct, so education for this type of work is often hard to come by.” Putting the GoodSpark Grant to use, Hunter says, “we’ll be providing enhanced training to our existing employees, and further developing our Field School training program to welcome newcomers into the business. Presently and historically, farming is not a diverse industry because it relies on access to land, capital and equipment. Our goal through this program is to remove barriers and increase access to this type of specialized training.”
About 2,000 kilometres east, in Oakville, Ontario, another Canadian business is finding a confident stride. “I applied to the GoodSpark Grant program on a whim,” says Ink N Iron shop owner Hilary Noack. “I was shocked and so excited to hear that we won.” The all-women autobody shop specializes in restoring classic cars and is a training ground for Canada’s next generation of highly skilled autobody specialists.
During her early years as an autobody tech and fabricator, the isolation of being a woman in a male-dominated industry made it difficult to imagine a future in the trade. “I had heard a lot of stories from other women in the industry who experienced harassment and rejection,” she says. “It’s ultimately what inspired me to open my own shop, in an effort to be that voice for a young girl who might want to do this one day.” Noack adds, “It’s about fighting for equal access because gender balance in the workplace is better for everyone.”
As a business that operates on the everyday use of machinery and materials, Ink N Iron’s plan for their grant funds includes a major investment and upgrade to existing equipment and personal protective equipment, as well as the revival of Noack’s pre-pandemic Shop Saturday training program. “It’s a really welcoming initiative where women from all backgrounds can come and try their hands at automotive work,” she says. “I think it’s amazing that grants like this exist, and I hope businesses will see it as a priority to apply in the future.”
“Desjardins is committed to supporting our businesses and entrepreneurs; it’s an important way for us to invest into the vitality of our communities,” says Guy Cormier, “The GoodSpark Grants are another testament to how important small businesses are in Canada and how much Desjardins believes in them to bolster our long-term social and economic success.”
Barriers for entry are low, with an emphasis on businesses that have projects aimed at one of the program’s key issues: sustainable development, employment and innovation. Shared prosperity is an essential part of Canada’s growth post-pandemic and onward, for Desjardins and businesses like Hunter’s and Noack’s, it’s a common goal with a world of potential.