By Shannon Burns -- Today correspondent
SPOKANE, Wash. - Sisters and self-described ''best friends'' Monica Simeon and Marina Turningrobe are rapidly exploring the Indian gaming market with their line of natural spa products. The two women own and operate Sister Sky and have developed a number of lotions, soaps, shampoos, body washes, massage lotions and other spa personal care products.
The business, which opened in 1999, has been gaining popularity among Native casino executives who want to use and sell natural products in their gaming facilities, hotels and spas. Sister Sky has a competitive edge because each of their products is natural and is tied somehow to Native traditions. The products contain culture-related ingredients - like sweet grass, cedar and sage - and do not contain the harsh chemicals and artificial scents found on the mainstream market.
''We're a Native American woman-owned company and what we do is manufacture and distribute a complete line of personal care products,'' said Simeon. She and her sister are members of the Spokane Indian Tribe in Washington state. ''We distribute those products to Native American hotel, spa and gift industries.''
Sister Sky can create an original blend for individual clients who wish to sell and use the product in large quantities. For example, the sisters just recently signed a contract with an Indian-owned hotel which will now have customized product from Sister Sky to offer guests.
''What we create is both purposeful and authentic because we truly weave in cultural elements of our traditions,'' Simeon said.
Simeon and Turningrobe have picked up clients across the country and have narrowed their marketing strategy on the Indian market.
''We are very proud of the fact that we are playing a positive role in the economic unity [of Indian country],'' Simeon said. ''We supply a product and it is traded.''
''You have - across the board - resort development in Indian country and oftentimes you'll have a gorgeous spa being constructed and there's a real need to incorporate some of the Native American cultural elements that will help differentiate it,'' Simeon said. ''It will be something that is perceived as unique.''
Simeon and Turningrobe make one thing clear: They have evolved past the level of many home-based soap and lotion manufacturers and have the capacity to make large quantities of product. They are in a position both strategically and economically to provide full lines of product to new or established hotels and casinos.
''We're at a stage in our business where we're competitive,'' Turningrobe said. ''We're ready for future growth. We're not making this in our room.''
Reaching the status they now have took hard work and ambition; the sisters also reached out to the BIA.
''In order to ramp up our facility we did apply for and received a BIA guaranteed loan,'' Turningrobe said. ''It was a real instrumental part of our expanding and our business growth. It really did assist us; it's a great program.''
The sisters are proud of the fact that they are contributing to the economies of their Native community, which they said has about a 50 percent unemployment rate.
''If we can build a business and create jobs - good jobs - we think that there's tremendous value in that,'' Turningrobe said. ''We take a lot of pride in the fact that we have purposely decided that the business we build and grow is going to be on our tribal land.
''We had a vision to create this company not to build it up and sell it for $10 million and walk away from it, but to create an economy back home, with a facility that will employ people and elevate the economy on the reservation,'' Turningrobe continued. ''It's not just for us and our prosperity in the here and now.''
The sisters said that as they've been inspired by Native-owned companies, they hope they can also inspire someone.
Turningrobe said, ''Our vision extends past us to much more, and hopefully we're [having] a positive impact and positive influence on other aspiring Native American entrepreneurs and to other aspiring Native American women and also to our youth.''
For more information about Sister Sky, visit www.sistersky.com.