The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) continues its “Gender in Tech Series” with a conversation with Marissa Hill, Indigenous Innovation Lab Manager at the Indigenous Innovation Initiative, about her non-linear path to tech (by way of innovation) as an Indigenous woman. Marissa discusses the barriers and opportunities for Indigenous women in the tech sector and how employers can improve the commitment to Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) within their organizations.

Marissa is from what is now called Midland and Penetanguishene and is a citizen of the Métis Nation of Ontario. Living in Tkaronto (Toronto) for the last 11 years, Marissa respectfully refers to herself as a visitor and a guest here. She is grateful for the gifts and opportunities these lands have and continue to give to her and her family.

Marissa is part of the Indigenous Innovation Initiative, whose vision is to improve all life through Indigenous innovation. Early in 2021, the Indigenous Innovation Initiative invested $2.5-million CAD through the Indigenous Gender Equality Program. This program seeks to improve Indigenous gender equality across health, economic, and social dimensions “through transformative innovation and large-scale systemic change that is by and for First Nation, Inuit, and Métis women, Two Spirit, queer, trans, and gender diverse people.”

A Meandering Path to Tech

The predictable route to tech usually involves high school, then college or university, and a full-time job in the digital economy. Marissa’s path was a little different. Winding up in the innovation space was the culmination of diverse life experiences, deep-rooted relationships, a commitment to community, and confidence in who she is and what she brings to the table.

Marissa left her community when she was 19 to attend Western University in London, Ontario. She graduated from the kinesiology program and dreamed of working as a physiotherapist. After a summer job working for a Member of Provincial Parliament, her plans changed in the last year of university when she took a full-time position at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Although exciting and full of twists, turns, and learnings, it wasn’t what she wanted for herself, and she eventually found her way back to healthcare, working in the mental health space before a long journey of project management at Cancer Care Ontario (CCO). “My time within CCO really started to shape my path, which eventually got me to where I am today,” Marissa says.

With a commitment to working alongside the Indigenous community and the guidance of Indigenous leaders within and outside of CCO, a big step in her journey was still to come through a Master’s program at the University of Edinburgh, with a focus on sustainable development within an Indigenous context. This experience helped Marissa sharpen her focus on what was important to her and allowed her to see a clear path forward.

Soon after completing her Master’s degree in Global Challenges, Marissa was drawn to the Indigenous Innovation Initiative’s vision of improving all life through innovation. This ground-breaking and culturally rooted innovation platform resonated with her and interconnected with her ongoing personal journey of reclaiming her own culture, languages, relationships, and Protocols.

Marissa refers to her career progression as a “meandering path” but one propelled by her relationships with people who felt a strong connection to their work and who kept encouraging her to move forward.

“[They] helped me to realize who I am as a person, what my gifts are, and the things that I love,” she says. “They helped me take a leap so I could be who I wanted to be.”

At the Indigenous Innovation Initiative, Marissa manages the innovation programs that provide wrap-around capital and supports to First Nation, Inuit, and Métis innovators across Canada. In partnership with the community, ecosystem partners, and innovators, Marissa is working alongside an incredible team to co-create a comprehensive pre-seed through scale innovation platform that brings bold, transformative innovative solutions into practice — solutions that shine a spotlight on the creativity of Indigenous Peoples and that create exponential impact for all people and the Land.

“It allows me to work with community and be in a space where people are applying culturally rooted and gender affirming innovation across different sectors, to create opportunity and to heal and protect the planet and each other. It is really, really beautiful,” she says.

Understanding Barriers for Indigenous Women in Tech

Marissa notes that mainstream social narratives and historical and ongoing colonial harm and oppression have reinforced erasure and silencing of Indigenous Peoples.

“The historical and ongoing impact of colonization is so impactful,” she says. “Most mainstream spaces were made without Indigenous Peoples, which means they weren’t made for us or with us in mind. There were many colonial attempts to erase us and to make us feel like we don’t belong.”

Even in tech, the industry is missing representation by Indigenous Peoples. As Marissa points out, the narratives and ongoing colonization continue to exclude Indigenous Peoples.

