Lance Gumbs is talking while driving along the Long Island Expressway. He’s headed back to his home on the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s land near Southampton, New York. It’s the only time he has for an interview. In addition to serving as a trustee on the Shinnecock Tribal Council, Gumbs owns and operates several successful businesses — a gift shop, smoke shop, delicatessen, café and a club venue. He’s also got a vision — that other Tribal members and communities can make best use of their entrepreneurial talents.
Gumbs’ head for business has deep roots — more than 11,000 years to be precise. “We’re continuing the business tradition of trading,” says Gumbs. That tradition continued after the first Europeans came to the area. “We traded wampum with the Dutch,” he says. The Shinnecock were also whalers, harking to their marine heritage as the “People of the Shore.”
His first foray into business was a youth club. “When I was attending prep school in New Jersey, my friend took me up to Philadelphia for a party,” says Gumbs. “It was in an abandoned building — that party was one of the hottest I’d ever been to.” It got the young man to thinking. “I can do this back on the rez!”
So Gumbs took a home that he had inherited from an elder, gutted it and turned into a teen club. “I didn’t understand entrepreneurship,” he says, “but I made a ton of money!” Each Friday and Saturday night, Gumbs would open the club and spin tunes. That’s how he started out as a DJ. “We drew a big red record on the floor,” says Gumbs. “We called it Red Vinyl!” Later on, when Gumbs met Gary “Litefoot” Davis, the similarity between Davis’ own Red Vinyl Records and Gumbs’ club symbol became apparent.
But Gumbs’ plans took a tragic turn when his father passed away while Gumbs was in prep school. “My parents had a little business on the Montauk Highway,” Gumbs says. “My mom, who was a school teacher, closed the business after dad passed on. We went from being middle-class to dead broke.”
So Gumbs took his DJ show and built it up. “I started partly out of necessity and partly out of a love of music,” he says.
But he still had a dream of achieving a college education, so he began attending university with the goal of an accounting degree. That plan took a left turn as well in his freshman year. “The accounting professor came into the classroom and went off on everybody,” he says. “He told us, ‘You’re all going to work for somebody, and you’re never be rich.’” But Gumbs noticed what the professor was wearing: “He had Native jewelry on,” Gumbs recounts. “He had collar tabs, bracelets, rings — the works.”
It was like a light bulb flipped on in the young man’s head. “I got an idea and I had the building,” Gumbs says. The building was his dad’s old business which had sat empty. And Gumbs knew what to put in it. “I grew up around powwows,” he says. “We went out on the powwow trail every year.” Gumbs would sell Native jewelry, clothing and other Indigenous items in his shop.
After developing a business plan, which Gumbs says every business owner should do as a first step, he gutted the building and remodeled it during summer break. “I used the old tables and built the glass cases myself,” Gumbs says. “I didn’t have the money to buy them.”
A friend lent him $2,500, which was borrowed, and Gumbs took his $2,500 student loan payment and purchased stock. With the shop being right on a main highway, Gumbs figured he would make money off the wealthy clientele from the Shinnecock Golf Course, which was “across the street” from his establishment. “But I wouldn’t go caddy there like my friends did, because I had this thing about hitting a little white ball around like a white man,” he says.
That plan didn’t bear much fruit, as Gumbs and his friend made only $796 that summer. “They kicked me out of college because I had spent the tuition money,” he says, “but it gave me an opportunity to open the business in April.” Gumbs went to community college instead.
Gumbs’ fortunes were about to take a smoky turn. “One day a van pulls up and a Mohawk man jumps out. ‘Are you interested in selling cigarettes?’” Gumbs replied that he didn’t have any money to purchase any. So, the man offered him about $10,000 of inventory in consignment. “I didn’t know anything about the tobacco business,” says Gumbs, “but the Mohawk man helped me.” They visited a nearby store to learn what cartons of cigarettes were selling for, and Gumbs offered the same stock for $5 less. “I made $2,800 my first day,” he says, “and the third day, I ran out of stock.” After settling with the Native distributor for the first batch, Gumbs got $20,000 more in consignment.
“The rest is history.”
Gumbs and his business were also part of the great New York state tax wars, as the Tribes exerted their sovereign rights to not collect the state sales tax. But Gumbs realized it was time to diversify. “So we opened up a deli,” he says. Gumbs also returned to music production and the powwow trail. He made use of the building he built to house his RV by building a portable club and catering facility, which he fittingly called “The Warehouse.”
When the state decided to tax major brands before they got to retail hands, Gumbs simply switched to Native-produced brands. He gave free samples to customers to lure them away from name brands. It worked.
Most recently, Gumbs added a lobster roll concession to his café. Just as his fried chicken is touted as the best on the island, so are his lobster rolls. “During the U.S. Open, we sold 5,000 pounds of lobster,” Gumbs says.
And he did most of this before the Shinnecocks became federally recognized in 2010. Gumbs recommends to other business owners to “find your niche, understand your market and create a business plan” to have the best chance of success.
He’s using this business acumen to help steer the Tribe into more businesses as well. The Tribe has the first solar oyster hatchery on the East Coast, and they are exploring plans for outdoor advertising, a gas station and convenience store, a hydroponic fish farm and class II gaming. “We can do anything!” he says.
Gumbs’ business philosophy: the empty pie plate. “You fill that plate with slices of economic development,” he says. Each “slice” represents a diverse business, so the community won’t be solely reliant on one source of income.
Gumbs is also a firm believer in inter-Tribal business dealings and in a balance between Tribal- and privately-owned businesses. “We could create our own GDP in Indian Country!” he says, pointing to other ethnicities who buy and sell from each other. “We’re starting to see this happen, but it needs to happen a lot more.”
But Gumbs continues to grow his own businesses while helping his nation to do the same. He calls it “thriving to survive.”