Tea Horse is an indigenous woman-owned tea company located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg Peoples in Northwestern Ontario. Denise Atkinson runs the company alongside her partner, Marc H. Bohémier. Their innovative tea blends are the only ones in the world that feature wild rice, a nutritious grain that is native to North America.

Atkinson is Anishinaabe. She grew up in a land-based, traditional home where tea was always an important part of her family life and community culture. Growing up, Atkinson recalls that no matter what they were doing, there was always a pot of tea brewing in her childhood home or around the campfire. Atkinson wanted this aspect of her brand story to come across on the company’s website and in its marketing communications.

In her entrepreneurial journey thus far, Atkinson had faced challenges accessing grant money.  “I am a member of a First Nation, but I don’t live on the First Nation. […] So I can’t access most of the big opportunities as an individual entrepreneur who is not being funded by a particular First Nation,” says Atkinson. When she heard about the Racialized and Indigenous Supports for Entrepreneurs (RAISE) program she jumped at the opportunity. RAISE is a provincially-funded, comprehensive grant initiative that supports Indigenous, Black, and other racialized entrepreneurs in Ontario who are on the road to starting or scaling their businesses. In addition to grant funding, the program provides entrepreneurs with access to business development training, business coaching, and culturally responsive support services through the Parkdale Centre for Innovation’s Early Stage Entrepreneur program.

Atkinson’s RAISE project focused on developing a cohesive suite of marketing assets to give Tea Horse a polished and professional look and effectively convey the brand’s story. Atkinson says the most significant takeaway from her work with the Parkdale Centre program advisors was the importance of thinking carefully and strategically about each decision she makes for her business. “It’s good to have goals and to make plans, but you can’t rush into things,” says Atkinson.

Ahead of attending a trade mission trip to Florida for women-owned businesses organized by the Canadian government, Atkinson was eager to invest her grant funds and sign a deal with a marketing agency. Her Parkdale Centre program advisors encouraged her to press pause. “I stepped back, thought about it, went to this trade mission and realized […] the company that I wanted to work with […] wasn’t the right company,” says Atkinson.

During the trade mission, Atkinson had the opportunity to connect with other businesses and hear more about their experiences. Through these conversations, she realized Tea Horse’s focus on a direct-to-consumer (D2C) model might be holding them back. She became increasingly interested in exploring a business-to-business (B2B) model as an additional revenue stream that would allow her to reach more people and effectively scale her business.

When she returned from the trade mission, Atkinson hired a different marketing agency; one that is a woman-owned business and passionate about telling her brand story. The agency helped Atkinson develop brand guidelines, a press kit, and a new Shopify website with a B2B portal for wholesale partners. Atkinson was very pleased with the final results and feels confident she made the right decision. She says getting her brand story out there in a way that feels compelling and authentic is her biggest success to date. “There are lots of tea companies out there, but now, people are going to know we’re an Indigenous woman-owned company, [that] wants to share these gifts […] of tea, wild rice, community, and culture with the world,” says Atkinson.

With a strong suite of marketing assets in place, Atkinson is now focused on growing the B2B arm of Tea Horse by executing the export plan she created while working with the Parkdale Centre program advisors. The company’s target market is Indigenous Nation-owned casinos and resorts. Atkinson has already started taking meetings with different tribal nations who are looking to collaborate with woman-owned Indigenous enterprises and she has more exciting networking opportunities coming up in the spring.  “I really want to get my products out there and get people to experience […] this really innovative, amazing, ancient grain that [we’ve made] into a beautiful beverage that warms your heart [and] soul.”

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