The wireless warrior's digital dream
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower and Tibor Kolley.
The Globe and Mail, December 10, 2001
Part 3 of 7: Inside Donna Cona
A few weeks after making his speech, Bernard pads about Donna Cona's office in downtown Ottawa, looking like anything but a native entrepreneur. His Jay Leno chin, Cancun tan and yellow Bugs Bunny golf shirt are not the stuff of powwows. Nor does his office, a few blocks from Parliament Hill, do much to reflect a native milieu. Instead of eagle paintings or Inuit sculptures, there is exposed brick, bowls of chocolates and a fridge full of beer and soft drinks, lifeblood of the new economy.
Since he, Foote and Dowdall started off in the early 1990s, the company has shown in some small ways what technology can do for remote native communities. Their initial venture, a company called Systems Interface, was a commercial success in selling computer services largely to government departments.
“How do I, as an aboriginal firm, continue to grow without becoming non-aboriginal?”
But what made their mark was the 1996 launch of Donna Cona, specifically dedicated to aboriginal work - designing systems for native bands, training native workers in systems management and, in 1999, wiring the new territory of Nunavut, which covers one-fifth of Canada's land mass. Today, half of Donna Cona's 50 employees are native, mostly in skilled jobs with salaries that start at $60,000 a year.
The company takes its name from the 16th-century Iroquois chief who was one of the first to try to bring native and non-native together. In 1534, Donnacona greeted Jacques Cartier and tried to make the French explorer feel welcome in "Kanata," only to be spirited against his will back to France, never to return.
The modern Donna Cona has fared better, especially for Bernard. He earned $2-million in 1999 when Sierra Systems Group Inc. of Vancouver bought into the company. He stayed on as president and majority shareholder, last year booking business worth $5.3-million, a figure he hopes to double this year.
But it hasn't all been smooth sailing. Bernard says federal projects are wrapped in a degree of red tape he suspects non-native firms rarely see. One contract worth $2-million was put on hold for seven months, even though Donna Cona had already hired three full-time techies for it.
Even worse, he says, the very factors that helped to get the company on its feet now may be holding it back, perhaps even threatening the very idea of affirmative action for aboriginal people.
As a certified aboriginal business, Donna Cona can bid on a range of exclusive contracts, known as "set asides," and much of its success thus far comes from selling basic computer operating services to native programs within the government. But to maintain this status, it must ensure that, no matter how big it grows, one-third of the payroll remains aboriginal. As well, it has to keep at least 51 per cent of its ownership in native hands - again, no matter how much capital it needs.
Bernard says he has a hard enough time finding natives interested in working with computers; it's just about impossible, he says, to find venture capitalists willing to bet on a native company, especially one that essentially can't be bought out by a non-native competitor. "How do I, as an aboriginal firm, continue to grow without becoming non-aboriginal?" he asks.