Calling Native Changemakers: Innovation Challenge Awards Cash Prize, Consulting

Think portable solar energy tools, safe and sustainable home heating techniques, enhanced water delivery, ways to improve road conditions or transportation to schools, strategies to reduce food insecurity, or easier methods for cooking healthy meals.

“We’re looking to bring an entrepreneurial approach to the issues faced on reservations — and all reservations are different, so there are a lot of different needs,” said Jessica Stago, Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN) program director.

NABIN has joined forces with Catapult Design, which brings creative solutions to reservations and underserved communities around the globe, to launch a social innovation challenge to benefit tribal communities — at nativestartup.org. Creative thinkers from tribal communities in New Mexico and Arizona have the opportunity to pitch and develop their socially conscious business ideas to improve lives on reservations and pueblos.

The challenge winner will receive a $5,000 cash prize plus at least one full year of mentorship valued at $15,000. Three runners-up will receive one year of business incubation services. The deadline for applications is March 17, 2017.

NABIN was created on the Navajo Reservation to inspire tribal visionaries to start meaningful and successful businesses. “We’re trying to build an ecosystem of entrepreneurship on reservations and within tribal communities,” Stago said.

The nonprofit's ultimate goal is to elevate entrepreneurship as a strategy for economic development. Native small business owners are vital to the economic sustainability of tribal communities, because they have a personal and emotional connection to the people they serve. “That increases their longevity and increases their drive and motivation for being in business,” Stago said.


The crux for any startup introducing a new product or service is whether they can change the ingrained, deep-seeded habits of a community. Society can be resistant to new technology or processes — even to positive change that may vastly ease a challenge. “So how do you design products, or design services, or design policies for people that help them want to make that change and drive new behaviors?” poses Heather Fleming, Navajo, CEO and founder of Catapult Design. That’s where her company comes into play. “That’s what we do when we’re talking about design.”

A mission-driven organization, Catapult makes quality design and engineering services accessible to entrepreneurs on reservations and in low-income communities worldwide. Catapult primarily deals with consumer products that have a humanitarian purpose — like small solar lights for the home, or meter devices to limit excessive LPG gas consumption.

In addition to sponsoring the Innovation Challenge, Catapult is among the volunteer mentors committed to supporting the winners . Mentors will provide guidance within their various industries, such as legal, technology, marketing, communications, or federal Indian law. One person might require help with the initial phases of drafting a business plan or starting a nonprofit, another small business might need assistance with regards to intellectual property – patenting their idea or copyrighting a name.

While mentorship is often technical and logistical, it’s also simply about support, trust, confidence, motivation and guidance.

“I’m an entrepreneur myself, and I understand that starting a business brings up a lot of emotions — it’s a roller coaster ride,” said Fleming, a Stanford University graduate in product design, who formerly consulted companies in the Silicon Valley before founding Catapult in late 2008. “There are days where you wake up and think, ‘What am I doing?’ And then there are other days where you’re so excited about all the risks that you’re taking. During that time period, for me, it was really critical to surround myself with peers and people who have gone through that journey and people who could reassure me in some sense, or calm me down when I needed it. I think that’s an important role for all the mentors — to give people some peace of mind in what they’re doing, and to act as cheerleaders to help them take steps every day.”

NABIN is currently recruiting more mentors.

NABIN will announce the winner of the Innovation Challenge at Change Labs 2017 taking place in June in Tuba City, Arizona. The network started hosting Change Labs in 2014, inviting speakers from tech companies from the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the country. Industry experts shed light on creative processes like graphic illustration, website design, app development and 3D modeling – “things that people on the reservation don’t normally get to see or experience,” Stago said. “This year we’ll be looking at food insecurity and how to benefit from tourism.”

NABIN and Catapult Design's Innovation Challenge is open to tribal members from tribes in New Mexico or Arizona; applicants are not required to reside presently within those states. Business ideas should offer a solution to a challenge faced by tribal communities in the modern world. “This competition is designed to give Native problem-solvers the opportunity to cultivate their ideas into viable solutions with real impacts in Native communities by pairing the creativity and survival skills that have been the cornerstone of Native American life with the innovation and technology available today,” Stago said.

The first-round application can be downloaded at www.nativestartup.org. Applicants who make it to the second round will be asked to create a proposal video to supplement their written application.