‘Native Entrepreneur in Residence’ Cultivates an Ecosystem of Thriving, Indigenous Business Owners

Left to right: NEIR graduate Kalika Tallou, founder of Salon Tallou; Clare Zurawski, NEIR Management Advisor and 360° Grant Specialist at NMCC; NEIR graduate Henry Jake Foreman, founder of Cycles of Life and Karuna Colectiva; Peter Holter, NMCC Managing Director of Entrepreneurial Services and NEIR Program Director

“Poverty is not just about money; it’s about a lack of hope,” said Peter Holter, managing director of entrepreneurial services at New Mexico Community Capital (NMCC) and program director of the Native Entrepreneur in Residence Program. “In the best of local business, there is community that develops. People know each other and they buy from each other. They trade with each other and support each other. Those are values that transcend many different cultures and are naturally a part of many indigenous cultures.”

The award-winning organization NMCC, a private, nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), and its various programs compliment that philosophy. The NMCC Fund, a venture capital fund that promotes tribal leader investment in Native companies, launched the nonprofit Native Entrepreneur in Residence (NEIR) Program in 2014. “It turns out that in New Mexico, at that time, there were not many, if any, investment-ready Native companies,” said Holter. “The question became: ‘Why don’t we grow our own?’”

The solution to that question, the NEIR program, supports and empowers Native entrepreneurs and business owners through leadership and technical skills training. Beyond that, NEIR develops networks to connect entrepreneurs with mentors, resources and like-minded peers. From the NEIR program’s inception to today, 30-plus entrepreneurs or companies of varying sizes and stages of development have graduated.

“We’ve had educators and entrepreneurs in health care and engineering—quite an array of sectors. Those 30-plus companies have generated some 128 jobs in aggregate,” Holter said. “Over 50 percent of those jobs have been Native hires. Those companies have generated about $8 million in new gross revenues, and 6 of them have gone on to additional levels of investment. Those are pretty good numbers for any market looking at small, local businesses.”

Holter credits that incredible success to the program’s grassroots and immersive approach. Over the course of six months of one-on-one mentorship, participants hone their business savvy, skills and plans with mentors who are accomplished entrepreneurs themselves.

Naturally, the NEIR program covers business essentials and creating a business plan. But it goes above and beyond to cultivate confident business founders and leaders with a “highly interactive” approach. NEIR mentors take time to address the unique pressures, challenges and opportunities of being self-employed and being an entrepreneur. “We also operate in a way that is very sensitive to and is culturally appropriate for indigenous people,” Holter added.

More than a skills and leadership training program, NEIR promotes community. (Courtesy NMCC)

Infusion of Capital

NEIR graduate Henry Jake Foreman (Absentee Shawnee) can attest to the program’s efficacy. He’s also quick to point out that the NEIR program is competitive to enter.

That’s partially because newly minted NEIR participants receive stipends of $15,000 with no strings attached. “That is unheard of,” Foreman said. “I’ve never heard of another program that is able to give you money for your business instantly like that. That’s exactly what my business needed—an infusion of capital like that. It really jump-started it to a whole other level.”

(The NMCC Fund’s strategy is to invest in companies that can deliver market-rate returns while creating social and economic improvement in the regions in which they operate. To accomplish this, NMCC invests in businesses with growth potential. The NEIR Accelerator Program receives anchor funding from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Beyond its primary funder ANA, the NEIR Program is supported by the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund, and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). Additional funds come from the Forest County Potawatomi Foundation among other supporters.)

While acceptance into the NEIR program is competitive, once one is accepted, the NEIR team is entirely focused on the participant’s growth and development. “Once you’re in, it becomes, ‘How can we best support you? How can we get you the mentor you’re looking for?’” Foreman said. “There is a huge talent pool within NEIR mentors,” Foreman added.

With the guidance of his mentor, Peter Holter, Foreman grew his nonprofit Cycles of Life and his subsidiary for-profit Karuna Colectiva. Cycles of Life builds unique learning tools and professional development systems tailored to the specific needs of indigenous students. It also inspires youth to realize their innate potential as compassionate leaders through bicycling, gardening and art. Foreman’s nonprofit has received funding support from organizations such as the Obama Foundation and $20,000 from the Notah Begay III Foundation’s grantmaking program.

Ultimately, what Henry Jake Foreman (bottom left) is doing is applying a social enterprise model that incorporates the principles of making a profit and giving back a return to the community. (Courtesy Foreman)

Karuna Colectiva provides a fundraising mechanism and experiential “learning lab” for Cycles of Life‘s non­profit activities and student-­lead initiatives. For instance, Karuna offers a pop­up workshop where students apply what they learn from Cycles of Life. They engage in market-­based education with real products, real money, real profits and real losses. Both Cycles of Life and Karuna Colectiva were informed by Foreman’s experience as a teacher at the Native American Community Academy (NACA), a public charter school serving students in middle and high school in Albuquerque.

