From a young age, Jacqui Cardinal had what many call an entrepreneurial spirit.
(According to Jacqui, that "really meant I had a problem with authority.")
“When my parents told me I needed to get a job, I was like ‘no way!’ So I decided to figure out my own way,” she said with a laugh.
Jacqui became an early Ebayer, scouring garage sales for re-sellable, ultimately silencing any demands that she get a job.
Her entrepreneurial spirit remained a core element of Jacqui’s identity as she grew up, leading her to start her own web development company out of university. That endeavour gave her the freedom to live abroad and work remotely, but even as her flexibility and freedom grew, Jacqui felt more and more removed from any core sense of purpose.
“I felt this pull to work and invest in my community,” recalled Jacqui, speaking at The Struggle is Real in Edmonton, a panel discussion for entrepreneurs focused on mental health, community and networking.
As it turned out, her brother, actor Hunter Cardinal, was feeling the same about his own career.
“Success as defined externally wasn’t satisfying, so Hunter and I asked ourselves, ‘how can we use our tech and acting backgrounds to help give back to our communities?’ It was a pause, in that all of a sudden, when we decided to start this business together, and I was challenged again, and was really excited to get out of bed in the morning.”
That business is Naheyawin, a strategic communications and engagement agency.
Naheyawin isn’t your average agency. Jacqui and Hunter built the business with the goal of using Indigenous knowledge and perspectives to build bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, so businesses can better serve and connect with these two audiences.
Discovering the disconnect
Naheyawin encapsulates Jacqui’s core passion for connection and community—but it took some time for her to get there.
Growing up, she’d cultivated the mentality that doing the hard thing is not only necessary, but possible.
“I have a high pain tolerance—when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut,” Jacqui said. “So if I had to do something hard or scary, my parents would tell me, ‘Treat this like astronaut training.’ Being scared gave me a chance to be brave.”
“When I could see that—when it came to my business—the pain of staying the same was worse than changing, then it was a no brainer,” she continued. “It was so painful to stay the same that stepping into the unknown wasn’t as bad.”
The importance of communication
When she made the switch from her tech company to Naheyawin, Jacqui personally met each of her existing clients for coffee.
“I told them about the change in direction and if they were interested, I could carry on their current contracts, or pass them off to trusted people in the industry to continue serving them,” she said.
“Communicating this pause with my clients at the time wasn’t as hard as stepping into the Indigenous community was for me, as an Indigenous person who had a western lens,” Jacquie said. “I was honest and transparent, and my clients appreciated that.
Now that she’s working in the Indigenous community, Jacqui continues to use the same tactic of open and honest communication.
“I’ll try to get coffee with the person in the room who I found the scariest, and do it anyway. Now those people are some of my closest friends.”
Jacqui also discovered the value of finding mentorship within the business community. Through Canadian Executive Service Organization—an international economic development engine growing sustainable, inclusive businesses, and strengthening government infrastructure—she got digitally matched with a mentor to get business advice.
“What made this so useful was that I found could take more risks, because now I had a bunch of smart, trustworthy people to call and bounce ideas off of—even if it was just a sanity check, or for them to remind me that risk isn’t comfortable and to got for it,” she said.
“I’m stronger than I thought I was before,” she added. “Not because I didn’t think I was a strong individual, but now I know that I can borrow strength from those around me and I didn’t realize I could do that.”
Founding Naheyawin has helped Jacqui rediscover her purpose in entrepreneurship.
“When you’re forced to change, you see how many assumptions you hold,” she explained. “It forces you to ask yourself the question, ‘What do I need?’”
A speaker at a business conference Jacqui attended drove that point home for her.
“I remember the speaker saying that he’d make a venn diagram of what mattered, and if something didn’t fall into the middle portion where all of those circles overlapped and there’s the most meaning and necessity, he didn’t need it,” she recalled.
“Applying that to my own life has helped me remove my excuses that prevented me from being who I really am and doing what I actually care about.”
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