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Change Labs Fosters Biz Inspiration On The Navajo Nation

Sam Minkler
Courtesy Change Labs
Change Labs Gallup, 2015

Starting a small business can seem like a huge undertaking. What is your logo going to be? Who is your target market? What approvals do you need from the government? Not to mention just the basics of making your product or providing your service.

These are the kinds of questions Native American entrepreneurs will be working to answer together in Crownpoint on Friday, Oct. 7.

Natasha Hale is with the Grand Canyon Trust and the Native American Business Incubator Network, partners in this year’s Change Labs event. Hale says entrepreneurs on the Navajo Nation need peer networking and support. She spoke with KUNM’s Elaine Baumgartel.         

Hale: It’s pretty isolated out here in our tribal communities and the biggest industries are government and fast food. So, if someone wants to start a business, they don’t have someone as a peer that they can come to and share their ideas, get those things they have in their head percolating at a new level. So, first with the network, that’s a very basic thing. Second is, people don’t know the process for how they should register their business. It’s incredibly confusing on the Navajo Nation. If you go to different offices within the agencies, all of them have a different process about how you’re supposed to start a business and the paperwork to actually register your business is so cumbersome, that it’s really discouraging to our entrepreneurs.

KUNM: Change Labs, this event brings together designers, web developers, business counselors, other small business owners and artists. What is it like when people from these different industries get together with local entrepreneurs? People aren’t just sitting in rooms listening to experts speak on a topic like business licenses or how to design a website, right?

Hale: Change Labs is about peers coming together and creating this environment of inspiration. All too often when entrepreneurs hear about business within the realm of tribal communities, they hear about all the challenges and all the overwhelming obstacles. And we really want to get beyond that and start thinking about, ‘What are the connections that can be made? What are the possibilities? How do we get from point A to B, B to C,’ and so forth, and building relationships from that point.

KUNM: What are some of the businesses that have come through this program?

Hale: With our program the Native American Business Incubator Network, we’ve had a bed and breakfast that does ‘glamping,’ glamorous camping, on the Navajo Nation. So we’ve helped them to launch a website, a process so that they can register their guests. Beforehand they were doing something on Craigslist. Bringing them resources was incredibly important. We’ve had Paper Rocket Productions, which is a film production company that does work all across Indian Country. Through Change Labs, which is a partnership of Catapult Design and Navajo Technical Universityalong with UNM-Gallup, they have their different folks that they are incubating and businesses that they are helping to build up. It really becomes a place where all the businesses we’re helping individually are coming together and melding ideas.

KUNM: The Grand Canyon Trust is a conservation organization. How is your work with these entrepreneurs helping to address conservation issues in communities on the Navajo Nation?

Hale: A third of the land within the Colorado Plateau region is tribal land, not including ancestral homeland. And a lot of our tribal nations were set up so that they could facilitate deals between big corporations like Peabody Coal. Our communities, they want economic development but they don’t want anything that is going to not align with the values of our belief system, that’s going to exploit our communities. We still have people from the outside trying to come in, be very paternalistic, and push their ideas about what our communities should be like onto us and we don’t want that. We began pulling people together—youth, elders, policy makers, legislators—and began thinking through what is the vision we want for our communities. What came out of that is that we want businesses that are going to help to address some of the social ills we have in our community and help uplift our community. So how do we support the entrepreneurs that are already out there. 

Elaine Baumgartel was KUNM's News Director from 2013 to 2019. She was local Morning Edition host from 2007 through 2012 and she regularly hosted the station's live news and public affairs show for some years. Elaine originally came on board at KUNM as a volunteer and student employee in 2003.
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