Foreman’s business plan states: “The unique value propositions of Cycles of Life and Karuna Colectiva have wide-ranging social and economic impacts that can be scaled and applied to multiple sectors including local and tribal governments, schools, enterprises and regional planning.”

“Peter [Holter] and I worked every week for six months on a business plan. The focus was not only about the business but about building confidence in myself as an entrepreneur and in how I communicate,” Foreman shared. “I was just coming out of graduate school, so in some ways, I was overcompensating and overcomplicating my business ideas. Peter [Holter] really helped me hone my business plan, answering, ‘Who are you? How are you different? What is the bottom line?’ That really changed my life, because before I didn’t know how to explain my business, and it was really hard to explain to non-indigenous people. By working with Peter [Holter], I realized that I had to change my communication and that oral and written communication is really important in business. I feel that it’s a skill that I continually have to work on.”

By the end of the six-month NEIR program, Foreman had completed his business plan and submitted it to the University of New Mexico Business Plan Competition. “I won first place,” he said. “I bring that up, because two years prior, I entered the competition without any prior help from anyone, and I didn’t even make it to the second round. It was really embarrassing for me. NEIR really gave me that confidence and skillset.”

Participating in NEIR isn’t like reading a text book or watching a Youtube tutorial. Choosing to commit to the program means one gains access to exceptional business coaches. That process can be vulnerable. It requires owning up to one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses. Because that’s how NEIR mentors offer the greatest support—by pacing the education to meet the individual’s needs.

“I think it’s important to point out—and one of the things we really strive to do—is that we make a conscious effort to meet people where they are at,” Holter said. “This is not a pre-packaged formula, cookie-cutter idea about entrepreneurs but rather [we focus on]: What are your needs? What are your issues? And what are your concerns?”

Holter offered broader perspective, citing feedback from other NEIR graduates who have shared their experiences with him about other accelerator or incubator-type programs not affiliated with NMCC. While Holter acknowledged the value of all accelerator/incubator programs, he emphasized that NEIR takes a very customized approach that meets the challenges of entrepreneurship and financial education with compassion. “In one case, an individual came back and said [that another accelerator program] covered all of financial planning in three hours. He said it was like being fed by a fire-hose. It was too much too soon,” Holter said.

Holter explained that many people attend school for six years, and they still don’t fully understand financial planning. “There’s no harm and no shame in that,” Holter said. “He was one who also said that NEIR has given him the confidence to get off on the right foot without feeling bad about himself.”

Vanessa Roanhorse, Diné, founder and CEO of Roanhorse Consulting, LLC, graduated from the NEIR program. Check out Native Business Magazine’s article: “Vanessa Roanhorse: Inspiring the Native Entrepreneurial Community to Rise.” (Courtesy NMCC)

Flexibility is another key to the NEIR program’s success, according to Clare Zurawski, 360° Grant Specialist at NMCC. “I feel that we do tailor-make the program according to the participant’s needs,” Zurawski said.

For example, when Kalika Tallou (who happens to be Foreman’s wife) joined the NEIR program, her business was already two or three years old. Her salon storefront (Salon Tallou) had been up and running for some time. “She needed a lot of support in marketing. I was able to custom-make a program for her in two areas of marketing: one was branding and one was online marketing and specifically optimizing her website,” Zurawski said. (Read Native Business Magazine’s article “Kalika Tallou Davis Redefines Beauty and Holistic Business Success.”)

“Because Kalika has a very specialized area—organic hair care—it was like a consultant’s dream to work with her, and she was the perfect candidate to experience dramatic changes in her business visibility,” Zurawski said. “We were working together, looking at certain keywords on each page of her website, and going deep into scenarios to make great results happen. That’s changed her business, and that is an example of how, in each person’s case, we will go in depth, and it will have great impact in a fairly short period of time.”

Organic Community

Beyond personal and business growth, the NEIR program has a multiplier effect. It builds community and fuels a sense of self-determination that positively influences others. Foreman highlighted NMCC’s knack for creating “an organic community of practice,” which has attracted and inspired NEIR participants.

“I believe that business can solve a lot of our problems. This business cohort helped me to realize that I’m not alone, and there are people who want to support us, whether they’re Native or non-Native,” Foreman said. “In the business world, you’re going to be interacting with people who aren’t like you and have more wealth than you. As a group and as a cohort of participants, we’re able to talk about these issues. We realize that it’s all about relationships. It’s not just about transactions.”