Michele Young-Crook (Anishinaabe/Bear Clan) has been part of the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA) since its inception in 2006—climbing the ranks from volunteer to CEO in 2020.

Young-Crook’s leadership style and commitment stems from a deep connection to her First Nations culture. Her relentless commitment to providing Indigenous communities, women and youth with the tools to overcome barriers is at the heart of everything she does, and this is evident in both her professional and personal life.

In her prior role as COO at NATOA, Young-Crook successfully grew the organization’s membership and secured key sponsorships that tripled the company’s revenue. Within the first six months of Young-Crook becoming CEO, NATOA’s total revenue increased by more than 50%. The COVID-19 pandemic presented a new challenge—as it has so many—though under Young-Crook’s guidance, NATOA has been able to sustain programming and revenue generation throughout the global crisis by adapting quickly and reacting appropriately.

A busy mom of three, Young-Crook also runs her own small business. She is the owner of MYC Design, a jewelry and gift box curating company. To meet the needs of Indigenous women entrepreneurs during the 2020 holiday season, she created a Facebook group called Indigenous Women’s Holiday Market, which grew to over 40,000 members in a matter of three months. Today, this platform continues to be a place where hundreds of entrepreneurs showcase their wares. With the success of this initiative, Young-Crook took it a step further and recently launched an Indigenous online shopping experience at IndigiMall.net. Designed to help businesses easily establish a free online store without having to build a stand-alone website, IndigiMall.net is helping Indigenous entrepreneurs pivot and align their businesses in a post-pandemic world of e-commerce.

SAY Magazine was fortunate enough to catch up with Michele Young-Crook (MYC) to find out more about what informs her leadership, her observations on how COVID-19 has impacted small businesses and how we can all contribute to the future of economic reconciliation.

SAY: Can you share with us a little bit about your personal journey? Who has influenced you on your path of growth?

MYC: I never felt like I belonged in the Indigenous work sector primarily because of my mixed heritage and fair skin. Because of this, I’ve learned to appreciate my allies in the Indigenous community, who graciously showed me what it takes to be a successful leader. With their guidance and support, I developed self-confidence. Over the years, as I observed thought leadership, I realized they all incorporated the Seven Grandfather teachings to support their teams, benefit work culture, and encourage employee confidence and well-being in the workplace.

SAY: As a business professional, how do you feel COVID-19 affected the economy, and how did you respond?

MYC: When COVID-19 first hit, I felt that organizations were not doing enough for their members or their communities. Indigenous small businesses were at a halt with nowhere to go. I reached out to Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations to brainstorm ways to collectively work together to ensure that individuals affected by the pandemic were given the essentials to assist in their livelihoods. I decided to create IndigiMall, a virtual mall that our people could easily access and was cost-effective for businesses to sell from. I knew it would have a positive social impact by ensuring the vision of economic reconciliation was reflected within it.

SAY: You mentioned facing challenges when it comes to your Indigenous identity, both growing up and more recently. If you feel comfortable sharing, please tell us more about your experience.

MYC: In truth, I can tell you that I have never felt “Indian” enough. My grandmother was an Algonquin woman from Antoine First Nation in Northern Ontario. But even though most of my extended family is First Nations, I never truly felt I belonged. Growing up, I would over-analyze what to say, second-guess what I wore, and I was careful about how much I shared about my Indigenous heritage. Recently, there was an oppressive rhetoric article that was written about me “claiming to be Indigenous” because I do not have Indian status. This experience triggered a lot of my previous insecurities about my identity. Thankfully, a group of my fellow Indigenous sisters and mentors stood in solidarity with me against this slander. This experience has helped me realize that it is my right as an Indigenous woman to reclaim my identity and speak my truth as a leader.

SAY: Who in your life has positively influenced you as an entrepreneur and leader?

MYC: My grandmother is one of my role models. When I was little, I spent a lot of time with her. She taught me that a person can do good without gaining full recognition for their actions. I’ve taken that to heart. When growing any business or idea, it’s important to make sure you are doing the work for a greater purpose and not your ego. If your intentions come from within your heart, only good can come from it. When you do things from a place of ego, it can open a Pandora’s box of negativity, often overshadowing the positive impact it could have on a community. This influenced me to always question, are people doing everything in their power to make sure our communities are benefiting? Am I?

SAY: What does leadership mean to you?

MYC: Leadership is putting your values into action. I do everything I can to lead my team and others in a way that aligns with my values and theirs. This means making sure that you are comfortable in the decisions you make and their impact on others. For example, simply stating you want economic reconciliation is not enough. It is acting on those values in a way that has a positive tangible impact on our communities and organizations.

SAY: Do you have suggestions for how organizations can participate more fully in economic reconciliation?

MYC: First of all, let’s put our money where our mouth is and shop Indigenous! That is the whole goal of IndigiMall.net. Secondly, hire Indigenous candidates. There are plenty of highly trained, talented Indigenous people looking for work. And most of all, ask yourself if you are fulfilling your mandate as an organization and affecting real change in the lives you are intending to serve. For myself, I intend to lead in a way that not only benefits my family but the greater community. Over the course of my career, I’ve made sure that every business or venture I am part of aligns with my values and the Seven Grandfather Teachings. Leading by example is the only way to effectively be a leader.

SAY: Do you have any more initiatives that you would like our readers to know about?

MYC: Yes, NATOA has an exciting virtual event we are hosting this May called Womxn Indigenous Legacy Leaders (W.I.L.L) webinar series facilitated by global Indigenous leaders. This event focuses on creating opportunities for Indigenous womxn to access workshops on building a professional profile, developing confidence and learning about entrepreneurship. We are also thrilled to share we are launching a Youth Portal this spring, offering Indigenous people ages 18-35 an online resource hub to find information on financial literacy, entrepreneurship, mental health and Canada-wide job opportunities.

*The term womxn was chosen to be used as a more inclusive spelling of the word “women”.

To learn more about Michele Young-Crook and NATOA, visit natoa.ca.

To shop Indigenous, visit IndigiMall.net.