How 8 Native Entrepreneurs Capitalized Their Businesses

Loretta Guzman, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho, paid her way through school as a barista, and also capitalized Bison Coffeehouse with her tips and through sales of her beadwork. (Courtesy Bison Coffeehouse)

Native Business asked several Indigenous entrepreneurs how they accessed the capital to fund their business ideas. No matter your background, skillset, connections or sector of business, every entrepreneur must tackle the question of capitalizing their vision. In Indian Country, this is often uniquely challenging. 

We asked entrepreneurs across an array of industries to share how they went about securing the money to start their business and how they attained success. From their various vantage points, one can glean ideas and inspiration, as well as an overview of the state of affairs of capitalization across Indian Country.

APACHE Skateboards

Douglas Miles’ drive to succeed as an entrepreneur came from a self-determination so powerful, it was like the will to survive, he says. “In the process, I also felt like I was doing something revolutionary — taking and putting a Native American stamp on something people didn’t necessarily think was Native American: skateboarding,” said Miles.  

Miles launched APACHE Skateboards and APACHE Skate Team nearly 17 years ago, and the brand has only grown steadily overtime — each new product and project funneling revenue to support the next.

READ MORE: Douglas Miles, Founder of APACHE Skateboards: 3 Ways to Grow Your Brand

As an artist living and working in San Carlos, Arizona, on the Apache Nation, Miles was aware of the Tribe’s relending program geared toward funding small businesses on the reservation. But he didn’t apply. 

“With the initial application, they want you to foresee your market for the next five years… but mine was more of a niche business. I also didn’t want to apply to the program, because I didn’t want to go into debt, and have to perform in a unique market. …I felt it was more practical for me to self-finance through the sales of fine art,” Miles told Native Business. 

READ MORE: 10 Questions With Douglas Miles on Self-Capitalizing APACHE Skateboards 

Pictured: Douglas Miles (left) and The A Team. The skate team became the organic engine for APACHE Skateboards. “They utilize the product, they share the product, the promote the product, they ride the product,” Miles said. (Facebook @APACHE Skateboards)

Arrowhead Campground

Roseann and Lester Littleman invite tourists to unplug and experience the Diné way of life in the rugged, high-desert landscape of Navajo country, near Page, Arizona. Guests can book a stay in one of their traditional dwelling options, Hogan or Tipi. 

The Littlemans also offer wagon tours to the hidden Mystical Antelope Canyon, a spiritual place of towering sandstone walls. The enterprising couple call their bed-and-breakfast and tourism operation “Arrowhead Campground & the Navajo Wagon.”

“We used our personal income, our own savings” to fund our business, Roseann Littleman, Diné, told Native Business. “We set aside money strictly for this business. We know a loan is something that you have to pay back, and over time, what you pay builds. So if the business is not successful, you lose a lot of money. I didn’t want to take a chance on a big loan, so I wanted to pay a lot of it ourselves.” 

READ MORE: Building a Tourism Operation Near Mystical Antelope Canyon 

The Littlemans at Arrowhead Campground

Big Elk

Geoff Hager, founder of Big Elk Energy Systems, is a believer that all of life is built on relationships. Bank representatives and investors are a part of that. “If you want someone to invest in you, you have to go all-in yourself,” said Hager, a direct descendant of Osage chief Big Elk.

Hager and his wife liquidated their retirement funds and put all their money on the line to start Big Elk, a pipeline equipment manufacturing company. “I went two years without a paycheck and one year without medical insurance,” he said, and he spent a lot of time praying he and his family would not become ill.

“That really spoke volumes to people. Even though what we had was a tiny fraction of what was needed to get the business off the ground, they knew how powerful that was,” Hager said. 

“If you want someone to invest in you, you have to be all-in yourself,” Hager states. 

Their leap of faith paid off. The 100-plus employee company has attained a whopping three-year growth of 3,152 percent, raking in $20.6 million in annual revenues last year. Hager hopes to increase that amount to $100 million in a few years.

Hager started off raising capital locally before finally attracting banks seeking out Big Elk as a client. 

“Well when you’re first getting started, no one knows you, so primarily you’re trying to raise capital in your local market — unless you happen to be in a line of work prior to that where you know a lot of capital sources outside your reach, and I certainly wasn’t in that category,” Hager explained. “So when we first started, I had to work with people we knew around here to make something happen. Over the course of time, as our businesses turn the corner and become profitable and successful in the sense that we’ve had some national notoriety — that positive attention has led to lots of other entities being interested in us and wanting to help us from a financial standpoint. So I would say our access to capital is a lot greater than it was when we first started.”

READ MORE: Osage Entrepreneur Geoff Hager Put Everything on the Line to Launch Big Elk

Geoff Hager, Founder of Big Elk Energy Systems

High Rez Wood Company

Stephan Cheney, a young Lakota entrepreneur of the Kul Wicasa Oyate fromt the Lower Brule, South Dakota, hunts for wood around his Northern California home to make his signature furniture. Ultimately High Rez Wood Company was created by and for the Relatives. 

