Taliman: Native women entrepreneurs: Good business for Indian country

As I leave the nonprofit world to return to my own company, I’m inspired by Native women who’ve built successful businesses and created thousands of jobs in Indian country. Their leadership has shaped a path for others to follow, and our communities are benefiting from their vision and fortitude.

Most people are surprised to learn there are more than 90,000 privately held companies owned by Native American women. These businesses generate more than $12 billion in annual sales and employ some 130,000 people, according to a 2004 survey by the Center for Women’s Business Research. That’s no small thing in Indian country.

On a national basis, more than one out of 11 Native women own a business. We also have the highest rate of entrepreneurship among major ethnic groups (9.2 percent compared to Caucasian-6, Hispanic-4.2, and African American-2.8 percent.) Business ownership increased by nearly 70 percent between 1997 and 2004, and new data due out in 2010 is expected to show further increases.

Raised among strong Navajo women who historically made decisions about land, livestock and family finances, I’m not surprised by the numbers. Many of us grew up on reservations where half the population couldn’t find work. For decades, Navajo Nation unemployment rates have hovered near 50 percent, and have exceeded 70 percent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Finding a job is simply impossible at times.

Under these conditions, many Indian women are compelled to mesh innovative ideas, hard work and heartfelt concern for their families and communities to create businesses that bring money and jobs to tribal economies.

At a recent conference of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations held on the Fort McDowell Reservation, a panel of successful entrepreneurs shared knowledge and offered advice about mentors, networking and quality services.

“Find your passion and a good accountant,” said Patricia Parker, president/CEO of Native American Management Services, a multi-million dollar firm she founded in 1989. “As a non-financial type, it was much easier to pay more attention to the passion than the practical. But to succeed, it’s critical to find someone that can help you understand the language of business – accounting and finance.”

Parker, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is considered an expert in mentoring others on how to secure 8(a) certification with the Small Business Administration to help minority firms compete for federal contracts. She balances the bottom line with the philosophy and dedication to public service.

“It’s that desire to make a difference and be of service to Indian country that really drives me,” Parker said. “It can be difficult at times, but you just have to put all the negativity aside and tell yourself ‘I can do this.’”

Karlene Hunter, CEO and co-founder of Native American Natural Foods and Lakota Express, has more than 25 years experience in economic development on the Pine Ridge Reservation where her businesses are based. She was one of several business leaders troubled by all the capital flowing off the reservation.

“We knew that within 72 hours of money hitting the reservation, it was gone, mostly to border towns. We needed to create more private sector growth on the reservation, so we formed a chamber of commerce and began working together.”

What a difference it made. Twenty years ago, there were only two Native-owned businesses on Pine Ridge – today there are more than 200.

Hunter has won national awards for her entrepreneurship. Her latest product, the Tanka Bar, made from a traditional Lakota wasna recipe, is sold in more than 2,400 stores in 42 states. The business has created 22 full-time and 40 part-time positions.

Margo Gray-Proctor, the newly elected board chair of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, is on a mission to develop the American Indian private sector as a means to help communities become self-sufficient.

Gray-Proctor, an Osage citizen, is president of the Horizon Companies which include civil engineering and design services for commercial developments. She’s urging tribal governments to create better legal and government environments enabling Indian businesses to thrive on reservations. And she’s crafting more opportunities for women.

In partnership with NCAIED and WEWIN, the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development is sponsoring free entrepreneurial development training tailored to Native women. “Creating Business Excellence” is being offered through Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business from Sept. 14 – 17 in Tulsa, Okla. Slots are open and participants only pay airfare and lodging.

The training will cover financing the business, growing in scale and profitability, improving competitive position, achieving financial stability and penetrating markets. For information, contact Pat Parker at (571) 323-5657 or pparker@namsinc.org.

We should all be proud of the many hard working Indian women who are succeeding in business, helping to build tribal economies, and fostering the next generation of Native entrepreneurs.

Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, which offers publishing, social media and public relations services. She is also an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. She is based in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact her at valerietaliman@gmail.com.