From Selling T-Shirts to the Construction Industry: A Portrait of an Inspiring Entrepreneur
If there’s one thing you can say about Victoria LaBillois, a Mi’gmaq from the community of Listuguj, is that she has an entrepreneurial spirit! This entrepreneur loves challenges and creating new businesses in response to any opportunities that may arise. A portrait of this inspiring entrepreneur follows.
In the early 1990s, Victoria was living in Ottawa and attending various pow-wows in the area, where she bought earrings, bracelets, t-shirts, and so on. She told herself that she too could do the same, because it seemed both fun and easy. She had a logo created by a graphic designer and invested $500 to print it on t-shirts, which she then sold at pow-wows. This first entrepreneurial experience allowed her to learn a lot about business, sometimes through struggles, but these lessons continue to serve her today.
A few years later, she moved from Ottawa to return to live in Listuguj. It was at this point that she found that her community was, in a sense, just an observer in her region and that it was not taking an active part in its economy, which she deplored. She believed that the Mi’gmaq had to be economically involved in what was happening around them, in future projects, and so on. This is why she went back to school, at the University of New Brunswick, where she earned a Master’s degree in Business Administration (MBA). With her degree in hand, she returned to Listuguj, where she began looking for an apartment building to invest in real estate and to create a passive income stream. As she lived on-reserve, most of the available funding programs did not apply to her, so she had to make a large down payment when purchasing the building. To make ends meet, she had to work even harder.
Around 2004, while facilitating a workshop in Ottawa, she tripped over a magnificent purse. When she went to buy one for herself, she found that the purses were only sold through home parties and there was no one with 500 miles selling these beautiful bags. As this idea had potential, she quickly invested $5,000 to buy an inventory of purses. She then found herself working full-time to save for her building and she also had purses to sell, which she did for about 18 months, in addition to selling wallets, travel bags, etc. Her sales, combined with her job, allowed her to save enough money to buy her first building.
Next Challenge: The Construction Industry
For Victoria, the next challenge was significant, since it was in a completely different field: the construction industry. In 2008, the wind industry was booming in Gaspésie. Victoria wanted the members of her community to take advantage of this economic opportunity and although at the time she knew nothing about this industry, she wanted to be part of it. She negotiated a tour of a wind farm in Carleton and, once there, she paid attention to everything: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, necessary equipment, dust control, and so on. She also analyzed what business opportunities could be taken advantage of in this industry and which would allow her to provide meaningful opportunities to the Mi’gmaq workforce. Based on this information, she decided to start an excavation company, Wejipeg Excavation, whose machinery could work on wind farms. At the time, she did not even know the difference between a loader, a grader and an excavator, but her new goal was to own an excavation company. To visualize her goal, she wrote it on a Post-it note: “Start an excavation company to work on wind farms”.
Around January 2011, she was still working full time and after waking up one morning, she looked at her Post-it note and that’s when she started writing her business plan. She researched and read everything she could about this industry. She worked during the day and wrote her business plan at night. In total, she worked for three months on writing her business plan. In April 2011, her first excavator went into operation on a wind farm, a day she still remembers, because she was so proud! At the end of this first season, her company was operating three machines on three different sites. At the time, there was a “boom” in the Gaspésie construction industry. In the early years, she rented her machinery to a company and she still had things to learn in this industry, including how to plan a maintenance schedule, how to get a good return on investment, how to hire an employee, etc. It was quite a challenge, but as Victoria likes to say, nothing is impossible when you do your homework! Contract opportunities arose, but her company was still too small to bid. She therefore met with other entrepreneurs with whom she set up a joint venture, Wejuseg Construction, which enabled her to bid on these contracts. Victoria insists that it bears repeating: the goal of all her work is not to create an empire, but to create jobs for Mi’gmaq workers, which she manages to do brilliantly!
A Return to Her Beginnings
As Gaspésie’s “wind” cycle began to draw to a close, Victoria set out to find a new challenge. She started analyzing all the online businesses selling Indigenous t-shirts and crafts and she said to herself, “I can do that too!” She therefore started an online business called Rezmopolitan, which uses social media to sell t-shirts. She is now looking to export her products internationally so that she can connect with Indigenous people around the world. Rezmopolitan has been online for about one year.
When asked what about her career she is most proud of, Victoria responds that it is the fact that, despite all the pitfalls she has encountered, she has always kept moving forward. She is also very involved in promoting entrepreneurship. Moreover, she wants to make it clear that women have the abilities and skills to start their own businesses because running a business is very much like managing a household. It is simply a matter of applying that knowledge to another field. She works in the construction industry, and yet, she was not born into a family of contractors or machinery operators. She still managed to make her way into this industry, which shows that other women can do it too. We have no doubt that, in the coming years, we will continue to hear about this persistent and hard-working entrepreneur!
Victoria’s Advice to New Entrepreneurs
Without hesitation, Victoria says that new entrepreneurs must charge forward and get started, without waiting for the perfect “timing” because this does not exist. They must challenge everyone’s expectations. Another crucial piece of advice she would like to give entrepreneurs is to write their business plans themselves. In her opinion, this is the only way to take ownership of each word it contains. By writing it, they will have to ask themselves questions, do research to find solutions, challenge themselves, and so on. In her opinion, when future entrepreneurs pay someone to write their business plans, they are not doing their homework.
To learn more about Wejuseg Construction and its achievements, please visit the company’s website at wejuseg.com.
To discover other projects and initiatives led by women, we invite you to visit our women entrepreneurship section.