The Tuba City Project

The first co-working and business incubation space to provide rural Native American entrepreneurs with financial stability.

Photo of Heather Fleming
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  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States


  • Woman

Where are you making a difference?

Tuba City, Arizona, 86045

Focus Areas (required)

  • Business & Social Enterprise
  • Development & Prosperity

Date Started


Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)


  • $1m - $5m

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)

Twitter URL

Facebook URL

1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

The leaders of the Tuba City Project -- Heather Fleming, Jessica Stago, and Natasha Hale -- all grew up on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the US spanning Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. As youth, each of us witnessed the struggles of persistent poverty on the Navajo Nation, where the unemployment rate has consistently increased in the past three decades. Last year, the President of the Navajo Nation estimated that the Navajo unemployment rate is greater than 50%. A colleague introduced us in 2013 after recognizing that we each shared the same motivation -- to enable the creation of small businesses on the Navajo Nation as a means to economic growth and the end of cyclical poverty facing our communities.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

According to the SBA, America’s small businesses – some 25M strong – are the strength of the U.S. economy. However, this is not the case on the Navajo Nation. Nearby Albuquerque has 22,000 small business per resident and the Navajo Nation has 0.001 businesses per resident. The lack of entrepreneurial activity on Navajo has negative cascading effects on the economy, contributing to the lack of jobs, financial instability, and persistent poverty.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Our program empowers families to define and expand their own livelihoods by removing institutional barriers to entrepreneurship (such as the multi-year process to lease or build space to operate your business), erodes social barriers (by increasing the reputation and visibility of indigenous entrepreneurs), and expands their access to capital (social, human, and physical). To amplify our work, we are evolving from a virtual to place-based strategy, offering 4000 sqft of space where Native American entrepreneurs can access the resources they need to start and establish their business. The Tuba City Project is the first of its kind on the Navajo Nation, providing needed infrastructure, expertise, and work space. The space enables entrepreneurs to leapfrog the common entrepreneurial barriers on the Navajo Nation - such as lack of internet, lack of physical mailing addresses, and the complex leasing process to access land for your business - by providing high-speed internet, business mailboxes, desk space and office space, as well as computers, creative and business software, and monthly workshops on branding, website design, financial planning, and leadership and team development.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

Laura Clelland applied to our Innovation Challenge competition in 2017 with a desire to prevent amputation in diabetic patients, a prevalent disease on the Navajo Nation. She impressed the judges with her commitment and plan, and won $5000 and 1-year of business incubation support in our program. Today, Laura has a business name and brand (Salt Woman LLC), a small office on the reservation, and her first 10 patients. For the past four years, the Tuba City Project’s all-Navajo team has worked virtually from border towns to incubate 24 Navajo-owned small businesses (like Salt Woman) and engage ~400 community members at our entrepreneurship events throughout the Reservation. Our evolution and expansion to physical space offering daily support will make a bigger dent in this prolific problem. A consistent presence on the reservation signals permanence and change that our communities need.

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

Six of the seven banks serving the 27,413 square miles of the Navajo Nation are in the outside border towns. That is one bank for every 28,500 residents, most of which live in the rural areas, sometimes hours from the closest bank. Additionally, entrepreneurs who can access a bank will face hurdles when applying for a business loan. Tribal land is leased by the federal government, meaning most residents on the Navajo Nation cannot own their land or homes, leaving them little to no collateral.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • geography
  • race/ethnicity
  • socio-economic class

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

There are ample business incubator and co-working spaces in the Southwest, most of which are located in inaccessible urban areas that require a several hour drive. Additionally, urban centers cannot address the unique needs of small businesses located on tribal lands. For example, a co-working space or business incubator in Phoenix would not know how to navigate the 163 steps involved in the business site lease process on the Navajo Nation. In response to this, Navajo Technical University created a space that can provide office space for 6 entrepreneurs on the Eastern edge of the reservation.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

An independent evaluation firm monitors our theory of change to guide our activity and evolution. Every activity is designed to achieve one or more of four target outcomes: an increase in social capital for Native American entrepreneurs, an increase in human capital, an increase in financial and physical capital, and improved social and economic agency. In the past year our initiatives touched 300 Native American entrepreneurs in the Southwest through three key activities: engagement events, business incubation, and digital resource creation. Our latest evaluation reports our activities resulted in 7 sustained mentorships, assisted 1300 people in accessing info about Navajo business registration, increased access to financial capital, helped 14 Navajo-owned businesses establish a brand and brand identity, enabled 3 entrepreneurs to access needed physical capital to expand, and more.

