Lindork’s Lists – Q&A #25: Shani Gwin
Note: this is the public version of my email newsletter Q&A that gets sent to paid subscriber inboxes first every other Sunday. You can get these Q&As in your inbox first by becoming a paid subscriber.
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on Mar 13, 2022
The twenty-fifth person I’m profiling in my newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
pipikwan pêhtâkwan Founder and Proud Mother Shani Gwin
Getting to know Shani Gwin:
Shani Gwin, 35, runs pipikwan pêhtâkwan (formerly Gwin Communications), an Indigenous-owned, led and majority staffed public relations agency focused on elevating Indigenous voices, projects and issues. She’s one of the smartest communicators in the city and is helping Indigenous communities across Canada through her practice.
Shani was named Edify’s Top 40 under 40 in 2021 (alongside me!) and gained recognition for an #ProtectOurElders COVID-19 campaign, which included notable Indigenous community members like model Ashley Callingbull and ex-Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear. She also partnered with Sticks & Stones Communications to create videos highlighting the cultural significance of the City of Edmonton’s new ward names.
I love that Shani is focused on uplifting Indigenous people and communities. I know her work is inspiring so many. It’s so important to see representation across so many industries these days, including in communications and marketing.
Learn more about Shani below and be sure to follow her on Twitter.
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Shani Gwin:
Can you describe the work you do and how long you have been doing it?
My incredible team at pipikwan pêhtâkwan supports Indigenous Peoples with communications strategies and tools to advance their projects. We also support non-Indigenous organizations who genuinely want to work with Indigenous People.
I think a lot of people have been calling us a boutique agency because of our specialization – we combine our skill set and lens to help share our clients’ truths, successes and initiatives. We listen, seek to understand and then work together in partnership with the communities and people we serve. I have been involved in marketing and communications since 2008… 14 years… kind of wild.
I know you were involved with the new Indigenous Peoples exhibit at Fort Edmonton Park, and helped promote Bear Grease. Can you talk about those projects as well as others you’re proud of, what did they and your typical work entails, and what type of work gets you excited?
Yes, those were two really great projects. The grand reopening of Fort Edmonton Park and the Indigenous Peoples Experience were huge projects. It was overwhelming seeing the new venue for the first time. You can see the care each individual and community put into the experience. I loved seeing all the familiar faces at the end of the exhibit too – it made my heart happy.
Bear Grease was an all Indigenous cast and remake of Grease. They had so much success organically, they wanted to build on it and give the media an opportunity to see the show. We invited influencers, like yourself, and traditional media to check out the show for some added coverage.
Both of those projects were very fulfilling. I get excited every time we hear from someone new with a project they want us to support, but the projects that really drive me are the ones that come directly from the community.
How did you get into this industry? Why and when did you decide to start your own agency?
I got started when I worked at Nechi Training and Research Institute. They posted a position for the Aboriginal Youth Network coordinator and it sounded like my dream job. In the qualifications they noted a public relations (PR) or marketing background and I had never heard of PR before. I looked into it, saw that MacEwan had a program and applied immediately. Nechi gave me a job as a marketing assistant so I could learn more about the job and get some experience – that was so kind and supportive of them.
Before I got into the program, I had to write an entrance exam and share why I wanted to get into PR. By that point, I had a lot of time to think about why it would be a good role for me and how when I was growing up the stories told about Indigenous People were all wrong.
I ended up writing about using PR to help change the Indigenous narrative in Canadian society. Growing up, I knew a lot of truths my friends and teachers didn’t know. The narrative of who I was or my family and community were was so harmful and not representative of my experience. When I was heading into the PR program, I felt like there was a lot of room for our truths to finally be shared and from our perspective.
After I graduated, I got in at the City of Edmonton and hopped around portfolios there to gain experience. I ended up working in the Indigenous Relations Office and thought I finally landed my dream job. Well, Chief Tony Alexis had other plans for me. He started talking to me about the need for Indigenous communicators to support Nations, communities and Indigenous organizations.
It reminded me of why I originally got into the field and he really encouraged me to think about the possibilities. He was my first client and has supported me since. I owe much of our success to him—he believed in me from the beginning and continues to be a mentor to me.
Can you articulate why you do what you do?
I do it to lift our people up. My parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents and great grandparents have devoted much of their careers and spare time to supporting Indigenous Peoples.
Our agency is devoted to elevating our Indigenous clients, and we are also building capacity to diversify communications by investing in Indigenous and Black youth.
It’s about investing in our people from all angles.
Can you share a memorable moment or success in your career / life?
Holding my seven-day old daughter at my convocation. It’s just bizarre to think about.
