Sunlight shoots through the window of a Flagstaff studio, casting a spotlight on Gregory Hill – specifically on his hands. They’re burned and worn from carving toy tops.
Hill, who is part-Hopi and part-Quechan, often works on his trade 19 hours a day to keep up with demand for his tops.
“A top is one of the few toys that has the same method of play around the world,” Hill said. “All I need to do is spin the top to draw people in.”
The tops started in 2008 as a project for his 8-year-old daughter. He now makes an average of 50 tops a month for his business, Hilltops, and he sells them for $30 to $250 a piece.
He said he wasn’t prepared when crafting the tops turned into a booming business. He lacked access to resources, struggled with confidence and found it difficult to market his product.
Many Native American entrepreneurs face similar challenges.
Native American-owned businesses made up 3 percent of minority-owned businesses in the United States, according to Census Bureau numbers from 2012. That’s less than 300,000 Native American businesses of the 27.9 million small businesses in the U.S. (Native Americans made up about 2 percent of the total population in 2013, according to the Census.)
The population lags behind in business ownership because of numerous factors, including lack of education, cultural obstacles and a high poverty rate, said Adrian Manygoats, an incubator coordinator at the Native American Business Incubator Network.
The Flagstaff-based network wants to increase the number of Native American-owned businesses through social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurial ventures are businesses that don’t primarily focus on turning a profit, but that give to the community.
“We’re in a time now where businesses are not just focused on making money, but they’re realizing the importance in giving back to the communities they’re from as well a the cultures they’re a part of,” Manygoats said.
How the network works
The incubator opened in 2013 and has launched businesses such as Shash Diné Eco Retreat, a Navajo-owned bed and breakfast near Page. The owners wanted to give guests an authentic and unique Navajo experience.
The network helped the business with marketing, branding, business counselling and graphic design. Within three weeks of launching the shashdine.com website, the bed and breakfast was booked for the entire tourist season, Manygoats said.
The incubator has a unique understanding of the Native American communities across the Southwest, according to its website. And the employees work to overcome the red tape often found in those communities.
“There are huge cultural ties to the work that is produced here,” Manygoats said.
The network has worked with businesses that range from food production and construction to film production and recycling.
Challenges facing Native American entrepreneurs
Manygoats said that keeping up with Native American tradition and being a successful entrepreneur in the modern world is somewhat of a balancing act: “There’s a challenge of walking in two worlds.”
“You want to stay true to who you are, and you want to really continue to value those cultural things you grew up with,” she said. “But when you leave the reservation, you don’t have access to that.”
After leaving the reservation, it’s easy to become disconnected with your community and community traditions, Manygoats said. In tribal cultures, it’s important to go home and spend time with family often.
Manygoats’ main responsibility at the incubator is to help entrepreneurs like Hill get the exposure and training they need to succeed in the entrepreneurial world.
Some Native American entrepreneurs struggle with confidence, a key trait for successful business owners, Hill said.
“It’s difficult for Native Americans to start a business because we’re trained to be noble, humble and quiet,” he said.
His advice for making it in the business world: Overcome the idea that you have to be quiet.
“I’m making toys. I’m creating entertainment. I’m making joy,” Hill said.
Gregory Hill and his identical twin brother, Jonah Hill, are both artists. After leaving the reservation, the brothers carried on family traditions by working with their hands.
Jonah Hill makes jewelry out of sterling silver, copper, brass and tufa stone, a volcanic rock.
Jonah owns a jewelry business called Loma’Yoo’Si Designs, which means “bringing beauty” in the Hopi language. Bringing beauty to others through his jewelry is his purpose, he said.
“It’s a lot more empowering for Native people to do what they love and make money, but also still stay in touch with their community,” Jonah said.
Tourists, locals and river guides make up Jonah Hill’s customer base. He said he’s grateful that his own community supports him and his work.
The Hill brothers said they haven’t struggled with community support – making jewelry and carving wood is a common trade in their culture.
But some Native American entrepreneurs have faced difficulties with community support.
Jerome Tsosie said his biggest obstacle is getting his own community on board with his business and the services he offers. Tsosie is the president of Native Innovation Inc., a tech startup that provides tech solutions for Native Americans on and off the reservation.
“Having the buy-in from your own people is tough,” Tsosie said. “People on the reservation have been treated badly for so long that they expect it.”
When settlers expanded territory in the United States and moved Native American tribes to reservations, it resulted in a loss of opportunities for wealth and success among tribes, according to a 2014 study on Native American small business ownership published in the Research in Business and Economics Journal.
The government, other vendors and their own people have treated Native Americans poorly for decades, Tsosie said. Accepting help, especially from other Native Americans, is hard, he said.
Tsosie has to combat that broken relationship within the community on a regular basis through his work, he said.
“I’m picking up the pieces and trying to mend it,” said Tsosie, who is based in Flagstaff.
Native Americans are more familiar with non-Native businesses offering to help, Tsosie said.
Tribal leaders tend to support big non-Native businesses because it is less risky, and there’s more money involved, Manygoats said. Big businesses such as casinos tend to bring in more money than small businesses.
Many Native American entrepreneurs face difficulties finding capital to start their businesses, and it’s rare to find investors in “communities where most of the population live below the poverty line,” according to the network’s website.
But fostering Native American entrepreneurship may reduce the poverty rate among the population, according to the 2014 study.
Census data indicated the poverty rate for Native Americans on reservations was 39 percent, while poverty rates for Native Americans off the reservation was at 26 percent. Those are the highest rates of poverty for all ethnicities.
The Native American Incubator Network wants to change those statistics by helping small businesses and local entrepreneurs find a voice, Manygoats said.
“Although contracting smaller businesses is a little more risky, it is much more valuable,” she said. “Native entrepreneurs are more versed in the community, and they know what the community needs.”
Tsosie grew up on the Navajo reservation in Rock Point. He’s seen the struggles on the reservation and said this enables him to help his community better through his business.
“It definitely gives me more purpose,” Tsosie said. “We’re helping schools by providing services that they would otherwise have to pay an arm and a leg for.”
His company provides tools to help Native Americans communicate. And he scored a win with a major company in July.
After emailing Google every other day for three years, Tsosie said he and his business partner, Kialo Winters, convinced Google to add the Navajo keyboard to Google Docs.
“You can now tweet in Navajo!” he said.