Growing up, Heather Fleming, Diné, was intimately aware of the disparities experienced by people residing on the reservation, versus those outside its borders.
The “invisible boundary” that seemed to influence socioeconomic factors like “access to education, or whether or not you had running water in your home, or electricity,” baffled her. “If you live on the reservation, you expect this kind of life, and if you live off of the reservation, you expect a life of modernity, even though you’re the same family. That always bugged me,” she said.
Born within Navajo country in Tuba City, Arizona, she was raised on the outskirts near Gallup in Vanderwagen, New Mexico (the Chichiltah chapter of the Navajo Nation), just a few dirt roads away from the reservation border. “My mom is one of nine kids. The two families who lived off the reservation — mine and my auntie’s family — we had such different lives than those who lived on the rez. That was very defining for me,” Fleming said.
Her mindfulness of the pervasive challenges faced by her cousins on the rez, in contrast to her personal upbringing, informed her life’s work. “That was a big motivator for creating Catapult and essentially my entire career,” said Fleming, CEO and founder of Catapult Design, based in San Francisco.
Inspired by her cousin — a civil engineer for the Indian Health Service who drilled wells to supply water to Navajos, she decided to study product design at Stanford University. The program synthesized the “psychological/social side, fine arts and design, as well as engineering and business. How do you create things that have meaning for people? I wanted to take that and apply it back to the challenges on the rez, like my cousin,” Fleming said.
After graduating from Stanford, Fleming consulted companies in the Silicon Valley on product design. She also gained perspective through Engineers Without Borders. Ultimately, to design solutions to reservation problems, she launched Catapult Design in late 2008.
“I love the work that we do. We’re a mission-driven organization, and we’re trying to make quality design and engineering services accessible to the types of entrepreneurs that you would find on the reservation — people who wouldn’t typically have access to those types of services, people who are committed to improving their communities, people who are up for tackling some of these challenges that we face on the rez and around the globe,” Fleming says.
Today, Catapults’s core staff consists of five full-time employees, plus three board members and three advisors.
Catapult helps solve the world's toughest challenges in mobility, energy access, agriculture, food insecurity, health, financial inclusion and more. The company’s primary focus is consumer products that serve a humanitarian purpose — like small solar lights for the home, water transportation devices between wells and homes, outdoor stoves to replace the firewood labor necessary for daily campfires built to prepare family meals, and meter devices to limit excessive LPG gas consumption.
Another primary challenge for entrepreneurs and startups, particularly in more rural communities, is convincing people to utilize a product or service. Influencing the ingrained, deep-seeded habits of a community resistant to new technology or processes — even when it leads to positive change — isn’t easy alone. “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 Fleming. “That’s what we do when we’re talking about design.”
Catapult Design tackles global challenges. Recently, the nonprofit assisted an organization in Tanzania with creating a pay-as-you-go solar energy service model. But the work Catapult does on the Navajo reservation hits closest to home for Fleming. “That’s the work I’m most excited about,” she said.
Catapult has spearheaded at least three big projects on Navajo, including Change Labs, Build Navajo, and a Social Innovation Challenge with the Native American Business Incubator Network (NABIN). Catapult launched Change Labs in 2014. The initiative explores overcoming barriers to building new business on the Navajo Reservation, deemed “the last frontier for entrepreneurship” by The Economist in 2008. Change Labs examines new ways entrepreneurs are tackling these challenges in similar environments around the globe, and connects promising entrepreneurs with the mentors and resources they need to succeed.
“It’s been amazing to see that community grow, and to hear people’s ideas for small business, or for an initiative within their community,” Fleming said.
Catapult also debuted Build Navajo in December 2016. The website’s goal is to decrease the timeline associated with starting a business and to encourage individuals to establish their business by visually simplifying the steps.
“There’s a department that’s responsible for that, but if you go to their website and try to figure it out, it’s impossible,” Fleming said. “I consider myself a relatively intelligent individual, and I couldn’t figure it out by looking through their website or calling their offices. We spent almost a year researching the process and trying to get it all mapped out, and then turned it into a visual tool that other Navajo entrepreneurs or small business owners can use to make it through that process.”
Most recently, Catapult co-developed the innovation challenge with NABIN — promoted at nativestartup.org — which encourages creative thinkers from tribal communities in New Mexico and Arizona to pitch and develop their socially conscious business ideas with the underlying goal of improving living conditions on reservations and pueblos.
Fleming sees design — a visual art, and a strategy for solving complex societal issues and challenges — as a powerful tool for change. Watch Fleming's TedxTalk on overcoming the barriers to economic development on the Navajo Nation: