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Meet the Founders of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneurs Honorees

Missy Begay, co-founder, Branding & Design, Diné, a member of the Navajo Nation (standing); and Shyla Sheppard, co-founder, President & CEO of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Photo by Roberto Rosales)

Shyla Sheppard and Missy Begay met while students at Stanford University in California’s Bay Area, where they also received an introduction to craft beer. “There’s a brew pub in Palo Alto and they specialized in German beer styles. We realized that there is a whole world of beer and it relates to geography and history and science,” shared Sheppard, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. “It became a side interest or hobby of ours. Whenever we traveled, we’d seek out distilleries and breweries.”

Sheppard studied economics at Stanford and started her career in venture capital and social impact investing. “We were in the heart of Silicon Valley. It was really eye-opening to learn about the power of capital and how it can accelerate growth and innovation,” Sheppard told Native Business.  

Meanwhile Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation, pursued her M.D., and today serves as full-time sleep physician, in addition to working part-time at the brewery, overseeing branding and marketing.  

In 2015, the partners in business and life personally invested in their dream to open a brewery, and friends from Sheppard’s venture capital days chipped in as well, “because they believed in us and wanted to support us,” Sheppard said. They also secured a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Sheppard, who was a founding team member at New Mexico Community Capital (NMCC), knew from experiencing consulting small businesses at various stages of growth that the first years of running a startup is “all-consuming in terms of your time and energy.”

As Sheppard can personally attest now, it’s true. Fortunately, she and Begay are passionate about craft beer and could talk about malt, hops and wild yeast all night.

“Regardless of the industry you’re in, there’s always just the nuts and bolts that you need to get done. Those parts aren’t always exciting, but the parts of the business that drive your passion are what really get you through the challenges along the way,” she said.

One of those logistical pieces for Sheppard was navigating the legalities of federal, state and local licensing. “The fact that we have our small brewer’s license and our wholesale license, and that I did that myself, is something that I am really proud of,” Sheppard said.

The regulatory environment can shape how a business approaches craft beer. Bow & Arrow is essentially three businesses in one: production with a 15-barrel brew house, an on-site taproom, and a wholesale distributor. The business model also lends itself to intimate brewer-led tours, tastings and private event rentals.

Fun names like Cosmic Arrow Saison take inspiration from Native and popular cultures. “It’s been helpful for us to draw from our unique Native backgrounds. We’ve found that having a story around the beers resonates with people. It’s been really well-received,” said Sheppard, adding that they strike a careful balance between drawing from their Native backgrounds while being culturally appropriate and respectful. (Photo by Don James)

Bow & Arrow currently self-distributes exclusively across New Mexico to restaurants, bars, hotels and retail accounts, including big names like Whole Foods and Total Wine. Plans to expand distribution across the Southwest are on the horizon.

The brewing company additionally has the legal ability to open three satellite taprooms in the state. “Five years from now I envision multiple locations with maybe a unique concept at each one, but the heart and soul is still Bow & Arrow,” Sheppard said.  “We want to keep people on their toes and keep things interesting and continue to grow our production, but at a rate that we don’t sacrifice quality.”

***

To house their brewery, Sheppard and Begay purchased a former electrical contractor’s warehouse and remodeled it. The on-site tap room is “the bread and butter of the business,” Sheppard said, accounting for 90 percent of Bow & Arrow’s revenue. “That’s why it was so important to pay attention to the details around that experience.”

Their award-winning conceptual design is a testament to their meticulous vision — and desire to create a space that cultivated a sense of community. “We have long communal tables that were custom designed and built locally. Missy and I would sit across the table from each other with a measuring tape, because we wanted to think about what is the ideal distance between customers. I wanted something that fostered the elbow-to-elbow experience with your neighbors,” Sheppard said.

In addition to considering how design informs the behavior of customers, they wanted to incorporate textures “to bring about this warmth, because it is an industrial space with concrete floors. We wanted people to feel comfortable and at-ease,” Sheppard said.

An all-wood herringbone design graces the wall behind the bar, and visuals of the vast southwest landscape reinforce the brewery’s connection to the land.

Interior of Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. (Mullen Heller / Bow & Arrow)

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While they’re seasoned home brewers, Sheppard and Begay hired a professional brewer with experience brewing on a commercial scale. Bow & Arrow head brewer Ted O’Hanlan previously crafted the unique “Plow to Pint” beers that Fullsteam Brewery in North Carolina is known for, before heading to the award-winning Black Tooth Brewing company in Sheridan, Wyoming.

The couple still partake in the creative brewing process. “We collaborate on new beers and unique ingredients, and we’re very much involved on our sensory and tasting panels,” Sheppard said.

Bow & Arrow makes small-batch brews, often infused with southwestern ingredients like roasted blue corn kernels or wild sumac. They actively embrace incorporating “a sense of place, whether that’s geography or culture” in their branding, Begay said. The brewery sources ingredients locally, and from Native producers when appropriate, such as Navajo Agricultural Products Industries, an enterprise of the Navajo Nation.

Fun names like Cosmic Arrow Saison take inspiration from Native and popular cultures. “It’s been helpful for us to draw from our unique Native backgrounds. We’ve found that having a story around the beers resonates with people. It’s been really well-received,” said Sheppard, adding that they strike a careful balance between drawing from their Native backgrounds while being culturally appropriate and respectful.

Dale Deforest, an Indigenous comic book illustrator, and Begay’s high school friend, designs the beer labels. “I think that gives us a real unique style and look in the beer scene, and it also feels authentic. That’s very important in terms of branding and marketing,” Begay said.

Begay’s favorite brand is the Bolos & Bling Brett IPA — featuring several different types of Bolo ties on the label. “It pays tribute to the fashion of the southwest,” Begay said.

A recent addition to the roster is “Coyote Cool,” which pays homage to Native stories of the coyote “being a trickster and getting into trouble,” Sheppard said.

The Denim Tux Blue Corn Lager takes the prize for the most popular beer in the taproom and in wholesale accounts. “That’s one where we have incorporated local roasted blue corn, and people really love it. Most people haven’t tried a beer with blue corn, but that was an intentional move that we made to incorporate an ingredient that is local,” Sheppard said.

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Raised on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Sheppard’s entrepreneurial spirit is inspired by her grandma, who designed regalia and more. “She made star quilts and moccasins and traditional foods that she would sell” at pow wows from her pop-up camper. “It instilled in me a sense of self-determination and persistence — whether it was going to Stanford, working in venture capital, or entering the craft beer movement,” Sheppard said.  

Begay, Diné, likewise grew up on the reservation, where her father operated a transport company for more than 20 years, in addition to holding down a career as a physician. “I was exposed to that physician/entrepreneur side of things early on, which I think is pretty unique for somebody who grew up on the rez. We definitely have a lot of respect for mentors. Mentors are very important culturally,” said Begay. “Being Navajo, I’ve learned to integrate culture into a business model.”

And that’s exactly what Sheppard and Begay have done — infuse the lessons of their Tribal heritages and the beauty of the southwest landscape into their craft beer business.

As Sheppard puts it modestly: “Our backgrounds have given rise to what we found is a unique approach in the greater craft beer industry.”  

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