WASHINGTON - With the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce set to open April 22, business-minded Indians in the state are celebrating a much-needed way to network and make their voices heard.
''For so long, Indians here have had little or no economic development support,'' said Cal Nez, president of the new organization. ''Native products and services of Native businesses need to be known to the world.''
Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation, has owned a graphic design business for more than 20 years. ''I'd like to think I have a bit of wisdom to share,'' he said.
''I've had a lot of doors slammed in my face,'' said Abel Saiz, a longtime construction business owner who's spent many hours helping to create the organization. ''I can share plenty of input on which bank doors, especially, might be friendlier to Natives who want to start a business.''
The primary goal of the chamber is to advocate for self-reliance and self-sufficiency for Indians who live both on and off reservations.
A first step in the process, organizers said, is to connect Native business people with each other. To make that happen, a database of Indian-owned businesses will be established on the group's forthcoming Web site, which will be aimed at helping Indians network with each other on their economic development experiences. It will also highlight Native-owned businesses to non-Indians.
To raise visibility for the endeavor, a kickoff event is scheduled to be held in Salt Lake City April 22, with many policymakers, business owners and tribal members expected to attend.
''I hope they will understand that this is a reality, and we are here,'' Nez said. ''We can be united in one voice and prove what we can do.''
Planners say the chamber is a much-needed outlet, since many tribal members in the state live in some of the most poverty-stricken areas in the nation and they receive little encouragement from tribes, family members or educational institutions to become entrepreneurs.
The group's leaders are currently doing all of their work on an entirely volunteer basis. Becoming a nonprofit and applying for grant funding is a goal that some hope to pursue down the road.
''We're starting from scratch here,'' said Saiz, who is of Apache and Northern Pueblo descent. ''At this time, we're looking for contributions to keep us on the move.''
Craig Anderson, director of the highly successful American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, believes that the new Utah chamber will face challenges, but he's supportive of the endeavor.
''American Indians are often first-generation business owners,'' said Anderson, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. ''They don't have what you call 'mentors' in their family.'' He favors any projects to combat these challenges.
Since the Wisconsin chamber was founded in 1991, it has become a multi-focused nonprofit organization and currently has about $1.5 million with which to provide business loans to its members. The group regularly holds economic development workshops all over the state to help develop Native-owned businesses. More than 150 businesses belong to the chamber.
Anderson said he's more than willing to offer input to the Utah chamber. ''It wasn't easy to get to this point,'' he said. ''It takes a lot of dedicated time in order to make this all happen.''
Saiz said the Utah chamber is definitely open to receiving advice. ''I know that networking is never enough,'' he said, adding that it's ''just the beginning.''
Leaders of the Utah organization said they hope that they will one day be able to offer seed project funding and workshops to help individual Natives develop their own business ideas.
''Obviously, we'd like to be able to run before we walk,'' Saiz said. ''But we all have a serious commitment.''
Nez added that he's in it for the long haul. ''It means enough to me that I know I need to commit time and resources to others who want to move in the right direction,'' he said.
Fifteen to 18 American Indian chambers of commerce currently exist nationwide. Some focus strictly on networking; others have much more detailed economic assistance models, like those of the Wisconsin chamber.
''Yes, there are quite a few Native chambers out there,'' Anderson said, ''but they aren't really doing much.''
He said there's a desperate need for more funding and noted, from his experience at least, that tribes often don't financially support such endeavors because they're often focused on growing their own tribal enterprises.
Other minority groups in Utah have had their own business chambers for years. The Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was established in 1991, while Asian, black and Pacific Islander groups began in 2006.
About 40 businesses are currently signed up to be part of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce, which has been under development since January