When starting a business and COVID-19 collide

This Indigenous entrepreneur is staying positive and pushing forward amid a pandemic.

Tasha Swite always wanted to own her own business.

“There was a fire somewhere inside,” says Swite who is a proud Syilx and Assiniboine woman and member of Westbank First Nation.

“It was something that I always wanted to do.”

So, after years of preparation, on Dec. 1, 2019, Swite officially opened Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique. The store is a gift boutique that sells “”Native art, Native jewellery and Native gifts inspired and made by local First Nation Artists.”.

When she opened her West Kelowna store in December, little did she know that the COVID-19 pandemic was about to significantly impact the world.

“I worked so hard at this for the last two years to get this going and then all of a sudden like what the heck the economy is dropping and closing.”

“All my spring orders came in at the beginning, like the first three weeks of March,” she says.  “I can’t close my doors.”

Swite says because Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique is on reserve the decision to stay open was a grey area. Swite decided to keep her doors open with new safety measures while also promoting online sales.


Store front of Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

How did this come to be?

Prior to opening, Swite, like many entrepreneurs, says she spent many years working for other companies, gaining valuable experience.

“I went back to work for Westbank First Nation,” she explains.

“I’m a giver, so I give my 110 per cent… I was working in a membership department, so I was the Elder’s coordinator, so it was a lot of learning.”

“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “I worked for so many people for so long. Now it’s time for me to jump into [being an] entrepreneur.”

When a potential store location opened up, Swite says she turned to her father Gary Swite, who is also the business owner of G F Swite Contracting & Development, with her vision to open up a native gift store. After working with a business partner, and putting a budget together, they renovated the building.

“It looked terrible,” explains Gary Swite who renovated the store and other various parts of the building to also include a meeting room, and office.

Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique had it’s soft opening this past November so it could also be showcased at the 2019 International Indigenous Tourism Conference, which according to their website is to “Inspire. Transform. Unite. Accelerating Indigenous tourism growth.” Their public opening was Dec. 1.

Tasha Swite and her dad Gary Swite on the official opening day of Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique. Photo submitted by Tasha Swite.

“It happened and it snowed that day,” says Swite, describing the opening of Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique. “November was like no snow. And then all of a sudden we had my opening and I had it at noon and it was snowing, so I was like, it’s like fresh… almost like a clean slate.”

“All aspects of the medicine wheel were there that day. Like spiritually, mentally, physically, emotionally.”

“It was perfect. Me and my children… we all got to cut the ribbon.”

Honoring N’ha-a-tik

Swite explains the significance of the company’s name is named after N’ha-a-tik  [pronounched na-hah-ee-tea] also known as Ogopogo.

“Spirit of the Lake came to me, that’s, N’ha-a-itk,” she says. “I always had a connection to him and to the Lake and to the land, and the meaning.”

While Swift is honoring her culture through naming her company she explains that N’ha-a-tik, often referred to as Ogopogo, is often disrespected.

“It was kinda disrespected by how it was used in the Okanagan, like, Ogopogo as a cartoon character or as a monster,” she says.

Swite knew she had to follow proper protocols by consulting with her own community members by using the name. “I went to an Elder and I asked him, can I use this name?” She also consulted with some of her family relatives and Jordan Coble who is “ very close to Ogopogo” Swite says.

In reference to her discussion with Coble, who is a councillor for Westbank First Nation, Swite says, “I asked him and I said, well, you know, ‘I’m going to, I want to name my store, Spirit of the Lake, how do you feel about that?’ And he was like, ‘that’s amazing.’”

“So Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique is the name that came to me in honoring of Ogopogo and my Syilx culture,” says Swite.

Persevering through a pandemic

Owner Tasha Swite and sales associate Janie McRae in Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

When COVID-19 started impacting business mid-March Swite says that there was a full week when no customers came in.

“It was the one week where we were, I was like here and I was like, nobody’s coming in…like this is for real,” she says.

Swite says she chose to stay open with the help of her sales associate Janie McRae.

“I had Janie here and I said we’ll ride the wave and see how things [go], we were actually kind of optimistic,” she says.

Riding out the storm, Swite and McRae decided to get to work on paperwork and start promoting their inventory online.

“From day one, [McRae] was getting me online,” Swite says.

Turning to Facebook, McRae says online sales soared.

“So we turned to social media to start promoting the products and that honestly just took off,” McRae explains.

Successfully navigating through the online market place by sharing photos and videos of their products McRae says that sales were “amazing.”

Since Spirit of the Lake is a new business, Swite says they haven’t qualified for the business support the government is providing. Businesses need to show a 30 per cent drop in revenue compared to last year. She says she did receive $3,000 from Indigenous Tourism B.C.

 

Locally made moccasins for sale at Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique. Photo by Chehala Leonard.

As British Columbia is in the second phase of it’s restart plan and the economy is slowly reopening, Swite says that “life is positive.”

She says this is “just living in the dream” as an entrepreneur following in her family’s footsteps

When asked what advice she would give to other entrepreneurs, or people wanting to open a business she says you need to stay positive.

“You know I had my doubts… I always call it the itty bitty shitty committee and you know that’s in your mind, that says your negative thoughts,” Swite says.

“You can’t listen to get sucked into that.”

“You know I am living the dream and I just got to stay focused on the end goal of survival I guess. It’s built in all of us.”

Spirit of the Lake Native Boutique is now open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Chehala Leonard - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Chehala is reporting from the Okanagan for The Discourse as part of the Local Journalism Initiative. She's a journalist and documentary producer from the Aseniwuche Winewak Nation, near Grande Cache, Alberta. Her work is featured on IndigiNews.com, a new platform created by The Discourse and APTN.