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

In the past our activities were experimental and virtual in order to learn quickly and adapt. Our target beneficiary lived anywhere on the Navajo Nation (the size of W. Virginia). Our new place-based strategy strengthens our impact. By targeting a single Navajo community with a co-working space we can track member information, build relationships with and monitor progress of beneficiaries and the economic effects on the broader community. We will replicate this model in six communities around the Reservation to eventually make entrepreneurship support consistently accessible to all residents.

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Organizing Conferences
  • Trainings, Consultation
  • Campaigns
  • Lobbying, Policy Change

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

When planning for a 4000 sqft co-work space for Navajo entrepreneurs, we interviewed a variety of co-working and incubation spaces around the US. Co-working spaces are a low-margin business and our target beneficiaries are the most impoverished in the US. We expected that 75% of our activity will require consistent subsidy from donors and the diaspora in order to make resources accessible to on-reservation entrepreneurs. The remaining 25% is funded through membership fees and paid services.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Our team includes Jessica Stago, Natasha Hale, and Heather Fleming. Jessica manages all business incubation activity, working daily with each cohort to leverage her 15+ years experience working as a business consultant in Arizona Native communities. Natasha leverages her experience at Grand Canyon Trust and CO Plateau Foundation to coordinate partners that support our programs. Heather leverages her experience as a social entrepreneur to prototype and implement our resources for entrepreneurs.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • Native American or Alaska Native (for example: Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupial Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income community

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others

Organization name

Catapult Design is the organization applying for Unlocking Change. Catapult is one of the two founding partners of the Tuba City Project.

Program Design Clarity

Four key activities run in parallel throughout the year. They reflect the stages of the entrepreneurial journey: an entrepreneurship awareness campaign, quarterly entrepreneurship popup events to engage the public, daily workspace for those who need support starting their business, and bi-annual business incubation for those on the path to growth. Our team also develops resources specific to the needs of rural reservation-based entrepreneurs.

Approach to financial wellbeing: does your project focus on creating financial wellbeing through innovating on any of the following?

  • entrepreneurship
  • loans

Innovation type: Please select which of the following types of innovation best characterize your work

  • Institutional innovation (Creation or changes in organizational structures, the setting up of new types of financial intermediaries, or to changes in the legal and supervisory framework)

Partnerships in detail: tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.

The project partners are Catapult Design and the Native American Business Incubator Network. After meeting in 2012, we recognized that we had a shared goal and complementary approaches to supporting Navajo entrepreneurs. We joined forces and within the past year decided to further coalesce our effort by evolving into a single entity/organization. We are able to do this with the support of a variety of funding partners, namely: USDA, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and National Endowment for the Arts.

If you won the Unlocking ₵hange Challenge, how would you invest the prize money of $50,000?

We’ve documented increasing demand for entrepreneurship know-how in our community. We recently added an accountant to our team to work one-on-one with each Navajo entrepreneur in our incubation cohort. With $50k we intend to hire a second Business Counselor to work with Tuba City entrepreneurs.

Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions has the project received?

We haven’t received (or pursued) awards or recognition for this project. Our 4-year goal is to thoroughly document the effects of investing in community entrepreneurship for the Navajo Nation government so that our tribal council members will “recognize” the critical role small businesses play in our economy and enable our expansion to six more communities on the Reservation.

Evaluation results

7 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 71.4%

Yes/maybe - 28.6%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 57.1%

Yes/maybe - 42.9%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 71.4%

Yes/maybe - 28.6%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 14.3%

Yes/maybe - 57.1%

Maybe - 14.3%

Maybe/no - 14.3%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 100%

Clarity of Model - 85.7%

Clarity of Writing - 57.1%

Idea Originality - 42.9%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 85.7%

Impact measurement - 14.3%

Impact Potential - 57.1%

Financial Sustainability - 14.3%

Team - 57.1%

Partnerships - 0%

Potential to scale - 28.6%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 0%

Clarity of Model - 33.3%

Clarity of Writing - 33.3%

Idea Originality - 33.3%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 0%

Impact measurement - 100%

Impact Potential - 0%

Financial Sustainability - 100%

Team - 33.3%

Partnerships - 100%

Potential to scale - 66.7%


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