For nearly a decade Jennifer Forbes was a Senior Justice Advisor at the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Service Society (VATJSS), a not-for-profit organization that provides traditional, indigenous and alternative approaches to justice issues within Metro-Vancouver.
Her work involved developing communication tools for survivors of domestic conflict, securing funding for housing projects, and assisting clients as they accessed alternative measures to the mainstream criminal justice system.
This experience allowed her to hone and highlight her collaboration, relationship building, and leadership skills proving that she was a natural fit for a higher level position.
But Forbes wasn't ready just yet.
"My seniors tried for about three years to get me to accept the Executive Director role," Forbes said with a chuckle.
"I was concerned that I didn't have sufficient business acumen to take on an executive role. I wanted to learn more but didn’t have time to enrol in traditional academic programming. I was thoroughly familiar with organizing programs and managing human resources but I knew I lacked the experience and knowledge associated with running a business."
That sentiment changed after the former Executive Director suggested that she enrol in UBC Sauder School of Business's Aboriginal Management Program (AMP). Offered by the school’s Ch'nook Centre, it is a unique initiative focused on promoting sustainable economic development in Indigenous communities. The AMP combines teaching, business research and Indigenous content that is tailor-made to a participant's unique career progression.
"Taking the AMP gave me the confidence and skills I needed to embrace the Executive Director position," said Forbes, whose roots are in Tsimshian, Gitksan and Haida ancestry.
Fuelling careers and communities
The program is ideal for candidates like Forbes. The Ch’nook team recruits Indigenous students with more than five years of experience, and supplements their professional standing with a range of learning opportunities. Core concepts such as Marketing Strategy, Introduction to Economics, Accounting and Finance, are taught by industry professionals and highly regarded UBC Sauder faculty members.
The curriculum integrates these business concepts with practical experience, leadership development, and mentorship. It also includes workshops and lectures led by Indigenous business leaders to enhance the students' learning experience.
"At Ch’nook, we believe business education has an integral role to play as we work towards a shared goal of economic reconciliation in Canada," said Kristin Smart, who oversees the AMP as Program Manager.
"The AMP provides Indigenous community leaders and entrepreneurs with a transformative learning experience. Graduates leave the program with new skillsets and business knowledge that fuels their individual careers and, in turn, their respective communities and organizations. The program supports them in their journey towards sustainable self-governance and economic prosperity.”
This sentiment resonates with Forbes' experience at the AMP. The intensive, five-month program improved her ability to understand and engage with all aspects of running an organization from budgets, to human resource oversight. What previously held her back now creates little resistance as she dives into new challenges with full confidence at VATJSS.
In particular, she learned how to formulate a business pitch and experienced first-hand the impact a good pitch can make in regards to communicating ideas in a coherent, and organized manner. "Practising business pitches in class and for presentations has come in handy. The methods I learned helped me to run effective meetings, and most importantly, develop and implement a clear and compelling narrative that I use when writing grant proposals and approaching donors," said Forbes.
The AMP program has impacted other areas of work too. Marketing concepts have inspired her team's outreach efforts in communities, from something as small as composing a VATJSS tagline to developing a holistic marketing strategy.
"Prior to enrolling in the AMP, I had many great ideas for effective programming but they were all in my head and disjointed. It's only when I studied the AMP that the whole picture came together. I could visually see and understand things. It made me so much more motivated to do more at VATJSS," said Forbes.
She now confidently leads projects, manages funding and donations, and is more involved with the accounts department. She also appreciates the value of 'human equity' and the important role employees’ assume within the organization.
"The AMP taught me to value everything that we have to offer in a bigger way so that I can approach stakeholders and funders with concrete numbers and reflect a more accurate value on everything we have to offer, " said Forbes.
Donors integral to AMP's success
Contributions from donors are instrumental in supporting students. Her tuition, travel, accommodation, and materials were covered, allowing her to engage with the program concepts and not worry about how she would cover the costs.
Forbes is deeply appreciative of UBC Sauder's donors whose contributions make the AMP accessible to students like her. "This opportunity was made possible because of the funders. When you're working and studying for 12-13 hours a day, not having to worry about finances is key to learning," said Forbes.
"I'm a single mom and enrolling into school would not have been possible without the AMP sponsors, a supportive employer, and dedicated Ch’nook staff members. It has changed my career path."
Forbes now works with a team of six board and nine staff members and 13 volunteers. With Forbes at the helm, VATJSS is on course to touch the $1-million-dollar mark in total legal services offered to its clients.