Deciding what to apply for in post-secondary can be a nerve-racking decision for many students. Kiara Johnson, a soon-to-be-fourth-year student at the Haskayne School of Business, was no exception.
Originally from the Samson Cree Nation in Maskwacis, Johnson grew up with a strong passion for sewing and designing, but taking the leap to leave for a university in a different province was a daunting thought.
“I wasn’t ready to go off to fashion school in Vancouver or someplace right out of high school, because it felt too far,” says Johnson. “So, I thought, ‘What’s something I could do first that would ultimately help me on my journey to fashion?’ and I landed on business.”
Today, Johnson is almost finished her Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Calgary, focusing on organizational behavior in human resources and marketing, with an Indigenous studies minor.
While still passionate about fashion and design, Johnson says she has found a new goal to work toward.
“Within business, I’ve really had to find my way and find avenues to make it my own,” she says. “I found that, through my Indigenous studies option classes, I felt really connected to this idea of merging together Indigenous and business knowledge to create something that leads to a space of accessibility for all.”
During her time at UCalgary, Johnson has participated in three major co-ops and internships that have helped her toward meeting that goal.
She has participated in the Canadian Center of Advanced Leadership in Business (CCAL) at the Haskayne School of Business. The premier Canadian leadership-development centre, it helps students meet today’s complex business environment and the challenges of our future.
“CCAL and its initiatives are amazing,” says Johnson. “I had the honor of working for them for four months and really felt that the opportunity to hone in on leadership development was extremely valuable. (It) helped me to overcome some of the anxiety I felt when speaking to people in higher positions.”
Johnson also completed the Ch’nook Scholars Program. Run out of the University of British Columbia, Ch’nook Scholars focuses on developing business skills for success and economic independence for Indigenous leaders, learners and entrepreneurs.
“In my first year, (Haskayne instructor) Dr. David Lertzman picked myself and two other business students and recommended that we should apply for the Ch’nook program,” says Johnson. “I didn’t end up getting into the program then, which was probably for the best. Unfortunately, Dr. Lertzman passed away last year, and I felt that, in some ways, my finally applying for the first time since my first year was my way of honoring him and his legacy.”
Through the Ch’nook mentorship program, Indigenous students can learn ways to combine Indigenous identities, culture, language, values and knowledge systems that should be respected. Johnson says she would highly recommend it to other students.
This summer, Johnson participated in ATB 101, a work-experience program through ATB Financial, working within the realm of Indigenous financial services. This was the first time she was able to work in person with other students since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the program saw her working on a project to revamp the current Indigenous knowledge pathway for learning within ATB.
“This is the closest I’ve been throughout my co-op to the type of job I’d like to do after graduation,” says Johnson. “I think that one of biggest parts of creating a diverse and inclusive work environment is to educate on important topics that bring to light important issues and work to create a better space.”
Johnson has no doubt her internship with ATB will have a major impact for the Indigenous community.
“I think a big part of what we’re missing within business is that connection to Indigenous knowledge and an understanding of what has and continues to happen to Indigenous peoples,” says Johnson. “I see the work I’m doing as a stepping-stone to more accepting spaces that look deeper than stereotypes but look to advocate for the well-being of Indigenous peoples.
“My goal is to help make the business world more welcoming for other Indigenous peoples like me who haven’t always felt like I belonged here.”