I became a mom for the first time at 24 years old, walked across the stage seven days after an emergency c-section, and received my diploma.
Can you share a challenging moment, obstacles or failure in your career / life? And perhaps what you learned from it or how you overcame it?
I was not prepared for my company to grow as quickly as it has. I learnt some hard lessons and the pace of our growth definitely took a toll on my mental health. I ended up surrounding myself with people who are exceptional at their skill and are overall incredible humans.
There’s a lot of collaboration and leaning into each other’s strengths to build and grow with our team in mind. It’s been very rewarding. I will say though, not a lot of people talk about the challenges and struggles of building a business. It’s hard work folks, but as my friend Elliott says—it’s heart work.
I feel like—rightfully—Indigenous business owners, entrepreneurs, artists, makers, etc. are getting deserved recognition recently. Your agency focuses on elevating Indigenous voices, projects and issues. Can you share your thoughts on this—how more people and organizations are trying to elevate Indigenous voices? Is it a good start? Why is elevating Indigenous voices, and Indigenous representation, important?
I think government and private organizations could be doing more to advance reconciliation. Decolonize is becoming a buzzword. The structures are still there and it can be difficult for Indigenous People to continuously call out the barriers. It can be an uncomfortable process – and I think too many people are afraid of being uncomfortable.
Elevating Indigenous voices is important because people are just hearing truths about our history now, even though Indigenous People have been telling these truths for over a century.
Recent events in the news have caused non-Indigenous people to pause and listen – and for them it’s shocking. The momentum does feel a little different this time. I think people want to know more and are ready to challenge their bias and privilege—or at least are opening up to the idea.
AND not only is Indigenous representation and truth sharing key to advancing Indigenous initiatives, it also helps with healing and the overall well being of Indigenous Peoples. Seeing yourself represented in the media and/or having your truths validated has a positive impact.
For so long, Indigenous People could not participate in society—it was illegal to leave the reserve, it was illegal to practice our culture, etc. The shame instilled in our communities by colonizers is lifting. We can be proud of who we are. We deserve to see ourselves represented more widely – on billboards, on campus, making business deals, etc.
We live here too, we do all the things you do—we are just more sacred. Just kidding!
Can you share advice for others who might be interested in getting into PR or engagement, or wanting to start their own agency?
If you’re thinking you’d like PR, tight deadlines will guide the majority of your work. You need to be flexible, open to feedback, lean into your instincts, enjoy strategy, planning and writing.
If you want to start an agency, make sure you take time at the beginning to plan out your vision, lay out your goals and build the foundation. Once you start growing, it’s harder to go back and try to define the structure, roles, policies, etc.
If you have a solid business plan and structure at the start, you can adjust and shift with your growth a lot easier.
Can you share advice for others who might want to elevate Indigenous voices within their own businesses or organizations? Best way to do this?
Do you have Indigenous People on staff? Yes—good start. Do you listen to their concerns or initiatives they bring to you? Do you listen and reflect on what they are sharing before you react? If not, start.
Most of the time, your Indigenous colleagues are bringing things to your attention to help improve the culture or environment they are contributing to. They bring a unique lens and there’s a good chance whatever they are suggesting is going to make you uncomfortable—so it’s important to take your time with it and make sure you’re not reacting because you feel attacked.
Think about what they are sharing and what they are trying to do for you, your company and the broader community. Organizations can also make it mandatory to do training or workshops to help build understanding among your team.
Invite Indigenous experts in. We do workshops and training—we like to get paid for sharing our knowledge and lens with organizations. We are also working professionals and like to take on contracts to help guide your work. Your RFP process could be automatically filtering us out – it won’t hurt to take a peek and see who is not getting through and why.
Can you tell me about your hobbies! What do you do for fun?
Does socializing count? We love to go camping and travel. We do a lot of things as a family—movies, board games, skating, going for walks. I love reading and spending time with my friends and extended family—usually sharing a large plate of nachos.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I am the proud mama to two amazing humans, Quinn and Charlie. I have been lucky to have such incredible mentors in my career. I feel very fortunate to have the relationships I do and am extremely lucky they believed in me. And still now, in building an agency. I have new mentors who are willing to help guide me. I am grateful to them.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix?
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
What is one of your favourite local restaurants or stores you’d recommend?
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
Last Chance Saloon in Wayne, Alberta just outside of Drumheller, which feels random to say, but it’s an interesting little spot and holds a lot of good memories for my Cunningham side of the family. I love a lot of things about Alberta – I feel connections to so many places across the province because of my big family.
Thank you Shani for sharing your story!
You can connect with Shani on:
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