Tuba City Project: Business Incubation Meets Co-Working on the Navajo Reservation

A hub for entrepreneurs is coming to the western side of the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona, prospectively in July 2019.

“We’ve been calling it the Tuba City Project until we do a big reveal of the name in 2019. The Tuba City Project, for those who are familiar with NABIN (Native American Business Incubator Network) and Change Labs, it’s basically combining those two efforts into a single thing,” explained Heather Fleming, Diné, founder and CEO of Catapult Design.

Next year, the Tuba City-born Fleming will depart her 10-year helm at Catapult Design to co-lead the Tuba City Project with NABIN leaders Jessica Stago and Natasha Hale. (Catapult’s search for a replacement CEO has begun.)

The Tuba City Project will pool together the necessary elements—infrastructure, expertise and support structures—to build a thriving ecosystem that enables and supports small business creation on the Navajo reservation. At the Tuba City Project, members and visitors can access Internet and software; desk space; classes in website design, financial planning and leadership development; and more.

Fleming is a longtime collaborator with NABIN through Catapult, which spearheaded at least three big projects on the Navajo reservation:

  • Change Labs, an annual, one-day event, kicked off in Shiprock, New Mexico, in 2014. Change Labs is designed to promote social entrepreneurship, create opportunities for hands-on learning, and build peer and mentorship networks.
  • Catapult launched Build Navajo in 2016 as a digital tool to help entrepreneurs register their business on the Navajo Nation.
  • Catapult and NABIN launched the Innovation Challenge in 2016 to award and incentivize social entrepreneurship.

Over the years, NABIN’s collaboration with Catapult Design fueled contemplation about growing entrepreneurship and diversifying the economy of the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

“We’ve been working hyper-collaboratively and approaching everything as a team,” Fleming said. “The programs we’ve been doing together—Change Labs and the Virtual Incubator—have been doing well. But there were some significant gaps that we weren’t able to bridge doing a once-a-year event, Change Labs, or just by incubating businesses virtually. The challenges around entrepreneurship on the Nation are much bigger than single-year events can fix or incubating 10 businesses per year on the reservation can fix.”

Heather Fleming, Diné, founded Catapult Design in late 2008 to provide design solutions to world problems. Now she’s eager to fully invest in supporting entrepreneurship on her reservation. (Courtesy Fleming)

With the aid of advisory partners and evaluation partner Causal Design, they arrived at the need for a more place-based approach to their programs.

Fleming continued: “You can drive up to Tuba City now, and there’s going to be a 4,000-square-foot entrepreneurship center, and you can walk inside, use laptops, access Wifi, get access to Quick Books software and Adobe Creative Suite. You can talk with a business counselor about how to register your business or get your business started.

“You can attend workshops at night. You can rent office space or desk space. If you’re an entrepreneur in the community, we have retail space there for you to sell burritos or lunch foods,” Fleming said.

Many reservation homes lack a physical address, making it difficult to apply for a Tax Identification Number. “We’ll have physical mailboxes that people can rent, because one of the hidden barriers to entrepreneurship on the reservation is that, if people don’t have mailing addresses, you can’t apply for an EIN with the federal government using just a P.O. Box,” Fleming said.

Through regionalizing their efforts, NABIN can also better measure the results of their work. “The pay-off in communities has been hard to track and measure,” Fleming said.

Building an Ecosystem

The Navajo Reservation spans the size of West Virginia. Jessica Stago, lead business counselor for the Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN), currently spends a lot of time traveling across the red rock expanse, traversing down dirt roads to visit incubator clients, or meeting them at fast food joints that generally require the business owners drive an hour one-way—not to mention Stago’s commute-time.

Most of the entrepreneurs can’t hop on FaceTime or Zoom to video consult with Stago. They lack Internet, yet need ways to process transactions on the reservations. Cash-only situations put vendors at risk of losing a sale, or worse, burglary.

Jessica Stago

“’How can we accept credit cards without Internet service?’ ‘I ran out of a product, because I didn’t have money to purchase the supplies, or something else came up.’ Constantly, something is happening, and it’s definitely keeping me on my toes,” Stago said of advising entrepreneurs through NABIN’s “virtual” incubator on the reservation.

The forthcoming Tuba City Project is NABIN’s answer to actively change such conditions—to remove the challenges to offering incubation services in-person, and to provide entrepreneurs with a physical space to work.

It’s also their solution to building a local economy, rather than focusing solely on jobs creation, and thus being privy to the whims of the economy and industries. When outside industries come onto the reservation, they may provide a surge in jobs initially, but “as soon as the market trends change, we’d be right back in the same situation where corporations pick up and leave, and you don’t have that baseline economy,” Stago explained.

“I think if you build this ecosystem, if you build this baseline economy, it creates the ability for the communities to generate their own ideas, their own resources, education, skills and knowledge that can then begin to generate larger businesses. We believe that’s how you generate an economy within indigenous communities,” Stago said.

The Tuba City Project will be like Change Labs every day of the year, Fleming said. “We’re super excited, we feel like it’s taking our work to the next level. With CHANGE Labs, we could only bring our community together once a year. And then the 364 days we’re not together, they’re left to fend for themselves. What I love about this, is this is like Change Labs every single day of the year. If you need support, you can come into the office and get whatever support you need. I think we’ll do a much better job of building our community and tracking the businesses we’ve helped to create.”

The Tuba City Project will offer multiple points of engagement for the community—from the entrepreneur who wants dedicated work space to the individual who seeks to learn and network and just attend one workshop.

The Tuba City Project will also launch an artists’ residency program, “because we leverage artists so much in all the work we’re doing,” Fleming said. “They’re really key to the new narrative that we’re trying to shape about what it means to be a Native entrepreneur. Native artists are key to that narrative. We’re trying to create programs that keep them close to the Tuba City Project and on hand to work with our members in the community.”

One of the markets the Tuba City Project hopes to serve “is what we call the Native American diaspora,” Stago shared. “It’s college students and recent graduates who left the reservation to continue their education and want to come back to the reservation but don’t feel like there’s a job or opportunity back here for them. We really want to reach out to those college graduates who have ideas. We’ll have the resources to test those ideas and to help them to implement some type of a strategy—whether it’s a startup or new product development, or even systems change.”

Tuba City is home to a regional hospital as well as schools and Diné College. “There are all these resources in Tuba City that we hope to build partnerships with on a community-basis that would allow people with new ideas to test their ideas within these institutions that are already existing on the reservation,” Stago said.

Additionally, Stago noted, “many entrepreneurs work off the reservation and want to do business on the reservation—but there’s not a space for them to use a computer, internet or meet with potential clients. We hope to be that as well. We want to be a beacon on the reservation for professional, educated Native Americans who want to create a way to sustain themselves on the reservation.”

The Tuba City Project’s advisory committee counts Vanessa Roanhorse, founder of Roanhorse Consulting; Dave Castillo of Native Capital Access; Daniel Vandever of Navajo Technical University; and Candice Mendez of Salt.V.Mo. Meanwhile, NABIN’s former parent company, The Grand Canyon Trust, will serve as the fiscal sponsor and incubator for all programs within the Tuba City Project.

Visit TubaCityProject.org for more information.