“Ask the tough questions and don’t give up. Establish that close relationship with your bank and don’t be afraid of change,” says Vicki Vasques, president and CEO of 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, president and CEO or Tribal Tech, LLC, underscores that when it comes to running a small business, the president has to have his or her hands in every pot—“to know everything from A-Z,” from executive management to finances, to human resources, even IT — to ensure success.
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.
Native Business spoke with Vasques about her slow and steady journey to build a successful and sustainable business in government contracting.
1) When you came up with the idea for your business, what were your initial thoughts about how to capitalize it?
Having worked for the federal government for over 20 years, it seemed like a great idea, as well as the timing was right, to start my own business, pursuing government contracts. My plan was to apply for the SBA 8(a) certification that is designed to give minority and disadvantaged businesses a fair advantage going after government contracts. I soon learned how extensive this process would be and how long it would take for approval.
2) What difficulties did you encounter with raising capital to start your business?
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.
3) Were you aware of any federal or Native American programs to help you finance your business, and did you feel that you had access to them? Did you take advantage of those programs?
The federal program that I was aware of, and as I mentioned earlier, was the SBA 8(a) Small Disadvantaged Business certification. At the same time, the SBA had just come out with the 8(m) certification for woman-owned small business, which I also pursued.
4) Were you aware of any programs for Native entrepreneurs available in your community or through your tribe?
Being based in Alexandria, Virginia, there were not any programs for Native American entrepreneurs in the community. I did join the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), Washington, DC Chapter to meet other women small business owners; not only to network, but to learn from one another. I also found value investing my time in trying to meet other 8(a) small business owners, as I traveled throughout Indian Country and by attending various native organizations’ regional and national meetings.
5) Did you feel like you had the appropriate amount of business and accounting training to provide you with an understanding of how to go about accessing capital?
Very good question! Running a small business, understanding the financial side, was not my strength. I purposely point this out, because I put my trust in a partner, who encouraged me, after we won our second largest contract, to move all our back-office functions (for example: Finance, BD, HR, IT) under one provider. I thought this would be a win-win for Tribal Tech – a turnkey operation, letting me focus exclusively on our core operations. However, the trust deteriorated, accounting errors occurred, and a huge IT investment, building out their infrastructure; I felt stuck and needed to get out! Once I made the decision to cut all services and transition our back office to headquarters, which was a scary and costly undertaking up front, we quickly realized significant cost savings, control and accountability. One move I’ll never regret! My weakness in the financial side quickly became my strength and priority. As I learned from a saying, attributed to President Reagan, “Trust, but verify”.
6) What avenue(s) did you ultimately use to fund your business, and knowing what you know now, what funding path would you recommend to other aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs?
I established a close relationship with a banker at a financial institution. We took baby steps, growing Tribal Tech together. I would also add that establishing a realistic line of credit, especially if you’re in the government contracting business, is essential.
7) How did the process of raising capital to launch your business empower you as an entrepreneur?
Vasques didn’t need to borrow or raise capital to launch Tribal Tech, LLC. Entrepreneurship, in general, is very empowering, she concedes. It requires a “110 percent effort…and one you have to be 100 percent engaged in every day,” she said. Vasques “really put the pedal to the metal to build Tribal Tech’s past performance” to greatly improve her ability to bid competitively in the federal marketplace.
8) How has access to capital changed over the course of operating your business? What additional business strategies have you used to help fund your business?
Again, I must point out our long-standing relationship we have developed with our banker and financial institution. As we have grown and needed more resources, they have helped us every step of the way. With the threat of our government contracts being impacted by continuing resolutions or shut downs, it’s a comfort to know our bank is there.
9) What would your advice be today for entrepreneurs who are just starting to seek funding for their businesses?
Ask the tough questions and don’t give up. Establish that close relationship with your bank and don’t be afraid of change. I always say, focus on the right things and don’t get ahead of yourself!
10) What are some of the ways that Indian Country could improve its support for funding emerging entrepreneurs?
This is another great question. I’m sure the Tribal leaders around the country could provide some great advice based on their vast amount of experience. Emerging entrepreneurs wishing to work in Indian Country should begin a dialogue with these leaders and seek out ways to gain their financial support.