The Tilsen family has certainly made their mark on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Mark Tilson, a Jewish man who married a Lakota woman, took his Tanka Bar buffalo Jerky from the reservation to gourmet shops across the country. His children seem to have followed in his big footsteps: son Nick Tilsen is the executive director of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, and Mark Kenneth Tilsen is an English teacher at Red Cloud Indian School. His daughter, Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart, has brought her business acumen to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and now she brings it to you.
Tilsen-Brave Heart’s story is unique. Before developing the Tanka Bar, Mark Tilsen managed the band Indigenous for 12 years and later co-owned a nightclub called The Backyard in Austin, Texas. The children were raised on the road, and by the age of 12, her business skills were already honed.
Courtesy Native American Natural Foods
Left to right: Mark Tilsen, Danaj Edmond and Karlene Hunter promoted Native American Natural Foods' jerky and energy bars at the NASFT Fancy Food Show.
“My dad was an entrepreneur, and he ran his business inside our home so we all took part. I would do what we called pre-booking calls when I was 12. I’d call venues and consult with artists about their contracts. I had to learn to speak professionally at a really young age,” Tilsen-Brave Heart said.
Tilsen-Brave Heart was often told she was a pretty child, and when, as a pre-teen, she developed a softball-sized tumor on her face, she had to overcome self-consciousness when working with the adults. “It was really hard,” she said sadly. “People gasped when they saw me. My dad said, ‘Now you have to show the world who you really are. You have to lead with your heart, and I took that very seriously.” It was years before the tumor was removed, but the experience solidified Tilsen-Brave Heart’s poise and confidence in her own abilities.
By the time she was 21, Tilsen-Brave Heart was recruited by the Indigo Girls to manage the band, and when she was 23, ready to give up life on the road, she returned to Pine Ridge with savvy business skills, ready to give back.
Kimberly Tilsen Brave Heart
In an image that could almost be described as “Legally Native,” Tilsen-Brave Heart returned home to the rez driving a new Audi, wearing Gucci sunglasses and designer clothes. Laughing, she said, “No one really believed I would make it on the reservation. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had this driving force that I was supposed to come back.”
Shortly after her return she received a call from her father, who asked her to come down to a meeting with tribal officials and administrators. When she arrived, she learned they were looking for someone with business skills and a tribal background. “Me!” she said. “That’s me!” She was hired on the spot.
Tilsen-Brave Heart, 31, was a participant in the Bush Foundation’s Native Nation Rebuilders Fellowship Program and was also selected as the Native American Instructor of the SBA e200 Executive Management Training for the state of South Dakota. She served as co-founder of the South Dakota Indian Business Alliance and received the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and now operates Painted Skye Management where she offers business training, coaching and management services for artistic and entertainment talent including comedian Dallas Goldtooth (Mdewakanton Dakota and Diné), writer Gyassi Ross (Blackfeet), painter Joe Hopkins (Cree/Seminole), and sculptor Brendon Albers (Cheyenne River).
When Albers met Tilsen-Brave Heart, he was sculpting his stone pieces in a bus, using a headlamp instead of electricity and lights. “He used to sell his pieces for $50, even after 40 hours of work. He said I breathed belief into him,” she said. Albers is now working full-time as an artist, and his sculptures are selling from $1,000 to $3,500. Tilsen-Brave Heart also assisted Lauren Giago (Arikara, Hidatsa, Blackfeet and Plains Cree) with the development of her Rapid City shop Sage and Silver, which Tilsen-Brave Heart said has been a huge success.
So, how can you succeed in business? Here are Tilsen-Brave Heart’s top 11 tips for success.
Don’t Take Critiques to Heart
When you ask for a critique of your work, your talents or business concepts, don’t take it personally—use the critique as a way to improve. Make a deep personal commitment to continue to improve your skill. Tilsen-Brave Heart still has a mentor, and when she puts the criticism to use, her work always improves.
Sell Your Product, Whatever It Is
Try selling your art, gig, product or service. In order to make a career, other people need to connect to it. They need to want it.
Don’t work on becoming faster, work on perfecting your work, so you are always producing a high quality product or performance.
Understand the Importance of Social Media
Clean up your social media. Look at your current content, photographs, status updates, articles shared and make sure it is consistent with your story and brand. People will look at your social media when they become interested in your art.
Develop an Image
Have a professional logo made for your business. Hire or trade with a photographer to have a professional headshot taken. Develop your professional image. Be professional. Showcase your specialized knowledge of your art medium.
Give Some Stuff Away
Do some things for FREE. You need to start somewhere. You need to get your name out there. Donate a piece of art to an auction for a cause you care about. Be involved in your community. When you show commitment to your people they will return the love by supporting you through the good times and the bad times.
Keep Good Records
Keep track of when you are working and the cost of materials. Your profit margin is about 20 to 30 percent. If it cost $50 for time and materials, add 30 percent if you are selling wholesale. For retail you would double the final cost.
Be Competent and Dependable
Be sure to get the job done. If you make a commitment, keep it. Deliver on time and keep all promises you make. You need to be accountable. You are your reputation and so is your business. When you don’t do what you say you will, it has a long-term effect on your reputation.
Stay true to who you are—don’t steal other people’s ideas, innovations, or designs. If you want to partner with another artist on an idea, you have to ask them, get permission. Give credit when credit is due. People connect to authenticity. That adds to longevity of your career.
Incorporate Your Culture
Incorporate your cultural heritage if it is a part of your identity. But if it is not how you were raised, don’t push it or force it. Know the historic significance of your art medium and how it connects to your tribal affiliation. This adds value to your pieces.
All businesses are based on relationships. Your ultimate goal is to create long-term relationships. Network with your peers, fellow artists, and buyers. If someone doesn’t book you or doesn’t buy a piece right away, it may just not be the right time. They may know someone who is right for you.