Incubating and Sustaining Businesses on Native Lands
Change Labs Incubates and Sustains Businesses on Native Lands
Germaine Simonson was running a grocery store far out in the rural Rocky Ridge community of Navajo Nation when she had an idea. Her Rocky Ridge Gas + Market had been serving the community since the 1960s, providing food and supplies for community elders. Simonson noticed that when young people left the reservation to pursue education or work, they became disconnected from their grandparents. She wanted to find a way to bring them together and make it easy for grandchildren to lend support.
Simonson combed through the market’s sales data and put together baskets based upon what Native elders most often buy—from cleaning to winter readiness products to sheep herding materials. With the help of the Change Labs business incubator, she created Grandma Baskets, curated care packages of food and supplies for grandkids to send back home.
“We had just launched her website when COVID hit,” says Change Labs Executive Director Heather Fleming. “And suddenly that was the only way to ensure elders had things like food and toilet paper. [Simonson] brought in $10,000 in donated baskets for elders in the community and enabled her business to stay afloat.”
Change Labs was designed to create a safe place for Native American entrepreneurs and community members to explore and develop their ideas. It provides the infrastructure, expertise, and support for the first three years of a Native American organization’s entrepreneurial journey. Fittingly, the concept of Change Labs came to Fleming in a sort of “light bulb moment.” Having grown up on Navajo Nation, she went to Stanford University and was running a non-profit social enterprise that worked with entrepreneurs in East Africa and India to design products and services for communities. “We were doing things like water transportation devices, pay as you go modern stoves for communities in Kenya, pay as you go lighting systems for homes in India.” Fleming realized that while the Navajo Nation had many of the same challenges, these kinds of creative solutions to address basic community needs were not available. “I wondered, ‘Why don’t we see innovation on Navajo?’ And the answer was, ‘There are too few entrepreneurs on Navajo.’”
“I knew the issues [that impeded business growth] from watching them growing up,” said Fleming. “But I didn’t understand why.” So she spent several years learning from her co-founder Jessica Stago about the challenges of inadequate infrastructure, rampant and persistent poverty, and under-performing public schools. “Native Americans play by a completely different set of rules when it comes to starting and running a business on our land, because we don’t own our land. It’s leased to us by the federal government. And that really changes the game,” says Fleming.
“If you can’t own your land that means you have no assets. And trying to start a business with no assets, it’s nearly impossible. It creates this mindset amongst our people that we are not entrepreneurial, and it’s so not true. If you drive across the Navajo nation, you will see a thriving flea market economy, you’ll see people selling on the roadsides. We are hyper-entrepreneurial, hyper-resourceful, but we don’t have the infrastructure to support growth.”
Change Labs is set on shifting mindsets and circumstances for Native business owners so they can flourish, while staying true to their values. Funded primarily by grants, the organization provides co-working spaces, a business incubator, and a character-based lending program that relies upon personal credibility rather than credit scores. The 12-month program addresses legal issues, accessing capital, creating business plans, marketing strategies, and logistics.
Entrepreneurs come to Change Labs with big dreams. “One wants to make sure everyone has running water, another wants to run a bike repair shop, while another is creating a beauty line for Native people. We keep pictures up of our successful graduates on the walls to create a sense of pride,” says Fleming. “All have beautiful reasons for doing what it is they want to do.”
As for Change Labs, their reasons for doing what they do are beautiful too: to enable healthier, more diverse economies and to increase the prosperity of local communities on Native lands. Their mission—to make the world better—is something they share with many who choose the .ORG domain.
“It was a very mindful choice to choose .ORG,” says Fleming. “Not just because we’re a non-profit. At Change Labs we’re always about promoting business while respecting culture and tradition. We exist for the community. The .ORG domain embodies that and more.”
To learn more about and support the work of Change Labs, go to www.nativestartup.org.