Jaclyn Roessel Talks Growing her Business: Grownup Navajo

While Grownup Navajo began as a blog and online community in September 2012, today, Grownup Navajo, LLC, could be considered a startup business. Founder Jaclyn Roessel recently began providing cultural learning and competency awareness via Grownup Navajo to cultural institutions and organizations nationwide. (Photo by Roshan Spotsville)

Sometimes, emerging entrepreneurs approach launching a business strategically. Other times, an idea may percolate and manifest as a grassroots effort or blog, before it evolves, and she seizes the opportunity to monetize her mission.

That was the case with Grownup Navajo, which began six years ago as a way for Jaclyn Roessel to cope with the passing of her paternal grandmother, whom she describes as her “cultural touchstone” who shared “everything I needed to know about Navajo womanhood.”

Through healing her wound of grief — the loss of her beloved grandmother and the perceived loss of her connection to Diné cultural wisdom — Roessel discovered her calling.

“I was really struggling with how I was going to learn at that point in my life. I had just finished a Master’s program [in Public Administration at Arizona State University] and I was working full-time at a museum in Phoenix [as Education and Public Programs Director at the Heard Museum]. I was thinking about how I was going to do it without her. In the process of that grief, because she passed away so suddenly, I felt paralyzed by this fear,” Roessel told Native Business Magazine.

She coped the best way she knew how. Roessel wrote.

Jaclyn Roessel is Táchii’nii (Red Running into the Water People). Born for the Kii yaa’ aanii (Towering House People). Her maternal grandfather is of the Tódikozhí (Salt Water clan) and her paternal grandfather is of the Monteath Clan from Scotland. A proud auntie, sister, daughter and granddaughter, Roessel’s life is a journey in the practice of speaking sacredness fluently. (Photo by Hannah Manuelito)

“I have always been a writer. I carry multiple notebooks with me, and that has always been my creative process. Her passing was my catalyst to think about how I could process her loss and my feelings at this point.”

The purpose of her blog, Grownup Navajo, was to reflect and fully step into her modern Navajo identity.

“Grownup Navajo was a way of thinking about what it means to be grownup—the idea that I have to be responsible for my own cultural learning,” she shared. Grownup Navajo’s slogan is “Native American culture & teachings through a modern lens.”

Her early blog posts were about the Navajo puberty ceremony called the Kinaaldá, which she considers foundational to her Navajo womanhood. Her writing process inspired her to accept that her cultural identity could continue to blossom, although her grandmother had walked on. Roessel said: “It’s okay that I didn’t learn everything from my grandmother. I learned that I am supposed to find other teachers, and I’m supposed to be figuring out things on my own. That was the impetus for creating this blog.”

The first four years of Grownup Navajo involved Roessel writing and posting solely on her website. Social media changed the game for her. “The more I integrated social media, the more I shared the poetry that I write—and also this visual pairing of my love of my homeland with words and reflections, it began to really catch people’s eye. I began to understand that more people relate to this story.”

The Native Entrepreneur in Residence (NEIR) Program, offered through New Mexico Community Capital (NMCC), helped Roessel turn the page from blog to business. (Read Native Business Magazine’s article “‘Native Entrepreneur in Residence’ Cultivates an Ecosystem of Thriving, Indigenous Business Owners.”) Her challenge through the NEIR program involved honoring the foundation of Grownup Navajo while building it into a business: “How do I blend the personal brand that I have already created through Grownup Navajo … into a business focused on inclusion and cultural equity from a standpoint that engages cultural institutions like museums and nonprofits?”

Grownup Navajo, LLC is a dedicated to integrating Native American and Navajo teachings into museums, arts & culture organizations and non-profits through: cultural competency trainings, curation, and youth development workshops.

Given her decade-plus of experience at the Heard Museum, among other cultural institutions, her former colleagues, both Native and non-Native, helped spread word about Grownup Navajo to their networks.

Jaclyn Roessel, founder of Grownup Navajo and museum educator utilizing indigenous knowledge as a catalyst for community change (Photo by Kristen Dorsey)

Her first client was BLOOM, a digital Indigenous language resource. BLOOM offers free learning courses for global Indigenous and minoritized languages, developed in collaboration with Native Nations, international governments, satellite groups, educational institutions, and more.

