Name: Sunshine Quem Tenasco
Job title: Founder, Her Braids; CEO, Pow Wow Pitch
From: Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que.
Currently lives in: Gatineau, Que.
Education: BA in theatre, BA in English and BEd, Ottawa University
First job out of school: Selling bingo cards and pumping gas
When asked how she ended up starting Her Braids, an organization dedicated to ending the Indigenous water crisis, and Pow Wow Pitch, which offers Indigenous entrepreneurs business support à la Dragons’ Den, Sunshine Quem Tenasco says, “Well, that’s a novel.” No kidding! And what’s equally inspiring—and slightly punny—is that she has also written a book, a children’s book called Nibi’s Water Song, released this past summer.
If you’re equal parts exhausted and inspired just hearing about Tenasco’s hustle, join the club. So how did she do it? Here’s the “long story in point form,” says the mother of four. (Deep breath.) “Young mom, family, started Quemeez (baby moccasin business), went on Dragons’ Den (yay, got a deal!), got divorced, closed down my business, new guy, mom again, single again, fired from job I loved, took that fire and started Pow Wow Pitch, used that same fire to start Her Braids, wrote a book…and voila!”
Impressive, yes, but Tenasco has long been working to educate people on Indigenous issues, whether through theatre during her undergrad or through her first business selling handmade moccasins. The Indigenous clean water crisis is a dark stain on Canada—the longest-running water advisory has been in effect for 25 years for the Neskantaga First Nation. And while some water advisories have been lifted since Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, “56 are remaining—43 boil-water advisories, 13 do-not-consume advisories,” says Tenasco.
Her Braids tackles this by raising funds and awareness while educating people through traditional beading workshops. Tenasco gives a talk on the crisis, teaches beadwork and sells the gorgeous accessories. “For the non-Indigenous communities, it’s really eye-opening,” she says. “It’s kind of shocking—often they don’t even know that First Nations people still exist. We talk about it in a good way, we don’t place blame. But it’s definitely a little dose of reality.”
With all the good work that she’s doing, not to mention the unending work of motherhood, does Tenasco feel like she’s made it? “I feel like I am just beginning,” she says. “But I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and that’s a gift. With my first business, Quemeez, I worked way too hard. It ran me. This time around, although I have more projects on the go, I have firm boundaries, and I run them, not the other way around.” Siri, play DJ Khaled’s “All I do is Win.”