By Kristi Eaton
Cher Thomas was a junior in college struggling to pay her rent when she was asked to make a handful of dresses for a tribal ceremony.
Thomas accepted some money to help cover her rent, and that order turned to four dresses and then 40. Eventually, Cher Thomas Designs was started.
Four years later, Thomas, who is Akimel O’odham and Cocopah from the Gila River Indian Community, is now running her own Native American fashion brand, traveling around the world showcasing her ready-to-wear and career fashion influenced by indigenous cultures in the American Southwest.
“It was so different,” Thomas said of starting out as an entrepreneur.” It was unlike any other job I’d ever had in my entire life. I helped a young girl become a woman and I helped my own people celebrate our own culture and keep our ceremonial way of life.”
Thomas is now hoping to inspire other Native American and Alaska Native youth to pursue their dreams and ambitions through entrepreneurship just like she did. The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED) and United National Indian Tribal Youth, Inc. (UNITY) recently announced a new partnership to create education opportunities, training and workshops for youth interested in entrepreneurship.
Thomas will be among the presenters showcasing their skills and offering support at an event called Youth Entrepreneurship Summit, scheduled to take place November 16 during NCAIED’s Reservation Economic Summit New Mexico. YES will give Native American and Alaska Native high school and college-age students opportunities to learn and hone their business and entrepreneurial skills. The young people will learn from Native businessmen and women about running their own companies.
“As UNITY enters its 40th anniversary of providing youth leadership development and the National Center creating significant economic development opportunities and support in Indian country for over 40 years, we have the right mix of experience and expertise to be of great resource for and contribute to the future success of Native businesses,” Mary Kim Titla, executive director for UNITY said in a statement.
Gary Davis, president and CEO of the nonprofit National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, said the initiative will help grow the next generation of businesspeople in Indian country.
“If we don’t begin to grow the next generation of entrepreneurs, I think we are ultimately missing the bigger picture,” he said. “We have to have that sustainability piece in place so we are grooming a new generation of businesspeople to take over where we leave off.”
One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is a lack of mentors and people to help them overcome stumbling blocks, Davis said. “Oftentimes, guidance, just general guidance, can give an edge,” he said.
The belief that going after a dream – specifically in business – is possible and admirable is the key to success, he said. “Without entrepreneurship, I don’t know where I would be,” Davis said.
For Thomas, success growing up meant aspiring to tribal government. She said she’s now pleased to show that entrepreneurship is another option.
“We definitely need strong leaders for Indian country, but to add the idea of entrepreneurship is wonderful, because it’s just as likely for a young person to become an entrepreneur as it is for them to become a tribal leader. It’s really about expanding and broadening the horizons,” she said.
Knowing your worth is a key challenge for Native businesspeople, said Thomas, who is transitioning her business to a nonprofit to better help give back to charitable causes.
“We traditionally live off of a barter system, but now with commerce, now it’s cash. And it’s very difficult for all these startups to really ask for what their work is worth, and also, estimating how much it’s worth. It does take nerve.”
Entrepreneurs need to stand firm on their worth and their price for their services, she said.
Another challenge is getting the word out about a new business in the proper way. Thomas, who is a third-generation seamstress, said the community was used to her family creating dresses, but a new business endeavor can be more difficult. Hard sells don’t work in Indian country, she notes, because people do business with their family and friends and other people they know, not sales people.
Native youth can register for YES by visiting here.