Barb Martin, from Esgenoôpetitj First Nation, is a bridge builder. She builds bridges between people, communities, diverse groups and interests in New Brunswick and elsewhere. She has also learned to bridge her role as an entrepreneur and a Mi’gmaq activist over the 20 years that she has been in the consulting business with her business partner, Reni Han.
Their company, Han Martin Associates (HMA), specializes in multi-stakeholder relationships and sustainable community development through Aboriginal consultation, facilitation, strategic planning, research, program evaluation and training related services. In addition to those key services, HMA was built on the belief that you can be in business and still contribute to community building.
Han Martin Associates is a for profit incorporated company that functions as a social enterprise. “Before that buzz word of social enterprise came into being,” said Barb, “HMA was busy working in the communities and agencies as community developers and building capacity. We gave of our time and services in the community but we also created and sustained a business in one of the most economically challenged areas in the country.”
Over 25 years ago, Barb met her business partner, Reni Han, through her work in the Aboriginal women’s movement. Reni was involved in the immigrant’s women’s movement and in her paid work with persons with disabilities. They soon became friends because of their similar approaches and values. It didn’t take long for them to realize that they were dealing with a lot of the same issues. When Reni came up with the idea to start a consulting business, it made sense that they should be in business together.
“When Reni and I were working in our communities, doing volunteer work, we saw that there was a need for people to learn how to build relationships and how to deliver programming for diverse groups,” said Barb. “We were giving away free advice to consultants and partners on how to develop effective programming and approaches that would meet the needs of the community groups and communities we were involved with. After a few years providing these consultants with strategies and advice on how to create relationships, we thought ‘why couldn’t we do this ourselves?’ and give back to the community in concrete ways.”
Barb has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and has completed courses towards her Masters of Business Administration in Community Economic Development. This education combined with years of working with Aboriginal individuals, families and communities in her previous paid and volunteer work at the local, regional and national levels has helped to provide the basis for the work of HMA.
Barb’s vision and values are shared by Reni, which is why they have had such a successful partnership. “It was a natural fit with Reni,” said Barb. “She has skills and abilities in areas that I don’t and vice versa and that is important in a business partnership. We respect one another and have built up a business that reflects both of our vision and values. My vision is simple - the resurgence of the Wabanaki confederacy and reconciliation between indigenous people and Canadians. Reni’s vision is similar but different as she is Chinese from Indonesia and Singapore who has made Canada her home. I had a personal vision that our nations would come back into their own again and this includes the Wolastoqoiyik, Mi’gmag, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and the Abenaki. There is a second part to the vision and that is a reconciliation with Canada - with the people that came here. In our business we look to create relationships between diverse parties. Our core competencies speak to that.”
Barb and Reni have a solid consulting business now but they started their business with minimal funds. Barb had access to some money from the Self-Employment Benefit program so Barb focused on the business while Reni helped out but also worked other jobs on the side until they were able to earn enough to support them both.
“What I’m proud about is that we did this on our own without developing a dependence on programs to support us.” said Barb. “Government programs are important in start-ups and I appreciated the Self- Employment Benefit program. Every dollar we earned was a result of hard work. It was tough and we had to learn from our own mistakes. You have to have a focus and passion for what you do. The failure rate for new businesses is high. It is hard to sustain that level of effort with so little returns initially if you don’t love what you do.”
There were other challenges as they grew their business as well. One of the first challenges was getting contracts. Barb is a ‘people person’ so it was her job to find the clients and market the business.
“We started with one client and focused on doing exceptional work for that client,” said Barb. “Reputation is everything. We developed and built our reputation for quality work and being client focused. If you do quality work for your client within their budget and time frames, and if they are happy with the services that you provided, then they become your best marketing team. They will refer you to others and become repeat customers. Our business was built on referrals, word of mouth and repeat clients but we are currently thinking of mounting a website or having a social media presence as we grow into our new phase of development.”
20 years later, Barb and Reni know their strengths and weaknesses and they are experts in bringing out other’s strengths and abilities. They believe in perseverance, high standards, client focus, innovation and flexibility and this has all attributed to their success. Now, in addition to continuing on with their business, they are starting to look at succession planning and mentoring people to build their experience and take on senior roles. People whom they have worked with over the years have consistently shared that HMA played a key role in their advancement.
They want to look into continuing to build capacity and quality of life in First Nation communities and to help build the change processes to make this happen.
“The landscape is changing,” said Barb. “It’s getting more complex. Government regulations, court rulings, these can be challenges or opportunities. We choose to look at them as an opportunity. We are seeing what needs to be done now and we’re preparing Aboriginal people and New Brunswick to be ready.”