Garnering her first client gave Roessel affirmation that Grownup Navajo had the vital cultural perspective and tools to support other organizations in creating content and achieving their goals. Roessel continued to attend industry conferences and events for cultural institutions, growing her knowledgebase and network, and sharing the services that Grownup Navajo offers. Her client base quickly increased with short-term or long-term contracts.

“That was the way we began to mobilize as a company. Now we travel around, offering support in areas like cultural equity and cultural competency and what de-colonization can mean in these settings,” she shared, acknowledging that she uses the royal “we” for Grownup Navajo, although she is currently a one-woman business.

Among other clients, Grownup Navajo has hosted consultations through a partnership with The Field Museum in Chicago, and presented at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Referrals are her primary mode of acquiring new business. “Everything is interconnected,” she observed.

Currently operating as a sole proprietorship, Roessel has avoided high start-up costs. “As a consulting company, my overhead is very low,” Roessel shared. “The capital from NEIR allowed me to offset the training and the time that I would have otherwise needed in those beginning phases,” she added. (NEIR participants receive stipends of $15,000 with no strings attached.)

Roessel’s entrepreneurial path may also seem, to outsiders, as somewhat nontraditional. This year, Roessel took on a staff position at the San Diego Museum of Man as the director of their decolonizing initiative, while simultaneously managing Grownup Navajo full-time. “I was commuting back and forth between New Mexico and San Diego. It allowed me to do things that I didn’t think were possible creatively,” she acknowledged.

Roessel is currently co-curating an exhibit at the El Segundo Museum of Art, opening in October. She’s also a highly sought after guest speaker. In fall 2017, she shared poetry at Columbia University and discussed creative indigeneity and cultural competency at Northwestern State in Oklahoma. Roessel emphasized how the work that Grownup Navajo is doing fits into larger conversations and movements within the arts and culture sector about inclusion and diversity programs.

Pursuing entrepreneurship blazed a path of self-sufficiency and flexibility for Roessel, who is now “an expectant mother and beginning to think about life changes. It’s been a very unconventional period—as opposed to what I was doing prior to starting Grownup Navajo,” working a more traditional 9-5 schedule. “Now I am in a place where everything is possible, because I was able to make that initial step [launching and monetizing Grownup Navajo],” she added. Entrepreneurship provides her with autonomy and flexibility over her own maternity leave.

The path of entrepreneurship required a great leap of faith for Roessel, and she’s grateful that new inroads have developed that she could never previously have perceived.  “It’s really exciting, because when I started Grownup Navajo, I couldn’t have seen all the different ways that our work was going to span—that it could be creative and trainer-focused and also be community-based through the presentations that we share.”

Going forward, Roessel wants Grownup Navajo to uplift more indigenous voices. She appreciates how “critical indigenous knowledge systems are, and the ways they can help and heal our communities,” she told Native Business Magazine. She also looks forward to “writing and publishing books to create written accounts and narratives from multiple perspectives of people around these ideas.”

As she includes more indigenous voices in the Grownup Navajo movement and business, Roessel is particularly interested in “the continued examination and deconstruction of colonial structures in museums. How can Grownup Navajo and our community members and allies think about ways to help us keep museums and cultural institutions accountable?” That requires systematic changes. “I’m thinking about how Grownup Navajo can become a catalyst in challenging these organizations to be more responsible to indigenous people.”

On a more tangible level, her plan for the growth of Grownup Navajo involves website redevelopment—“How we can become more user friendly and integrate more content? I want people to learn more from it. We’ll be exploring and sharing webinars with our followers. I get so many messages on social media about the content we share, so I want to think about ways that we can connect with each other more. How do we continue to cultivate this community of Grownup Navajo followers?”

Learn more about Grownup Navajo’s services .

Grownup Navajo is a dedicated to integrating Native American and Navajo teachings into museums, arts & culture organizations and non-profits through: cultural competency trainings, curation, and youth development workshops.