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Green Incubator Helping Navajo Startups

On a sunny fall day, Brett Isaac and his team of workers screw solar panels onto a large array at the Tolani Lake Enterprises building on the Navajo Nation.

Isaac is the project manager for the Shonto Economic Development Corporation, a solar company on the Navajo Nation.

He also is part of a team of business experts that is launching a Navajo business incubator project at the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology in Flagstaff.

The team will mentor Navajo entrepreneurs looking to start green enterprises. The goal is to foster local businesses that are both environmentally and culturally sustainable.

A $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding the project. It will also pay for business training sessions on the western part of the Navajo Nation.

The project is part of a movement to bring green jobs to the reservation, says Natasha Johnson, manager of the Grand Canyon Trust’s Native American program.

Johnson is a member of the green incubator mentorship team. She hopes the pilot project will lead to a larger initiative to foster sustainable enterprises on Indian reservations in Northern Arizona.

Johnson says Navajo communities are rejecting industries that are ecologically destructive. Instead, she says many community members want businesses that embrace and enhance traditional Navajo lifestyles.

For example, she says she is helping Navajo ranchers to become more profitable while putting less strain on the land.

Roberto Nutlouis, a mentor on the green incubator team, says agriculture is an important part of the Navajo culture and economy.

He says most Navajos who raise sheep simply sell the wool at their local trading post. There is a need, he says, for a value-added business that would sort wool by grade and quality and then market it to buyers in the United States and abroad.

“There’s no infrastructure in place right now to help our people to get a fair value for the products they produce,” he explained.

He says other agricultural businesses, such as meat processing, could fill a need on the reservation while also preserving traditional ways of life.

And many other types of businesses could be defined as sustainable by simply reducing the amount of gas people burn driving to border towns like Flagstaff and Winslow.

Most communities on the Navajo reservation do not have grocery stores, hardware stores or other basic necessities like a barbershop or pharmacy.

“The Navajo Nation is probably the biggest food desert in the country,” said Bill Edwards, program director for Tolani Lake Enterprises and a member of the incubator team. “In our community, right here at Tolani Lake, we have close to an 80-mile round trip to buy fresh produce.”

The community is located 40 miles north of Winslow.

Russ Yelton, president of the Northern Arizona Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (NACET), says that unmet need presents a great business opportunity.

“Think of someone who would come to Flagstaff, purchase large quantities of vegetables and then go into the various Native American communities and set up a truck and sell those,” he said. “Well, that’s green because they’re keeping those people in those communities from having to exit those communities to buy food and then bring it back.”

Isaac says there are also opportunities to expand the solar-energy industry locally by manufacturing panels that are customized for the region.

“Living out here my whole life, you start to develop a real intimate knowledge of what the needs are,” he said. “You’re not just projecting what could happen. You know what’s going to happen.”

Solar panels, for instance, need to be able to withstand high winds and snow loads, he says. And when those panels need maintenance, it is important that technicians be able to speak Navajo.

Issac is hoping to design custom solar panels that feature Navajo-inspired artwork, making something practical into something beautiful.

The incubator team also wants to encourage other entrepreneurs to incorporate Navajo culture into their business plans.

NACET will help incubated businesses with issues like cash flow, patents and marketing. And NACET’s new revolving loan fund can help with seed money, Yelton says.

Isaac says he and other Native American business experts will be able to offer an insider’s point of view about doing business on the reservation.

For example, he says businesses need to understand that their customers’ incomes might fluctuate from season to season.

But members of the incubator team say the biggest obstacles to starting a business on the reservation are bureaucratic roadblocks from the tribal, federal and local governments.

Isaac says the project will help Navajo entrepreneurs to develop a business plan and to navigate the bureaucratic maze.

And Isaac says he will share the lessons he has learned along the way. He says he will tell entrepreneurs to “do what you want to do, build it the way you want to build it and make it work in a way that’s fully efficient.

“Then, work through the regulatory barriers. If you give [bureaucrats] a chance to say no, in order to cover themselves, they’re going to say no. So give them all the options to say yes.” FBN


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