Welcome to Breaking the Blueprint — a blog series that dives into the unique business challenges and opportunities of underrepresented business owners and entrepreneurs. Learn how they’ve grown or scaled their businesses, explored entrepreneurial ventures within their companies, or created side hustles, and how their stories can inspire and inform your own success.
Aspiring Native entrepreneurs face many challenges in growing small businesses. Complex land lease laws, strained infrastructure, and a chronic lack of credit access all inhibit Indigenous success. However, thanks to growing federal, organizational, and tribal support, potential business owners have more resources available than ever.
Navigating new financial mechanisms, tribal incubators, and government programs can still present a challenge. By appraising available resources, and when to leverage them, Native entrepreneurs gain a great head start in launching new ventures. Starting on the right foot, with the right tools, can make all the difference – especially when climbing over systemic barriers.
Native Community Development Financial Institutions
Native access to capital can prove a complex and frustrating obstacle for up-and-coming business owners. Chronic systemic discrimination, along with general confusion around complicated land laws, can stymie new businesses before they ever get started. Generational poverty often means that Natives don’t have alternative means of obtaining start-up capital, either.
A May 2021 report by the National Indian Council On Aging states that 16.3 percent of Native households don’t use banks. The same report notes that high poverty rates, systemic racism, and a lack of brick-and-mortar institutions on Native reservations leave many Indigenous people without good financial standing.
Natives also can’t use lands held in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs – meaning reservation lands – as collateral. As a result, traditional banking and the consequent access to business loans remain out of reach.
In response, many tribes or non-profit organizations have established Native Community Development Financial Institutions or Native CDFIs. These institutions use non-traditional methods, often backed by tribal or federal funding, to lend to otherwise ineligible borrowers.
There are over 70 Native CDFIs across the United States. Some are tribally owned, such as the Lummi CDFI in Bellingham, Washington. Others are established as regional organizations, such as Native Community Capital in New Laguna, New Mexico. Many are part of an overarching organization called the Native CDFI Network, whose website hosts a list of member institutions.
As Native-led or Native-serving organizations, these institutions understand land law, tribal sovereignty, and the issues facing Indigenous entrepreneurs. Loan officers at Native CDFIs often use metrics other than credit scores or collateral to support their lending or offer financial literacy and credit-building programs to improve clients’ standing.
These groups also share many of the perspectives and experiences of their surrounding constituents, which means a wider array of business models can be encouraged and supported. An October 2022 report from banking giant Wells Fargo notes that traditional, national banks frequently lend more often to tribal enterprises with established presences, while CDFIs help cover the gap for smaller loans and riskier businesses.
Potential Indigenous entrepreneurs who have access to a Native CDFI should make reaching out and establishing a relationship their first step in drumming up business capital. In addition to establishing credit, working with a CDFI to build financial literacy and refine a business model can get things started on a high note.
Business Incubators for Indigenous Entrepreneurs
Good products and services may form the cornerstone of successful business ventures, but they’re just a part of the overall operation. Entrepreneurs need a good understanding of cash flow, marketing, scale, and a wide array of other subjects to maintain that success.
Indigenous-led business incubators serve an important niche, combining traditional business sense with a deep understanding of a community’s traditions, needs, and issues. Where non-Native incubators might falter in addressing challenges specific to Native entrepreneurs, Indigenous incubators work from a Native perspective, tailoring their programs to fit their communities.
For Tuba City, Arizona-based Change Labs, an incubator serving the Navajo (Dine) and Hopi peoples, that means initiatives such as providing storefront space and no-credit-needed micro-loans, according to their Theory of Change report. These tailor programs address the limited availability of workable retail space on Navajo and Hopi lands, as well as a widespread lack of credit.
Incubator cohorts typically include dedicated programs packed with classes, projects, and networking. These cohorts often pair participants with experienced mentors in their chosen industries, building relationships and connections for striking out on their own later.
