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This Entrepreneur Used Her Love for Her Land and Community to Build an In-Demand Maple Syrup Business

Meet Jolene Johnson, Micro-Business Award winner at the 2023 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards

By Khera Alexander

Sometimes, seasons in your life take place to prepare you for something bigger — you collect a series of experiences without fully seeing how these events will position you to sit at the head of a table you’ve built yourself.

This is something Jolene Johnson, founder and CEO of Wabanaki Maple, knows well. Though she has always been creative and a lover of nature, she didn’t expect to start a company that played to her skills and passions.

“I always wanted to run my own business, but the timing just didn’t work out,” she says. “​​I wasn’t expecting it to be Wabanaki when Wabanaki happened.”

Wabanaki Maple is a company known for its barrel-aged maple syrup. Available in bourbon, whiskey, and toasted oak flavours, Wabanaki products are harvested, boiled, and refined on the Tobique First Nation in what is known today as northwestern New Brunswick.

Before running Wabanaki Maple, Jolene worked at a local restaurant in her community for many years, starting as a cook and eventually becoming the manager. Seasonally, she worked with her sister and brother-in-law on their Christmas tree farm.

“Growing, planting, fertilizing, I absolutely loved it,” she says. “Some of my most memorable times were out on the land in the fields working. It was a sense of disconnect, but connecting in other ways.”

Jolene’s family also had a small hobby of collecting and processing maple syrup, and it was through this work that she learned about maple syrup harvesting. Noticing an area of opportunity, she set out to create Wabanaki Maple.

“The inspiration was a marriage of my strengths in the food industry, the agricultural industry, and the strength of my culture,” she says. “Maple syrup and Indigenous people were very underrepresented in the industry. I wanted to be one to reconnect and share those pieces of our history and culture.” 

Named after the Peoples of the Wabanaki Confederacy in the Eastern Woodlands — the Wolastoqiyik, Mi’kmaq, Penobscot, Abenaki, and Passamaquoddy Peoples — Jolene was intentional about acknowledging these nations and the cultural tradition of maple harvesting that is present throughout the territories. 

“Wabanaki roughly translates to ‘People of the Dawn,’ ‘People of the First Life,’ or ‘The Eastern Woodland People.’ The maple syrup that we harvest comes from all these territories, and that’s where Wabanaki came from — I want to be very inclusive of all our brothers and sisters and other communities.”

In Wabanaki’s early days, there were a lot of lessons for Jolene to learn, but she says that investing in the foundation of her business, building relationships, and understanding marketing was critical.

“​​I was very, very green about business. I needed to figure out how to even execute my business plan, so I participated in business incubator programs and accelerator programs and met some phenomenal coaches, mentors, and advisors,” she says. “The other piece in growth was and still is our marketing and sharing our story.”

Jolene also recognized that to see the business grow, she needed to make personal changes and embrace being a student of many subjects. 

“When I started I was very insecure,” she says. “Moving out of my comfort zone was a daily practice, [and] everything was learn-as-you-go. Now that five years have passed, I feel much more confident in making big important decisions or those minor decisions.”

One easy decision for Jolene was Wabanaki Maple’s Bareroots Initiative, curated gift boxes that help support tree reforestation efforts throughout the Wabanaki Woodlands. In collaboration with other Indigenous and not-for-profit organizations, a wide variety of trees are planted to contribute to reviving lost forests with each purchase.

“I want to be able to give back to our environment so that the next generations will be able to thrive,” Jolene says. “We are a maple syrup company. The earth and Mother Earth’s environment provide this product for us. It’s not all about taking — we have to give back.”

The culmination of Jolene’s authenticity and Wabanaki’s compelling story was recognized when she found herself on the receiving end of a nomination for the 2023 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards. 

She decided to fill out an application excited to be acknowledged, but was pleasantly surprised when she won the Micro-Business award. 

“I felt incredibly honoured and privileged to win that category. I know that there were so many remarkable women that were there. To me, I feel like they all deserved [to win],” she says.

When sharing what the win has done for her, Jolene says the recognition is much bigger than just herself.

“It’s just made a significant impact. Not just for me, but for our Indigenous communities. It gives us an opportunity to hold a space [for] representation as an Indigenous entrepreneur,” she says. 

“As an indigenous business or entrepreneur, we face unique obstacles and challenges when starting a business. Hopefully, it will be an inspiration for other Indigenous women to move forward and keep being inspired and follow their dreams.”