Name: Shyra Barberstock
Job title: Co-founder, president and CEO, Okwaho Equal Source
From: London, Ont., and Newmarket, Ont.
Currently lives in: Tyendinaga, Mohawk Territory
Education: BA (Hons.) in First Nations studies and geography, University of Western Ontario; Master’s in geography, Queen’s University; PhD in geography (expected completion in 2021), Queen’s University
First job out of school: Teaching computer software
The story of how Shyra Barberstock came to co-found a social network is more compelling than the actual movie The Social Network. Okwaho Network is a social-media platform connecting Indigenous people across the world, a realm where grassroots projects and economic ventures take shape. It’s now part of Okwaho Equal Source, which Barberstock co-founded, an Indigenous-owned for-profit consultancy and design firm that works within Indigenous communities, the public and private sectors and academic institutions.
Before she pursued post-secondary education, Barberstock worked a series of jobs she didn’t enjoy. On the advice of friends and by several strokes of luck, she then landed a job teaching computer software—skills that she had taught herself—and it was through this role that she learned she likes working in tech. After seven years, though, she decided to enroll at Western to pursue geography and First Nations studies; the latter was an interest that came about after meeting her birth mother at 21 and discovering she was Anishinaabe, something she hadn’t known having been adopted by a non-Indigenous family. Going to university turned out to be a fateful choice.
During her undergrad, she met Rye Barberstock, who would become her husband and partner in building Okwaho Network. “We’d have these long conversations about First Nations communities and what we could do to make change,” she says. They realized her tech background and Rye’s communications background would make a powerful combination, and they decided to create a business-focused social network to help Indigenous people collaborate on joint ventures and share stories. Okwaho Network launched in 2014. Though it was initially intended for Indigenous Canadians, “Within the first week, we went global,” she says, with users signing up from New Zealand, the United States and Australia. There are now also many non-Indigenous users who joined because they wanted to find and connect with Indigenous people.
The Barberstocks’ project has only grown in the past few years. In 2017, they merged with a Maori-owned consultancy firm to create Okwaho Equal Source. Barberstock is especially proud of the Indigenous Climate Hub, an Okwaho project that she launched with the federal government to showcase how Indigenous communities are adapting to climate change.
As a natural introvert, Barbserstock originally wanted Rye to lead the company, but he refused because he’s Mohawk and Mohawk society is matrilineal. “In matrilineal society, it’s actually the woman who holds the vision and the power,” she explains. “And Rye said, ‘You need to lead the company because you’re a woman; you’ve got vision and you have a voice.’”
“The big thing was having to step outside my comfort zone and into my own power as a woman and realizing that I have a voice,” she adds. While she’s had her fair share of these kinds of trials, she has finally arrived at a point in her career where she feels confident. “I have grown to be a very comfortable business leader, and now I feel like I thrive in it. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”