Left to right: Koyukon Athabascan entrepreneur Joy Huntington, founder of Uqaqti Consulting and the Joy Huntington brand; Byron Bighorse (Osage), CEO of Osage Hotels and Casinos; and Clara Pratte (Diné), CEO of Strongbow Strategies
Since Native Business launched in July 2018, quickly establishing itself as the voice of business in Indian Country, we have profiled at least a hundred Native entrepreneurs and business leaders. Over the course of dozens of conversations and interviews, we have asked Native visionaries and executives their advice on raising capital to start a business, their biggest lessons learned throughout their entrepreneurial and career journeys, and what advice they wish they had received when they were just getting started.
We culled a few of our favorite profiles and Q&As to consolidate this list of tips for aspiring entrepreneurs. We recognize the value in seeing other Natives go after their dreams and build businesses, step by step, in spite of the challenges and barriers stacked against Indigenous entrepreneurs. We also honor the advice from Native executives leading multi-million and billion-dollar enterprises.
Uplifting and amplifying the ingenuity and self-determination of our fellow Native entrepreneurs is one of the primary reasons Founders and Publishers Gary Davis (Cherokee) and Carmen Davis (Makah/Chippewa-Cree/Yakama) created Native Business more than two years ago. We hope these business innovators and leaders’ words of wisdom and motivation give you as much rocket fuel to keep moving forward as they did for us.
Michele Justice, the Diné founder of Personnel Security Consultants, leads a team that performs background checks for more than 140 Tribes — from the top of Alaska to the tip of Florida.
Her resume could garner her top jobs at major corporations. But she followed her heart, to start her own business focused on Indian Country, instead.
Her biggest advice to you? Take the leap. “Feel free to dream and to go for those dreams,” Justice says.
Unfortunately, some people spend their entire lives talking about taking the risk that they ultimately never take.
“Most people don’t do it, because they are afraid that they might fail,” she continues. “If you’re really passionate about something, you probably won’t fail. You’ll probably succeed in some way.”
2) Believe You Can
Stephan Cheney, a young Lakota entrepreneur of the Kul Wicasa Oyate fromt the Lower Brule, South Dakota, founded High Rez Wood Company once he finally jumped over his own self-imposed roadblocks.
Today his custom furniture business is thriving. His advice to other Native entrepreneurs is to “remove all the negativity associated with you accomplishing your goals and dreams,” he says.
“Starting first with yourself and the negative barriers you put up to guard yourself. It takes knowing ourselves and believing in ourselves to really grow. This is followed by the support of those people and things you surround yourself with. When there is a wall in front of you, find the way over it. If you need some help, I’ll build you a stool so we can get over it together,” he adds.
“Research, Research, Research,” says Karlene Hunter, Lakota, who capitalized the launch of Native American Natural Foods (NANF) through commercial, SBA and BIA loans.
What started off as a small business on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 2007 has since grown in size, scale and notoriety. NANF makes the famous TANKA products — now sold at more than 8,000 retailers, including Amazon, Whole Foods, REI and Costco.
Hunter offers this advice for securing seed funding: “Look at all the banks you can for best interest rates, amenities that go with doing business there, and establish a relationship with them. Look into all the Federal Programs you could utilize, as a CDFI or other organizations (such as National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development) that provide training in this area. Ask other entrepreneurs or the Chamber of Commerce in your area for advice. Just do your homework to make sure you know what is available out there that fits your needs best.”
Since 2014, Byron Bighorse (Osage) has lead Osage Hotels and Casinos as CEO. He’s responsible for overseeing all facets of seven Osage casinos operating in northeastern Oklahoma — including more than 1,500 employees (pre-pandemic workforce number).
“Prepare yourself by reading as much as possible about your respective business and related fields,” he advises.
He also suggests finding a mentor to be a sounding board and proactively seek out their advice.
Additional words of wisdom: Be approachable. Stay open to change. And hire smart people, and then get out of their way.
5) Start Small
Douglas Miles launched APACHE Skateboards and APACHE Skate Team nearly 17 years ago. His brand has grown steadily over time — each new product and project funneling revenue to support the next.
“I think the only advice I can really give entrepreneurs is that everything starts off small,” he tells Native Business. “Don’t try to do too much too fast. If you’re into food, it’s okay to start off with a taco cart and work your way up into a taco truck or van. If you’re in a taco van, it’s okay to go to a strip mall. Sometimes when people try to do too much too quick, it gets discouraging and they quit.”
6) Scale Up, Slowly
Melinda Williamson launched Morning Light Kombucha from her kitchen in Hoyt, Kansas, brewing just 14-gallons at a time.
Pretty quickly after launching, Wiliamson acquired two 20-gallon fermenters. Then she purchased a couple of 55-gallon fermenters at $1,000 a pop, and a 200-gallon fermenter that typically has a $2,000 price tag.
Gradually, she built business partnerships to sell her effervescent drink on tap at 11 fill stations. She also recently pivoted (amid the covid-19 pandemic) to offer curbside pickup, as well as doorstep delivery of her delicious kombucha across Topeka, Kansas.
Today Morning Light Kombucha operates in a 1,700-square-feet brewery. “We have the capacity to brew about 820 gallons at a time,” she said.
Her advice to you? Scale up, slowly but surely.
7) Progressive Payments
Geoff Hager (Osage) and his wife liquidated their retirement funds and put all their money on the line to start Big Elk Energy Systems, a pipeline equipment manufacturing company. “I went two years without a paycheck and one year without medical insurance,” he said.
Hager’s advice to entrepreneurs is stay cash-flow positive.
“From a business strategy standpoint, we work very closely with our clients to get progressive payments at certain milestones throughout the project, so that we don’t end up cash-flow negative,” he says.
He advises other entrepreneurs to implement milestone payments as well. Keep revenue flowing, keep your business afloat, and growing.
8) Strike a Balance
Clara Pratte founded and serves as CEO of Strongbow Strategies, a multi-disciplinary firm that supports agencies and private companies in need of IT and cyber security support, GIS services, emergency management and even facilities support. (She’s also serves as Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s Tribal engagement director.)
To top it off, she’s a working mom. She knows first-hand the importance of self-care and not burning out.
Her advice for other working moms: “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she says. “Work hard to balance work and life. And look for resources in your area.”
9) Stay You
Kathy George (Seneca), CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, offers this simple yet profound career advice for aspiring entrepreneurs as well as employees seeking to rise the ranks:
“Have fun, and be true to yourself. You know, sometimes people, as we’re climbing that ladder, we forget why we got into something, or we forget who we are at the core of it. And that’s my advice — don’t ever lose sight of that. Be you,” George says.
George also lives by the philosophy that “if one of us is struggling, we all are. And I think that has been very successful for us — to not only improve morale, and knock down the silos, but it has helped us increase revenues,” she says of FireKeepers.
10) Go All In
A Koyukon Athabascan entrepreneur, Joy Huntington is achieving her goals through a combination of grit, an inborn ability to foster productive communications between people, and a firm footing in her Tribal heritage.
Huntington launched Uqaqti Consulting in 2011. Uqaqti, pronounced “oo-kuk-ti,” is Inupiaq for “one who speaks.”
Her advice to aspiring Native entrepreneurs? “Go all in,” she says. “Grow your skills, push yourself to the next level.”
She also offers some potent tips on cultivating courage and processing the emotional turbulence of entrepreneurship here: Unearth Sustainable Joy With Joy Huntington.