Putting people first: a conversation with Anita Pawluk

    "When it comes to your culture, how does that fit into the strategic plan?" - Anita Pawluk, RaceRocks President and Founder. Handbag by Ojibwa designer Sheryl Temporano of LUSHER.co. Photo: Jeffrey Bosdet.

    RaceRocks is on a transformational journey to define “what good looks like” as a newly certified Indigenous business. The tech company, which creates training software for the aerospace and defence sectors, is reassessing its values, culture and positioning under the guidance of the Progressive Aboriginal Relations program.

    Making significant change— the kind that challenges a company to re-think many of its day to day processes — takes time. Articulating the vision, one that becomes clearer by the day, takes a team.

    For RaceRocks, making a genuine impact on the company’s culture is not a formulaic process, but a slow and intuitive one that creates space for multiple perspectives, vulnerability and self-reflection.

    In 2019 RaceRocks became a certified Indigenous business under the leadership of its founder and president, Anita Pawluk. It is now in the process of transitioning to an Indigenous tech company by participating in the Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) program through the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business(CCAB).

    Pawluk recently articulated her vision for the company in an article on LinkedIn, sharing her experience of the process: “my life purpose is to create a people first company built on connection and relationship, that embraces diversity and inclusion to drive innovation and business performance, while creating equal opportunities in the tech industry for Indigenous Peoples.”

    Based in Victoria, RaceRocks’ virtual training experiences for aerospace and defence are co-created with clients. The learning programs include VR and video simulators that enable people to learn “through doing, through seeing and through story.”

    Learning is part of the company’s DNA. But this year the tables have turned as the team is undertaking a journey to explore what kind of learning environment RaceRocks can provide for its current and future employees. This stemmed from Pawluk’s decision to find out more about what it means to be Métis, a cultural heritage to which she did not have access to during her childhood.

    In 2019 Pawluk had hit a “rock bottom moment — I was really confused on where I was in life around passion and purpose.” Big personal questions raised in a leadership course coincided with her mother’s exploration of her Métis heritage. Pawluk is open about her upbringing: “I’ve very much lived a Canadian life, from a colonized background — I have not lived an Indigenous life.” Her mom “was quite shamed as a child being Métis, and she had completely closed the door to that part of our family.”


    RaceRocks creates game-based augmented and virtual reality training programs for aerospace and defence sector clients like the Royal Canadian Navy

    For Pawluk’s newly reclaimed Métis identity, looking back has gone hand in hand with looking ahead. With the blessing of her family, she decided that RaceRocks would take the journey with her by making it a certified Indigenous business. “I started to understand and do my own research around Indigenous knowings and values and beliefs. It opened my eyes to knowing that was centred around people,” says Pawluk. “It took not just one individual into consideration, it took everyone into consideration; I’ve always believed that the best team is the company that’s going to move forward. It’s not the team of best people, it’s the best team.”

    The Framework and Changes to be Made

    To qualify as a certified Indigenous business, a company needs 51 percent Indigenous ownership, with a minimum of 33 percent Indigenous employees, in order to access the five percent federal procurement Set-aside program for Aboriginal Businesses. A company might consider making a formal change to their designation but, depending on the business, it might not be as simple as going on a hiring spree to hit the targets.
    The specialist, technical requirements of many of RaceRocks’ roles meant they can’t simply look to a pool of Indigenous candidates to fill capacity — which has raised a lot questions about the general exclusivity of roles in the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) sector.
    RaceRocks creates game-based augmented and virtual reality training programs for aerospace and defence sector clients like the Royal Canadian Navy

    Bringing in an expanding representation of Indigenous employees will mean a much broader shift in hiring practices and recruitment that may extend to education outreach. The long term aim is to offer more STEAM opportunities for Indigenous candidates, and to see a high uptake in applications.

    “Without actually making sure that we had created RaceRocks into an environment that is welcoming and equitable, we would have just been duplicating colonial practices that have happened over and over again,” says Vice president of Operations, Christina Jones.

    Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR)

    An introduction to JP Gladu, the then-president and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB),planted a seed with Pawluk — he introduced her to the Progress Aboriginal Relations (PAR) certification program. Attracted by the idea that the program could offer a framework and benchmarks for the company’s evolution as an Aboriginal business, Pawluk decided to enroll in the PAR program beginning in May 2020.

    The first few months were slow, with the pandemic challenging business, while the team was blindly starting down a path where success was yet to be defined. Progress really began when Jen Newsted came on board as a consultant in the fall. She and Pawluk had met through RavenSPEAK at the Raven Institute — a public speaking initiative for Indigenous leaders and storytellers to find their voices — where Newsted was volunteering time in search of more purpose-driven work after leaving a career in corporate community engagement.

    Pawluk was “blown away” by how Newsted had “listened so clearly to each individual [at the RavenSPEAK event]. The [social media] post that she made was so authentic and special for that one person.”