Much like Native CDFIs, Indigenous incubators form for both tribes and regional organizations. While Change Labs targets the Hopi and Navajo tribes specifically, Traverse City, Mich.-based Arrowhead Incubator aids entrepreneurs across that area. While there aren’t many incubators fully off the ground, the passage of 2020’s Native American Business Incubator Act aims to grow that number considerably. Where there isn’t a resource now, one may exist soon.
Native entrepreneurs growing their businesses or who are uncertain of their next steps may find it worth it to locate an Indigenous-led business incubator either through their tribe or regional support. In the absence of a nearby resource, larger incubators such as the Spokane-based Native Business Center provide a range of online classes and workshops.
Economic Development Organizations for Indigenous Entrepreneurs
Even as Indian Country struggles with building wealth, national organizations work to combat those issues and develop strategies for new Native entrepreneurs. Many of these organizations develop programs for funding and supporting Indigenous businesses. Some of these organizations include:
The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development provides a wide array of programs for supporting everything from procurement for Indigenous small businesses to securing government contracts through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program. The Center also offers Native Edge Institutes, one-day in-person events providing concentrated bursts of business training.
The Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which offers data-driven research on industry trends, headwinds facing Indigenous businesses, and policy recommendations.
The National Minority Supplier Development Council certifies and supports businesses whose owners are majority Native American, Asian-American, African American, Asian-Pacific, or Hispanic. The council connects member businesses with over 500 corporate members, provides seminars and training, and offers a range of capital access programs, like the Growth Initiative.
In addition to wide-net organizations like the above, many states have American Indian Chambers of Commerce, such as chapters in Oklahoma and New Mexico. These organizations provide advocacy, management, and networking services to Native-owned businesses in their given regions, making them crucial and powerful tools for accessing localized support.
Federal and Tribal Government Programs for Indigenous Entrepreneurs
New COVID-19 era legislation has poured unprecedented funding into Indian Country and prompted the development of new federal support. Some of that is leveraged toward small businesses, chiefly through offices like the Small Business Administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
1. The Small Business Administration
The SBA offers free technical assistance for business owners through the Office of Native American Affairs. The Administration also partners with Native-led organizations like RedWind and Sister Sky, Inc. to provide entrepreneurial workshops for Indigenous business owners. The administration also manages the 8(a) Business Development Program, which offers federal contracting preference to certified minority-owned businesses.
2. The Bureau of Indian Affairs
The Bureau of Indian Affairs supports Indigenous entrepreneurs through its Native American Business Development Institute, which can fund feasibility studies and market research for business plans. The agency also manages the Indian Loan Guarantee and Insurance Program, which can help provide collateral and support for first-time borrowers.
3. The U.S. Department of Commerce Minority Business Development Agency
Lastly, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency serves minority-owned businesses with research, market data, and a wide swathe of Native-centered business grants and projects.
It’s also worth checking in with individual tribes and their corresponding economic development institutions. While tribal gaming continues to be a juggernaut in generating tribal revenue, tribal acquisitions and diversification are on the rise – a tribal member’s small business may be the next best fit for the tribe’s economic strategy. Alternatively, tribes may have support programs and individualized help available for citizens running new ventures.
Use What’s Out There to Build Your Career
Starting a business can be hard in the best circumstances – and Native American entrepreneurs hardly ever begin in the best circumstances. As more and more institutions grapple with Indian Country’s generational trauma and how best to ease that trauma, Native business owners find themselves with more resources than ever.
Native businesses are important parts of local, tribal, and state economies, generating roughly $50 billion a year across the United States, according to an SBA report. Moreover, starting a successful business remains one of the fastest ways to pull a family out of poverty and begin creating generational wealth, combating one of the longest-running problems in Indian Country.
With the range of new opportunities available, it’s never been a better time to start a new business, whether that’s selling arts and crafts, providing IT services, construction contracting, or a large-scale farming enterprise. Aspiring Indigenous business owners should take advantage of renewed interest in Indian Country’s well-being and secure self-sufficiency and success for themselves in the future.