His Relatives (with a capital “R”) helped him to fund his business at its onset, and continue to purchase from him. 

“I think across our communities, this is the difference-maker,” Cheney said of the power of relations and community in Indian Country. 

READ MORE: How a Lakota Woodworker Funded His Business: 10 Q’s With Stephan Cheney 

Stephan Cheney, founder of High Rez Wood Company

Bison Coffeehouse

While Portland boasts the ninth-largest Native population in the country, Bison Coffeehouse is the city’s only Native American-owned café. 

Founded by Loretta Guzman, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, Idaho, everything at Bison Coffeehouse is baked in-house. The fashionable café reflects Guzman’s heritage, with furniture lined in vintage Pendleton prints or rawhide, and Native-made art adorning the walls. 

Prior to opening Bison Coffeehouse, Guzman set aside money from every paycheck to fund her future coffee shop, in addition to earning money through her beadwork. “My grandma used to say, ‘If you know how to bead, you will always have money.’ That’s like our gold. I started beading big projects. When her sister goes vending, she sells my work: full leggings, moccasins and bags. People are always looking for beadwork—full regalia type stuff,” she told Native Business. “I funneled my profits from beading into my building. When I wasn’t working, I was at home beading.” 

Meanwhile, everyone in her family has leaned in to support the birth and proliferation of her business. “We pushed it out. All my family is involved. My mom is my accountant. My daughter works for me. My sisters help out,” Guzman told Native Business.

READ MORE: How a Shoshone-Bannock Entrepreneur Funded her Dream: Bison Coffeehouse 

Loretta Guzman outside Bison Coffeehouse

Native American Natural Foods (TANKA Bar)

Karlene Hunter, co-founder of Native American Natural Foods, and her business partner Mark Tilsen founded Native American Natural Foods on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation approximately 13 years ago. Launching a business goes a bit more smoothly when you know how to go about accessing capital, and you have prior business experience. 

A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Hunter previously founded Lakota Express (LEX), a full-service direct marketing company located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Hunter, who holds an MBA from Oglala Lakota College, also counts decades of experience working on educational and economic development on the reservation. 

Hunter and Tilsen, as well as family and friends, personally contributed additional equity financing. The business also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In terms of bank financing, Native American Natural Foods received was a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)-guaranteed loan from First National Bank in Nebraska. The bank was previously involved with Hunter and Tilsen through lending to LEX, which established a sense of trust. 

“There are many funding paths that you can take, and SBA and BIA Guaranteed Loan programs are the first to explore,” Hunter advises up-and-coming entrepreneurs. 

READ MORE: Hunter Leveraged Her Experience to Grow Tanka Bar Into its Namesake: ‘Larger Than Life’

Co-founders Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen

Chief Burgers

Thomas Begay (Navajo, Hopi) graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 2016 with degrees in management and marketing. Immediately after graduation, he struggled to land a job — so he looked to entrepreneurship. He took his detailed, 80-page business plan for a food truck business and began scouring for funding sources. He turned to the Navajo Nation, his local Veteran’s Affairs office, organizations near Window Rock, and the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Yet his applications for business loans were denied. Ultimately, he needed to self-fund. 

Grinding it out in the restaurant industry, Begay and his wife Kendra Begay (Navajo, Hopi) saved $15,000 to purchase an old FedEx truck to house Chief Burgers, their gourmet burger and picadilly business on wheels, based in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation reservation.

“Self-funded was the only option we were left with,” Begay told Native Business. “I would recommend taking advantage of every opportunity to help with your business. What’s the worst that could happen? They say ‘no.’ But you will never know unless you ask the question.” 

READ MORE: Chief Burgers: Tribes Need to Support Original Concepts 

Chief Burgers on the Navajo Nation

Tribal Tech LLC

In 2000, Vicki Vasques retired from the federal government to launch her own business. Today, Tribal Tech, LLC has a healthy portfolio of over $8.3 million with about 100 people working nationwide for Tribal Tech in training and technical assistance to various government entities including Tribes, providing grant application, administration, data analysis, and a full spectrum of communications and IT services. 

Vasques is a huge advocate of the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, and advises everyone considering getting into the federal space to get certified as soon as possible. The education, training and technical support that the SBA offers can be the difference between success and failure, she advises. 

“I was very fortunate to have left the federal government with a retirement pension, not huge, but enough to pay the bills and get started. I also invested a part of my savings into the startup of Tribal Tech, not needing to borrow or raise capital,” she told Native Business. 

“People, Performance and Partnership” are Victoria Vasques’ watchwords — and woven into every aspect of her 8(a) company, Tribal Tech, LLC.

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