Navajo Economic Summit Designed to Help Entrepreneurs
By Joshua Lavar Butler | 4/13/16
TWIN ARROWS, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation hosted its first-ever Navajo Nation Economic Summit and 6th Annual Navajo Business Opportunity Day on April 11-14 at Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort.
In a welcome speech to more than 600 attendees, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye vowed to provide as much support and investment into re-charging the economy on the Navajo Nation with what he hopes is an energized entrepreneurial spirit.
President Begaye raised enthusiasm of entrepreneurs from many different industries and from across the country that participated in more than 30 breakout sessions. Sessions included topics such as: doing business on the Navajo Nation, how to secure contracts with the Navajo Nation and the federal government, growing your business, accessing capital, and understanding financial management.
The Economic Summit was organized to provide entrepreneurs and future entrepreneurs with knowledge of seeking business on Navajo, and of ways to get a piece of the pie.
President Begaye explained 80 percent of contracts worth millions of dollars are awarded to non-Navajo businesses annually because there are not enough Navajo entrepreneurs and not enough knowledge of how to secure contracts.
Like many other tribes across the country, the Navajo Nation is not void of its economic challenges. Tribal members often find bureaucracy, land certifications and a lack of capital investment to be deterrents to their business dreams.
More than often, entrepreneurs give up on trying to open a business on the Navajo Nation with some documented efforts taking 7-8 years to get started. President Begaye wants to address this dilemma and said business start-up should take no longer than three months to be up and running.
As a solution and relief to entrepreneurs, Begaye plans to create a business opportunity zone in various locations across the Navajo Nation where businesses can come, set-up shop and not pay taxes for a period of time. Over time, businesses will graduate through a tax bracket in an effort to provide them relief while starting up.
President Begaye explained that he and his staff visited Ho-Chunk Inc., a corporation owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, recently and toured several of their enterprises. To their surprise, Ho-Chunk Inc. is set-up as a tribal enterprise but is free from much of the tribal bureaucracy that hinders business development on most tribal reservations.
Ho-Chunk Inc. is run by one of the most successful entrepreneurs and business developers around. Lance Morgan serves as president and CEO of Ho-Chunk and he knows first-hand the struggles of mixing tribal politics and business, and he knows it does not work.
He explained a time when tribal enterprises on his reservation were wholly-owned and operated by the tribe and revenues were stagnant. It was not until the enterprise battled with the tribal government to release their bureaucratic grip that they were able to operate free of political influence and see success in revenues. Thereafter, Ho-Chunk Inc. flourished and their revenues increased dramatically.
President Begaye agreed that business needs to be free-and-clear of tribal bureaucracy, something he said he will help address during his term. For now, Begaye will continue to provide as much support to small businesses by providing infrastructure, planning business opportunity zones, addressing the lengthy process to start businesses on the reservation and by working to open the first Navajo Nation Bank.
He said one of the biggest challenges of business development is access to capital and start-up money, and he believes a tribal-owned bank will be a solution to help in such situations.
The biggest obstacle for now is a lack of infrastructure on the Navajo Nation and a recently approved $180 million legislation to build water lines should contribute to this effort. President Begaye refers to such acts as “investments,” an investment to help with costs associated with infrastructure—and another plan to help businesses pay for various land clearances that costs $20,000-$40,000.
“We need to invest in you all!” he said. “How do we do that? When you start off a business, we ought to be able to pay for your clearances. If we mean business, we ought to pay for those [things].”