Native American incubators are popping up across the ‘Silicon 66’ corridor – from Tulsa to Flagstaff, from the Navajo Nation to Albuquerque — and a bill introduced recently in the U.S. Senate may spur even more.
“I think we’re really poised,” says Peter Holter, interim executive director of Native Entrepreneur in Residence Program (NEIR), which offers capital and mentorship to entrepreneurs in New Mexico and Oklahoma through New Mexico Community Capital. “I think the entrepreneurial spirit is a good one to cultivate. There’s a move afoot.”
The New Mexico climate is smart, and it has momentum, says Vanessa Roanhorse, a NEIR graduate. She launched Roanhorse Consulting, a social impact consulting firm, in January 2016. “People are doing some incredible cutting edge thinking here.”
In Flagstaff, Arizona, executive director Natasha Hale says she launched the Native American Business Incubator Network in 2012 because she was inspired to see a thriving underground economy that has sprung up largely without support. “Against all odds, they have a business,” she says in a video on nativeincubator.org.
One Place To Go
Red tape, land trust issues, internet connectivity and access to capital are some of the barriers Native entrepreneurs face, but a growing network of incubators, business mentors and coders stretched across the Silicon 66 corridor is changing that.
Having one place to go to get your business started is a big boost, and that’s why three U.S. senators introduced the Native American Business Incubators Program Act in July 2016. Introduced by Jon Tester (D-Montana), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the bill will create an annual $5 million competitive grant initiative to maintain incubators that serve as one-stop shops for Native American communities.
A knowledgeable advocate can cut years off the time it takes to launch, says Ben Jones, entrepreneurial director at the newly opened Navajo Tech Innovation Center in Church Rock, New Mexico, one of seven business incubators in the state.
Since December 2015, the incubator, which is housed at Navajo Technical University, has launched businesses ranging from fiber optics to home health care.
“You have the land status,” Jones says, in which tribal land is held in federal trust, which means entrepreneurs cannot use their homes as collateral to start a business or easily buy a building for their business. Bankers are hesitant to lend because of that, he says, but “our partnership with the Navajo Nation makes it easier. We have the building and space. You kind of have to have a partner to wade through that process.”
Catalysts and Mentors
The attention to cultivating Native entrepreneurs is welcome news to many. According to the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, 39 percent of Native Americans living on reservations are in poverty, and the unemployment rate is 19 percent, more than three times the national average.
Already Albuquerque-based NEIR has a robust graduate list. NEIR graduate Jake Foreman won $10,000 in the 2016 business plan competition at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management for Karuna Colectiva, a “pop-up workshop” that helps students learn entrepreneurship. Misty Kuhl launched thegirlzilla.com, an online marketplace for women to buy and sell outdoor gear.
“Our real goal is to have the participants help shape the program,” Holter says. “Let’s find out what you do know and work with that, and be a catalyst to build and grow.”
Cracking the Code
That’s already happening. NEIR graduate Cultivating Coders is bringing coding bootcamps to the Navajo reservation, but what they offer is far more than coding, says co-founder Charles Ashley III, who launched the venture in November 2015. The company was recognized as SxSW Tech.co Startup of the Year.
When Ashley discovered no one was serving the tribal entrepreneurial ecosystem by offering coding instruction, he thought, “Why not do the wraparound services as well?” That meant financial literacy, entrepreneurial models and life coaching.
“They have come up with stuff we didn’t even think about,” Ashley says, pointing to a dating app in Diné, the Navajo language, and a video game documenting the Acoma wars that’s much like the popular Oregon Trail game.
While Cultivating Coders has tapped into high schoolers, the first bootcamp drew people ages 19 to 65. “We have a unique blend of the non-developer who is very ambitious, an older person who has had the same job for 30 or 40 years or bad luck in establishing a career and a desire to do something different. And we have that transitional student who has been looking for this skill most of their life but they just didn’t know how to access it.”
No matter which one they are, “the work ethic is the same,” Ashley says. When they have the opportunity, “they give it their all.”
To succeed, entrepreneurs need more than capital and technical knowledge, and NEIR knows that, says Holter. “Not everyone is going to turn out to be an entrepreneur — there’s a certain grit factor, a certain minor craziness factor.”
But that passion is what grows an ecosystem.
Ashley agrees, and he’s seeing it happen when innovators with talent meet up with investors seeking solutions. “The want is there for the skill. The want is there for the entrepreneur.”
Aiming For Social Impact
How potent is the entrepreneurial climate for Native people right now? Roanhorse points to Albuquerque, which is estimated to have about 47,280 Native Americans concentrated in a city of 700,000 — about 6.6 percent, according to the Urban Indian America report.
She sees that Native entrepreneurs will lead the conversation about responsible, sustainable businesses because social impact is baked into their business models.
“For Native people, there is a cultural divide,” she says. In addition to making money, “you need to support your culture and your community with your business. It’s a three-tiered business model.”
Roanhorse likes what she’s seeing in New Mexico, and she thinks sustainability will remain a theme. “I believe Native people are the most resilient culture, considering what we have gone through the last 500 years.”