Normally, on the fourth day of a conference, you would expect attendance at the talks to wane. Not so at RES 2013. A morning session on entrepreneurship packed Mandalay Bay’s Islander Ballroom with an eager crowd of current and prospective Native business owners.
They came to learn from an attorney well-versed in Native corporate laws as well as three successful entrepreneurs who have built businesses from their birthrights and their ingenuity.
Lori Nalley, Muskogee Creek, is the CEO of Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Tiger Natural Gas. She started her company in 1991, after taking the bold step of approaching her employer about minority set-asides she’d been noticing in the natural gas and electricity business.
“I thought, I’m Muskogee Creek. I’m a woman,” Nalley told attendees. “I was a single mother raising my son, and I had to support him. I got up enough gumption to go into the man I was working with and put my business idea to him. He put his faith in me. He trusted me.”
Together, Nalley and her employer started going after federal contracts. The she started hearing abot the federal 8a program, through the U.S. Small Business Administration.
“It really does truly work,” she explained. “It’s a nine-year program and it’s designed to help you get business and grow … then to get you off government business and to get you into the commercial world.”
Besides 8a, Nalley went after every certification she could. “I got TERO certified, state certified, BIA certified. It kind of just said, oh. This is a real business.”
Today, Nalley’s business has grown to employ 40 people, and it grossed $158 milion in 2012.
She reflects, “If I wouldn’t have had enough faith in myself to get the help that I needed, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. It’s hard work. I spent most of my life working. But I loved it. I really enjoyed it.”
All of the panelists agreed that passion is a prerequisite for success.
“Follow your passion,” said Karlene Hunter, President and CEO at Native American Natural Foods and a Board Member for the NCAIED. “Follow what you love to do. Believe me, when you start a business … you can spend up to 14 or 16 hours a day in your business. You’d better love what you do. Follow your heart, and success will come.”
Hunter says Native people have a leg-up in the passion arena, because so many of them are driven by a desire to help their communities.
Hunter, who hails from the Oglala Lakota Tribe, said she’s never met a Native entrepreneur who’s started a business solely to make money – invariably, her peers want to help their people. And she believes it’s possible.
“I personally feel that if we are going to change the faces of our reservations and our nations, it’s going to come through the private sector,” she said. “We have to have entities so that we can buy from each other.“
Ben Jacobs, Osage, described his experience building the Tocabe Restaurant in Denver. He said culinary markets are getting a significant boost right now because “we’re kind of in a culinary evolution right now. People are more interested in where they eat, what they eat, and where it comes from.”
Jacobs’ idea was to represent his Native community through food, and he opened his restaurant four years ago. He’s already been featured in numerous television programs, including the popular Diners, Dive-Ins and Dives.
Jacobs stressed that it’s key to have a clear vision – his is to build Native food, with others, that can compete with national and regional chains. And he reiterated the crucial ingredient of passion.
“That passion is what’s going to drive you to success,” he said. “That passion is what’s going to give you the ability to wake up at 5 a.m. I didn’t take a day off for five and a half months.”
Among the attendees at the session was Ruben “Wiindigobines” Santiesteban, a Tribal Council Member for the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.
Santiesteban has the idea to start Able One Sports, a sports apparel and equipment business that would give back to his community through sports camps, scholarships, and opportunities for kids to connect with successful athletes.
“These are pioneers in Indian Country. I appreciated what they had to say,” he said of the panelists. “They’re a true testament to what it takes to be able to lift people.“
As a policy-maker, he connected especially with the message of Rob Rosette, Chippewa-Cree, Founder and Partner at Rosette LLP Attorneys at Law. Rosette emphasized the need for tribes to establish legal and procedural frameworks that allow businesses to thrive, and he pointed to federal programs that can help with that aim.
“We do have to negotiate and we have to create partnerships with the federal government, sometimes, to be successful,” Santiesteban reflected. “Some of that’s hard to take when you’re so passionate about being sovereign.
But Indian people have access to a kind of sovereignty that’s unique and special, he thinks: “Personal sovereignty in being able to come back and help your people. That is something that nobody else is able to do. We can come back and do what we need to do for our people.”