LAS VEGAS - John Mia and Adrian Phoenix prove you don't have to be out of
high school to start thinking about the future.
Around the time the teens became eligible to apply for a driver's license,
they started their own catering business: the Red Chili Shack. Their hard
work has paid off, and not just with a successful venture. The pair was
presented with the "Youth Entrepreneur of the Year" award at the 19th
annual Reservation Economic Summit.
They also won some high praise from former BIA Assistant Secretary Dave
Anderson, the businessman who grew "Famous Dave's" barbecue into a
nationwide franchise and keynote speaker on the final day of RES. He took
the stage immediately following the announcement that the Red Chili Shack
had taken home the honor.
"If things are going to change in Indian country, it's going to come from
our young entrepreneurs," Anderson said. "We all have to get out of our
comfort zones. We have to start telling our young people they are worthy as
Indian people and can do amazing things."
Anderson's comments on the younger generation taking charge of the future
of business on the reservations were echoed by a number of speakers
throughout the four-day conference. Rick Stephens, Boeing's senior vice
president of Internal Service, told the crowd during his speech that "it's
the youth who will help us develop the future."
It was no coincidence that so many speakers used their time to address
younger conference attendees: for the first time in the history of RES,
there was a track dedicated strictly to Indian youth.
The "Young Entrepreneurs" track was the brainchild of Jennifer Villalobos
and Clark Tallbull, who saw the need to get young people involved in
business at an earlier age. Villalobos, 34, said the idea came to her three
years ago at RES when she noticed that there were no young people in
"I was so inspired by seeing so many Native American businesses and what
they were doing, and the effect it had on me, that I wondered what effect
it would have on teens," said Villalobos, 2004 Youth Entrepreneur award
recipient. "So we took it upon ourselves to see if there would be support
here for a youth track: and there was."
About two dozen high school-and college-age youth participated in the
inaugural session. The students were assigned mentors; took part in
self-esteem and confidence-building exercises; and attended workshops on
wellness, financial planning and networking. The track is designed to
instill confidence and get students thinking on a larger business scale.
Presenter Robert Johnston used his class to teach the students how to feel
comfortable introducing themselves to business leaders, showing them how to
make the most out a brief conversation to ensure they land the job or
client. Later the students were "let loose" on the trade show floor to use
the techniques they'd just learned.
"This has opened a lot of people's eyes," Johnston said of the youth track.
"The greatest resource any tribe has is its youth. It's an investment in
Singer Darryl Tonemah was also a presenter. In the time Tonemah spent at
the conference and in traveling to reservations all across the nation, he
said he's seen a change in attitude among Indian youth. The defeatist
attitude that he said was prevalent when he was growing up is fading away.
"A lot of young people on the reservations I go to have bigger ideas. They
want to start businesses," said 38-year-old Tonemah. "When I ask kids what
they want to do, they have plans - which is encouraging because that option
wasn't there 20 years ago.
"You don't have to go so far away to be successful. You don't have to go
off the reservation to have a business. It's easier. There are more startup
opportunities now. It's pretty cool they came to this to get that dream
For Mia, who said he plans to apply some of the marketing strategies he
learned to his business, that dream is already becoming a reality.
"This helps push you in the right direction," the 18-year-old Cal State
freshman said of the new youth track. "It shows what it takes to set up a
business and put it all into action."