Victor Corpuz, president of MaizeMob Skateboards, is quick to correct anyone who calls his business a company.
“It’s a movement,” says the 17-year-old Laguna-Acoma High School senior who created a skateboarding-based outlet combining art, boarding and traditional language after parting with another company he was skating for and promoting earlier this year.
Learning the fundamentals of the business through his past sponsor, Corpuz developed a system of support for him and his friends learning Keres, the language spoken at Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, while doing what they loved. He also decided to sell T-shirts and hats with art he and his friends created as a way to sustain their sport.
“We wanted to practice our language, and we thought it was a cool idea to help promote our reservation and have a skateboard company of our own,” he said. “A lot of our communities have wonderful artists, and I thought that it would be a good idea to promote them. People know skateboarding is not the traditional or conventional sport like basketball, football or track. But it’s something that other kids can participate if they don’t want to do the traditional school sport.”
When Corpuz saw the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico (AICCNM)’s Shark Tank Challenge flyer posted at his school in May, he wrote up a business plan and entered not expecting much. Competing with other area high school students, Corpuz pitched his concept and won first place, which came with a $1,000 prize to invest in his vision.
“It’s a full-time business right now. School is a secondary thing for me, but I’m not letting my grades slip,” Corpuz said, adding that this business is more about “the language—it’s about being indigenous.”
Corpuz is one of nearly a dozen Native American high school and college students in New Mexico getting a taste of entrepreneurship with the help of AICCNM. Entering its third year, the chamber’s competition modeled after the popular TV show Shark Tank where entrepreneurs pitch a panel of millionaires to obtain investment dollars has awarded more than $3,000 to Native youth.
The chamber incorporated a Shark Tank competition and youth workshops in its annual economic summit in 2014 to provide mentorship and networking opportunities, and encourage Native youth to enter business careers. Youth Impact Summit participants are given balance sheets during financial workshops, and listen to business, community and tribal leaders discuss tribal economic development.
“We hope that by bringing the community together in this way every student will walk away with either an internship, mentorship, scholarship, entrepreneurial award, a job opportunity or networking experience,” said Russell Pedro, AICCNM Business Development Specialist.
Although college freshman Evelyn Lazero hasn’t decided on a major yet, she said participation in the youth summit has her thinking about studying business. Lazero (Assiniboine/Navajo/Laguna Pueblo), who was a senior at the Native American Community Academy (NACA) when she competed in the Shark Tank, won second place and $750 for her idea, United for Wellness, a summer program to aid eighth-graders becoming freshman at Highland High School in Albuquerque after learning about the high drop out rates of Native Americans at the campus.
Though Lazero has a business plan, she is still contemplating how to implement her business or even if she still wants to proceed with the original concept. The prize money, while helpful, wasn’t enough to fully leverage her idea. And as a new college student, she had to pay for books—the award covered that.
“What I’d like to do is wellness,” said Lazero, 18. “I may have to do it at a younger age because I realized that I can’t handle middle-schoolers because of their mood swings. Another route I was thinking about was clothing, fashion, recycled clothing or doing something organic, something innovative, creative—something that gets people’s attention.”
Henry Jake Foreman, Lazero’s former teacher at NACA who teaches digital arts and entrepreneurial skills based on indigenous values and tradition, said while many students who win prize money at AICCNM’s competition may not have a thriving business yet, it is an opportunity that these students may not receive otherwise.
“This is their first insight into what it takes to start a business,” said Foreman (Absentee Shawnee/Filipino). “The long term goal is to invest in education. Really now it’s making sure these students within high school have mentorship and opportunities to continue their schooling.”
Foreman, last year’s Shark Tank winner, used his $500 cash prize to obtain a teaching license after graduating from the University of New Mexico with a master’s degree in community and regional planning. He’s currently participating in the New Mexico Community Capital Native Entrepreneur in Residence Program, an opportunity he discovered while attending the 2014 Youth Impact Summit. He received a mentor and $15,000 as part of the residency, and has plans to create a business incubator at NACA.
“I’m still working on my business plan and I’m still continuing to make a viable business from that,” said Foreman, who is teaching Digital Strategy and Entrepreneurial Innovation based on his plan. The class is now a requirement by NACA before graduation. “As a teacher, a facilitator in this class, I’m explaining to students that any resources, any opportunities and any networking will always increase your chances at being successful.”
Corpuz and his friends are learning first-hand what it takes to turn a concept into a company. Through trial and error, watching a ton of YouTube videos and research online, he and his friends learned how to screen print. But the effort only yielded less than a dozen shirts, which were mostly sold to friends and family. And while he was able to buy what he needed—T-shirts, ink and a silk screen press—to get MaizeMob started, Corpuz realized that $1,000 didn’t go very far.
Despite the rough beginning, Corpuz said he appreciated having this opportunity to jump-start his idea. Prior to the contest, he and his friends would pool money given to them from birthdays, Christmas, selling burritos, or odd jobs as seed money for the project.
“We were already doing things before (the contest)” he said. “Either way it would of taken a lot longer, we would have barely got the screen press now if I didn’t participate in that. For some people, it may have been a make or break thing, but for us, with the determination we already had, we would have gotten there anyway.
“But I wasn’t really trying to do it for the money,” Corpuz added. “It was just to show who we are. I just wanted to go and present it to see if people really liked or believed in our idea.”
Kelly Zunie (Zuñi Pueblo/Cherokee), New Mexico Secretary of Indian Affairs and Shark Tank judge, said investment in programs like these help change the Native student mindset.
“Many Native kids are given something, which gives a sense of being a victim or entitlement. These kids said, ‘I have a dream, I’m going to participate in this event and I’m going for it.’ That’s empowering,” she said.
The American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico is now accepting applications for the 2016 Youth Impact Summit online.