A startup’s first year is notoriously plagued with challenges such as hiring good employees, building market share, and funding operations. However, for Native American-led startups, these problems can be compounded by limited access to capital and a lack of business education.
This has made it difficult for tribal members to grow their businesses on the reservation, preventing a self-reliant economy from flourishing.
This is where the Native American Business Incubator (NABI) steps in.
Jessica Stago and Natasha Hale, two women of the Navajo Nation, founded the NABI in 2012 to help the small businesses of their community. The business incubator offers what’s hard to find on the reservation: business and legal advice, idea building, and other services to help businesses get established and grow.
“We started talking about how (to) build our economy so the community on the reservation can rely on products and services within that community,” Stago said.
Stago has spent most of her career working with small Native businesses in Arizona. Through this work, she and Hale noticed a need for business programs targeted at Native American entrepreneurs.
In the incubator’s early stages, the duo offered workshops to the community that would help new business owners recognize issues specific to Native businesses.
There was one thing about Native-led businesses that stood apart from those off-reservation: many Native entrepreneurs value a contribution to the community over making a profit.
Native American entrepreneurs feel most successful if they can receive income while staying close to their family, Stago said.
“They shrug that off as the price they pay,” she said. “They talk about being close to their family where they can do ceremony. That part is unique to Native businesses.”
Besides philosophical differences in providing a service, non-Native businesses outside the community have advantages over those on the reservation, Stago said. Indian reservations often have less infrastructure on which a business can rely in order to grow.
The Office of Native American Affairs, a branch of the U.S. Small Business Association, offers a program similar to NABI, but many of the facilities that are intended for Native entrepreneurs are located outside reservations, especially when it comes to banks that can provide loans.
Joseph Pakootas, former CEO of Business Development Projects of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, said banks hesitate to invest in Native-led businesses located on the reservation.
“It’s really hard for tribal members to start a business because banks don’t usually like to finance businesses that are on trust properties. It’s risky,” Pakootas said.
Trust property is land that the U.S. government holds in trust for tribes. The title to the land generally cannot be sold or transferred to individual people or corporations. This leaves banks vulnerable because they can’t foreclose on Indian land if a tribal member can’t pay on a loan.
While smaller banks and credit unions exist on some reservations, the loans they can offer are limited. This forces many to seek out lenders in towns just off the reservation, where they are not protected by tribal laws against high-interest loans.
The Dawes Act of 1887, which created the current system of land title and trusts on Indian reservations, also has led to a series of obstacles for tribal members to weave through, with many parties claiming ownership of pieces of land. That highly fractionated land ownership has made it nearly impossible to use land for business development, stifling entrepreneurship in the community.
This led Stago and Hale to focus their business development program around entrepreneurial development.
Their #IAmTheNavajoEconomy campaign recognized the importance of Navajo entrepreneurs to the reservation’s economy. Stago and Hale invited business owners to march in the Navajo Nation Fair Parade in Window Rock, Arizona, where participants were encouraged to hold up signs with the hashtag.
“You see people offering haircuts out of their home, fixing vehicles on the side of the road, and farmers providing products,” Stago said. “We have a very entrepreneurial society, but we don’t often recognize that as being successful.”
One of these entrepreneurs is Germaine Simonson. Simonson recently bought the Rocky Ridge convenience store in a remote area of northern Arizona.
Stago and Hale helped her with branding and developing a logo for her store, something that’s helped Simonson better market her business.
“They’ve been really good,” Simonson said. “They came at a crucial time for me.”
NABI relies on fundraising, private donations, and government grants to fund its operations. Stago said they wanted the “freedom to develop a program that was going to be effective.”
This doesn’t leave room to provide capital directly to businesses, though. However, Stago said they’re in the works to develop a microlending program.
Incubators may also struggle when it comes to providing assistance over the long term.
“A lot of tribal members will get started with their business and they think they’ll be fine,” Pakootas said. “All too often they don’t get long-range help. I think that’s where they fail.”
Despite that lack of longer-term guidance, Pakootas said that the incubators offer the greatest amount of help when it comes to tribal members without any business expertise. For the founders, answering tribal members’ questions and offering solutions is the most exciting part of their work.
Stago and Hale plan to open a physical office sometime in the coming year, and also to launch a smartphone app that will connect Native businesses with buyers and sellers.
“There’s a strong appetite for (entrepreneurship) now,” Stago said. “As a Native community and Native people, we can’t continue to rely on outside forces for economic growth.”