Credit: Original article can be found here
The Northwest ACE Program run in partnership with Tribal Resources Investment Corporation (TRICORP) and the University of Victoria has had a bit of press over the past few years in Prince Rupert due to its success.
The Gustavson School of Business program is designed to bring university-level education to the north with educators from the University of Victoria. One of those instructional mentors is homegrown Cory Stephens.
Recently honoured with an award in Excellence in Aboriginal Relations, Stephen told The Northern View that it is his life’s work and pursuit to build bridges and entrepreneurial capacity among First Nations. While he has been all over the world, the work started right here in Prince Rupert.
Born in New Westminster to a Tsimshian mother he grew up with a Nisga’a step-dad in Prince Rupert, from the time he was still in diapers. Stephens said he spent many days of his youth in Metlakatla playing on the beaches. During the summers he would spend time at Sunnyside Cannery with his grandparents.
“My grandmother was a net lady there. We used to visit in the summers. We would just basically run around on the boardwalk as crazy little kids,” he said.
As with many youths along the North Coast, Cory started fishing with his uncle when he was 13 years old. While it was hard work for a just turned teenager, he said he loved it.
“Prince Rupert was an amazing place to grow up in the 1970s. There were lots and lots of children.”
Living and hanging out with neighbourhood kids in the Jamaica and India Ave. area, they all attended Kanata Elementary School together.
“It seems like we had friends in every other home within those neighbourhoods. And they were all within a two-year group.”
Cory said he remembers going into middle school and how the sheer number of students overwhelmed the junior high which at the time was Booth Memorial.
“There were just so many of us. I graduated from Prince Rupert Senior Secondary (PRSS) in 1988 and we set a record for the most number of students graduating with a very large class. I don’t even remember the actual number of students.”
Cory gives fond memories of being mentored during high school by Larry Hope the marketing teacher who influenced some of his choices.
After graduating from PRSS Stephens said he went on to Douglas College in Vancouver. However, the city living was not to his taste and he much preferred the island, so transferred to the University of Victoria (UVIC). With a third-year standing in anthropology, philosophy, and psychology, he said he didn’t quite know what to focus on.
“UVIC offered a tourism-based programme, an international-based program, and an entrepreneurship program. So, they had three disciplines at the time, and entrepreneurship is the one that called me the most.”
Stephens said he was drawn to First Nations economic development conferences, under the influence of Calvin Helene, who was president of the Native Investment and Trade Association. However, with the high frequency of the conferences during the ’80s and ‘90s, combined with the high cost for a student to attend, his business sense and acumen kicked in.
“The economic development workshops were very frequent. It seemed like that’s where all the buzz was. I couldn’t afford to attend them officially because back then it was more than $500 to attend workshops. So, I just used to volunteer. It was a free ticket in the door.”
One of the more interesting co-op placements he remembers during school was with the BC Manufacturers Association where he was tasked with writing a paper on the barriers of First Nations business and challenges in accessing financing. it triggered a spark.
After finishing university Stephens had his sites set on returning to Prince Rupert for a relaxing and summer of fishing.
Things didn’t go the way he planned, he said. Soon after arriving home, he received a call from his university mentor Helene, asking him if he was interested in going overseas. Cory said he jumped on a plane back south and over a hockey game and dinner was introduced to a representative from Te Puni Kokiri, New Zealand’s Ministry of Maori Development.
With a job offer, Stephens had to apply for his first passport. As soon as the little book arrived he flew to the South Pacific nation where he worked for more than a year travelling to different communities.
“My job was to profile Maori businesses. We were trying to develop an inter-indigenous trade programme, where we could align First Nations and Maori businesses, to see if we could identify counter-cyclical business opportunities or joint ventures.”
While in Aotearoa, the N.Z. Maori name for ‘land of the long white cloud’, Stephens assisted in arranging a trade mission where First Nations business leaders from across Canada visited and toured Kiwi businesses.
Returning to Canada catapulted Stephens career in business even further with jobs at HSBC as a commercial lender, working for Export Development Canada as British Columbia business development manager in technology and telecommunications, then as trade finance manager where he assisted with financing structures to enable countries across the globe to purchase cellular networks.
But, then came the tech crash of the 1990s. Stephens said he made it to the third round of layoffs when his finance team fell victim to the fallout.
“After that period of what seemed like working my butt, I thought again it was time to go home, recharge, and reconnect with my community. So, I came back to Prince Rupert for a rest.”
Once again, his visions of resting didn’t go as he had pictured. In no time flat he said, he was hired as the marketing manager for CityWest. He was there for just over two years.
“This was a really difficult time for Prince Rupert they were going through tough economic cutbacks,” Stephens said. “I enjoyed working at CityWest tremendously, it was an opportunity to be extremely creative. It felt like I was giving back to one of our city assets, and helping to develop and build a strong corporate brand.”
Then after a year or two at Northern Saving Credit Union, he transitioned to being the communications manager for Metlakatla First Nation, where he introduced a newsletter.
“We worked on internal and external communications to try and improve both how we communicated to the Metlakatla membership, and how we communicated outwardly to the world.”
Stephens went on to become the Metlakatla business development manager responsible for helping community members start businesses and also finding ways to assist the Nation in promoting and expanding their business. One of Stephen’s cornerstone projects was the Metlakatla Wilderness Trail helping initiate the idea of anchored bridges where people can walk among the treetops.
Stephens’s career and contributions to the North Coast have come full circle with his own consulting firm, and now at TRICOPR with the ACE program — the brainchild of the late Frank Parnell, where Cory is responsible for recruitment, coaching, mentorship, as well as teaching components of the program. The program has won numerous national and international awards with Stephens contributions.
“We’re kind of proud of the fact that it was a Prince Rupert, homegrown program. It started in Prince Rupert and now it’s our flagship for programs that we’ve got all over British Columbia.
“You know, 10 years ago, if somebody had suggested that I would be a teacher, I would not have thought that was possible because that’s not where my mindset was. My mindset was mostly focused on business. I have had a tremendously successful career and I’ve done a lot of amazing stuff. To this day, my time working with the ACE programme is probably the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my life.”
K-J Millar | Journalist
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