    Newsted is the project lead for PAR, acting as an accountability partner for the RaceRocks team. They meet once a week to ensure PAR doesn’t become a “side-dish,” as she puts it, and remains a “business priority that is being integrated in [to the company] with the same weighting as sales, as marketing, etc.”

    RaceRocks is one of the smallest and the only certified Indigenous company to enroll in the PAR program. The application process is not pro forma, and has certified some of Canada’s biggest companies like Scotiabank, Bank of Montreal and Suncor.

    There is flexibility in the three year “Committed PAR” program (with future opportunity to progress to “Gold Level”),which offers pillars — leadership action, employment, business development and community relationships — and benchmarks, but not a roadmap, checklist or definition of success. Therein lies both the struggle and the value — you get out of it what you put into it.

    “We are inspired by RaceRocks’ commitment to growing a new Canadian economy based on mutual respect and shared prosperity,” says Tabatha Bull, president and CEO of CCAB. “As an Indigenous-owned organization, they demonstrate leadership and that commitment by undertaking the Progressive Aboriginal Relations program, and we could not be more proud to be part of their journey.”

    For Brad Pizem, sales and marketing manager at RaceRocks, the decision to pursue PAR “Validates the vision and future of the company, in that this is not lip service. “It’s also a bit of honesty, I think on Anita’s part to say, ‘I don’t know it all. I am Indigenous, but what does that mean? And how does it relate to business?’ And by doing PAR, it also shows she doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s prepared to work through that and work through it with a team.”

    The question RaceRocks wants to answer is how to ensure the company is bringing in an expanding representation of Indigenous people into their employee base. PAR has helped, so far, to consider what factors of the business need to change.

    Updating Processes

    Although it’s not underway yet, the next phase will see cultural awareness training open up to the rest of the team to ensure they have the training and support that they should be getting in order to fully engage and participate in the program. The PAR working group have all undergone extensive self-reflection, challenging the largely non-Indigenous group to acknowledge their privilege and work collectively to affect change in the company moving forward.

    With its strong correlation to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), the PAR program has brought diversity to the forefront and reflects changes that many companies are addressing in light of the global movements around racism that came out of 2020.

    How does that look on day-to-day proceedings within the tech company?

    “There’s a lot of doing things for the sake or for the appearance of doing it [in other companies],” says Pizem, who emphasizes the significance of intent. “For example with the land acknowledgment—it’s more than just words.”

    At RaceRocks a pay equity audit was undertaken and adjustments were made to eliminate outliers and reset an equitable foundation. Writing, communications and wording is carefully assessed, double and triple-checked with the aim of decolonizing language whenever possible — from policies to job descriptions. Hiring practices have changed to avoid bias.

    “Certain marginalized groups will not apply for jobs unless they think that they have 100 per cent of the qualifications, whereas other less marginalized groups will apply if they only have 30 per cent,” says Christina Jones. Job descriptions are now being written with more focus on attitudes, not just skill, which is not without its challenges.

    A multi-phase interview process was introduced to decrease bias by forming unique impressions directly and independently. It takes more time, sometimes quadrupling the hours, but it is worthwhile, says Jones, “It gives the candidate a lot more opportunities to actually see who they’re going to be working with… which is important because nobody just works with one person.”

    What does Leadership Look Like?

    The last year has been a process of unlearning and unbecoming for Pawluk, who stepped into her leadership role in 2019. In her 11-minute Raven TALK presentation sharing her personal story, Pawluk addresses the myth of perfection; how she has had to overcome a lifetime of “keeping up with appearances” and presenting everything as “great.” Learning to communicate with vulnerability has been one of the biggest changes to her approach, which had previously been to share information on more of a need-to-know basis.

    Not one to be the centre of attention, Pawluk has learnt to speak her truth, finding courage in her voice. With the encouragement of the PAR working group, Pawluck began to share the personal side of this journey with the company and committed to writing a series of monthly posts on LinkedIn, which began in January, that chronicle her personal and professional odyssey.

    “I joined this company four years ago. And the change in the leadership style has been quite incredible,” says YukiIzawa, lead people ops manager, who has been impressed with the change she has seen in Pawluk and how it has impacted the company.

    The context has changed completely for Pawluk, who says she knew what success looked like within traditional corporate structures: metrics, numbers and finance. But now she says it’s unclear.

    “If I let my intuition and my empathy guide me and allow me to actually say out loud, I believe a purpose-driven people first company is the way to go forward into the future,” says Pawluk. “The PAR program gives me something that I can see and understand, that I can communicate to my team that’s going on this journey with me — that we don’t know what good looks like.” Not yet.

    Pawluk is starting to build a national network of Indigenous tech companies, something that doesn’t currently exist, but whose collective clout may influence employment opportunities for Indigenous candidates.

    A real indicator of success, says Jones, will be that “Indigenous people [will] want to work at RaceRocks because they’ll like what they see, value who we are in the world and want to include that in the products that they develop.

    ”RaceRocks is leading change as they scale up their growth mindset and model new ways of doing things for Indigenous and non-Indigenous tech companies alike.

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