Thinking inside the box

Art, science, business, and Indigenous history converge to take on the gifting world

By Jeff Baker

In the age of Internet commerce, subscription boxes and curated gift boxes have become all the rage. Heck, there’s even a genre of YouTube videos garnering millions of views of folks ‘unboxing’ various subscription boxes and gift packages. 

But how do those boxes and their contents come to be? Well, it’s through the work of folks like Indigenous Box, an Indigenous woman-led company in Treaty 6 Territory.

Taking up space, taking on orders

With no shortage of ‘stuff’ in the world, Mallory Yawnghwe and her company, Indigenous Box, are taking up space for Indigenous manufacturers and makers, bringing their products to consumers across Canada. 

“We purchase items from Indigenous businesses across North America, and we buy in large order quantities from both SMEs and fully established companies,” explains Yawnghwe.

Since the company’s founding in March 2021, over 180 organizations have gifted the curated packs from Indigenous Box to employees, customers, and others. 

“The boxes are curated. We put together collections that tell a story that emphasizes and provides an opportunity for folks to learn about who we are as Indigenous people,” Yawnghwe says. “Indigenous entrepreneurs are accessing modern forms of commerce, just like everybody else, and we’re contributing to a multi-million-dollar Indigenous economy that’s expected to triple and more in the next few years.”

Everybody needs a champion

Yawnghwe was already seeking out Indigenous entrepreneurs and Indigenous-led companies to support through her own individual purchasing power, and she discovered just how many incredible products were on the market.

“There were so many great businesses out there, but the awareness in the broader market was lacking,” explains Yawnghwe. “It’s one thing to recommend a company or link to their website on social media, but it’s another thing entirely to purchase the products.”

“We’re trying to champion these Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs, and we’re trying to do that in a sustainable way that actually leads to stronger businesses, stronger communities, and stronger people,” Yawnghwe says. “Every business has a story about wanting to change their community for the better or be role models for folks, and I wanted to help build the value-chain that would keep the businesses going and keep the positive changes coming.”

Filling boxes, opening doors

Word about Indigenous Box and the company’s gifting service and subscription boxes has spread so quickly and widely that potential suppliers are now seeking out Yawnghwe and her team. 

“We really work hard to learn about the products and the suppliers, to ensure that everything we buy and put in the boxes is telling a story and complementing the theme or focus of each box,” explains Yawnghwe. “We want to make sure everything is on point.”

Art and science collaborating

A graduate in supply chain management from MacEwan University, Yawnghwe says there’s both an art and a science behind Indigenous Box, the products contained within, and how those products get sourced and packed.

“The numbers have to work, regardless of the contents or the story,” says Yawnghwe. “We’re running a very lean team, and we’re always looking for ways to improve our processes. We need to know all the details about the box contents – weights, sizes, logistics between our suppliers and us, and more.”

“I live and breathe supply chain. It’s my jam!” Yawnghwe says.

For Indigenous Box, figuring out the numbers and processes has been critical in the company’s quick trajectory from ‘day one’ to today, and the team has been relishing the challenge.

“We started just over a year ago in a basement bedroom – about 80 square feet – packing 50 boxes. Today, we’re in a warehouse space of about 3,500 square feet, packing over 25,000 boxes a month, and sending those boxes right across Canada,” Yawnghwe explains. “

A rocket ride from the start

“We didn’t think we’d scale this fast, but we saw the opportunity, and we jumped on it,” says Yawnghwe. “Our path started to change from what we initially planned, so we made adjustments on the backend to support the scalability – moving into the warehouse, bringing on additional staff, and identifying very quickly where we needed support.”

“The subscription box side is limited to Canada right now,” says Yawnghwe, “and we’ve got subscribers in every province and territory. It’s about 15 per cent of the business, while the corporate gifting service accounts for about 85 per cent of the business.”

“We’re always trying to find the right balance for everything we do, including how far we want to stretch ourselves,” Yawnghwe explains. “We want to make sure we’re handling the demand right now, but we also want to make sure that we’re constantly moving to be ready for the next step. The evaluating never ends!” 

Rooted in family

For Yawnghwe, the essence of Indigenous Box and how she sees the company progressing in the future comes back to words shared by her Uncle Archie, a leader in the Saddle Lake Cree Nation community, when she first started dancing powwow: “Learn to look after your own people first.”

Indigenous Box takes those words from Uncle Archie to heart in everything the company does, Yawnghwe explains. 

“We’re building the value chains for Indigenous companies, and we want to make sure the businesses and our relationships are sustainable. That’s why we’re focused primarily on Canada right now,” says Yawnghwe. “We get messages from the States asking when we’ll be expanding everywhere there, but we know we need to first get things right at home.”

Back to the future

For Yawnghwe, Indigenous Box and the company’s practices and aims hearken back to the history of Indigenous Peoples, but that realization came after she started her university career. 

“I wanted to study something different, so I went into supply chain at university. I had been working for Toyota and learning lean systems and everything involved there, and I originally thought supply chain was something so foreign to me,” Yawnghwe says. “But what I learned was that Indigenous people are the architects of this vast trading network that spanned the entire continent prior to colonization.”

“We’re just reclaiming the space, and we’re showing to the rest of the world that we’re equal players in the market and the game. We can create and build amazing things, and we’re already participating in doing good things.”