“But Indigenous Peoples have always been here,” Marissa says. “Our existence to date is because we are creative and innovative. Now is a time where we are standing up and saying, ‘We have always been here, we deserve to be here, and we have a place at the table.’”

Marissa emphasizes the importance of Indigenous role models like Teara Fraser, the first Indigenous woman to launch her own airline in Canada; Jenn Harper, the founder of Cheekbone Beauty; or Sage Lacerte, an Indigenous youth who is leading the way in rematriating Indigenous communities and economies.

“These women are working so hard to create representation for Indigenous Peoples to enter into spaces we have systemically been excluded from, and they are creating a path for people to follow behind them at every step of the way,” Marissa says. “I look up to each of them every single day.”

EDI Commitment: What Needs to Happen

Indigenous Peoples are significantly underrepresented in boardrooms and in the tech industry. But the tide is changing. A lot of companies now understand the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity.

Although many tech companies are showing their commitment to overcoming systemic barriers that continue to exclude Indigenous Peoples in the booming tech industry, there is work to be done.

For organizations hiring Indigenous People, the effort needs to be about more than just “checking a box.” Adding diversity to an organization requires a shift in thinking and employers should be prepared to create the wrap-around conditions that allow Indigenous Peoples to thrive in these spaces.

“Hiring Indigenous Peoples, in my opinion, must be coupled with a desire and a meaningful way to enact organizational change — to truly reassess and transform the infrastructure that the organization is founded on,” Marissa says. “There not only needs to be a commitment to equity in terms of uplifting every single person you bring into that space by making sure they have the tools, resources, relationships, and safety to thrive.

“You also need to bring in more than one person. Not only will one person burn out, but no one of us can solve colonization alone — we need a community. We need a team to work alongside, all with their own diverse lived experiences as Indigenous Peoples that will help bring the vision of the team and organization to life.

“Lastly, you need to shift fundamentally within leadership and governance functions and be committed to looking into every corner of your operations and decolonizing your approaches so you can do and be better.”

Building an inclusive business culture where everyone feels valued involves a significant investment of time, money, and ongoing effort from business leaders. It also requires a core desire to remove oppressive, racist, colonial, and systemic barriers that may be in place, whether they’re intentional or not, and to rebuild thoughtfully using human-centred approaches.

Advice for Young Indigenous Women

As for offering advice to young Indigenous women, Marissa reflects before answering. “Never underestimate yourself and what you bring to the table. Walk confidently and remember who you are and where you come from, and the gifts that you carry. Never let someone take that from you,” she says.

Social networks are also extremely important, and Marissa reminds people to engage Elders and Knowledge Keepers within their community for guidance and wisdom and to reach out to their role models for mentorship or advice.

“Don’t be afraid to send them an email and say, ‘Hey, can I talk to you? I have a dream, and I think you can help me get there. Can I have a few minutes of your time?’”

Summing up, Marissa returns to the theme of pride. “I am part of the first post-colonial generation of Indigenous Peoples to heal and to walk so proudly with our identities,” she says. “My parents could not do that. My grandparents could not do that. For anyone wondering if tech or some offshoot of that space is for them, I would underline a million times one statement: We belong here.”

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Marissa Hill (she/her) was born and raised in Georgian Bay on the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat and within the historic Georgian Bay Metis Community, on pre-confederation treaty 5 and 16 territory. Marissa is a citizen of the Metis Nation of Ontario.

Marissa is the Indigenous Innovation Lab Manager at the Indigenous Innovation Initiative, where she is co-creating a first-of-its-kind pre-seed through scale innovation lab in partnership with community, partners, and innovators. Marissa is committed to engaging in these activities through co-creation and using Indigenous methodologies that centre First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Worldviews, Values, Principles, and Protocols.

Marissa completed her Honours Specialization in Kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario, Certification in Lean Six Sigma and Quality Improvement from the University of Toronto, Project Management Professional designation from the Project Management Institute, and graduated with distinction from the MSc Global Challenges program at the University of Edinburgh.